SEOUL, Sept. 10 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's planned purchase of advanced combat fighters could miss the October deadline to pick a winner as politicians have called for a delay of bid procedures until the next government takes office early next year.
In a deal that could be worth upward of 8.3 trillion won (US$7.3 billion) and determine the mainstay fighter jet for South Korea's Air Force for the next decades, the Seoul government has planned to select a supplier next month under the original timetable.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter by Lockheed Martin, the F-15 SE Silent Eagle by Boeing and the Eurofighter by Europe's multinational defense group EADS have been bidding for the multi-billion-dollar contract since last year.
Representatives of Boeing, EADS and Lockheed Martin attend a panel debate in a defense forum held in Seoul on Sept. 7, 2012 to promote their proposal for South Korea's fighter jet acquisition program. (Yonhap)
With the policy-setting by President Lee Myung-bak hamstrung as his single-term nears an end and the Dec. 19 presidential election approaching, however, politicians from both ruling and opposition parties have demanded the state-run weapons procurement agency postpone the selection for the lucrative project.
The ruling Saenuri Party's presidential candidate, Park Geun-hye, said earlier that the current government should not rush to continue with the remaining procedures of evaluations because such a move could undermine the nation's negotiating leverage over prices.
Rep. Lee Hae-chan, the head of the main opposition Democratic United Party, also called on the current government in July to let the next government pick a supplier to get a favorable deal with sufficient time for negotiations.
Still, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), the state-run procurement agency, has shown little signs of putting off the selection timetable.
However, DAPA chief Noh Dae-Rae recently indicated the selection could be delayed if it is necessary for "national interest," saying the October deadline was a "target, not a deadline."
With less than one month before regular parliamentary inspection sessions, Rep. Yoo Seong-min of the ruling party and chairman of the National Assembly's defense committee, said the current government is giving an impression of being in a rush to conclude the project within its term, hinting it could be delayed if deemed necessary.
"The F-X project should proceed regardless of the government," Yoo, one of the close aides to the ruling party's front-runner Park, said in a Seoul defense conference last week, using the code name of the fighter purchase project.
"I will not take issue with the project as long as it is done in the right way under the current government or the next government," Yoo said.
At the South Korean Air Force's high end, stealth has been mentioned as an important characteristic for the project, and neighboring China's unveiling of its J-20 stealth fighter and Japan's decision to buy the F-35A stealth fighter have added force to the desires.
Initially, Lockheed Martin's F-35, which is under development for the U.S. military, was seen as a favorite given South Korean Air Force's long pursuit of stealth fighter jets that can pass through North Korea's complex web of radars and close relation between the two allies.
Their biggest hindrance is the overall F-35 program's lateness and resulting cost hikes for early buyers. Japan's base cost per fighter has already risen to $120 million for the first batch of sales in 2016, according to media reports.
Kim Jong-dae, the editor-in-chief of the defense magazine Defense 21+, points out that there is less room for negotiating favorable prices for a South Korean purchase as they are sold through the foreign military sales (FMS) program by the U.S. government.
The U.S. government's refusal to allow South Korean pilots to test the single-seat F-35, which is still about 20 percent of the way through its testing program, also raised speculation over fair competition among the South Korean public.
Unlike two other competitors that allow actual test flights, the evaluation team decided to test the F-35 through the use of simulators, wireless data transfer telemetry and chase flights during an overseas test, which is slated for late September through early October.
Thinking in terms of cost, it is not sure that Boeing can supply 60 F-15 Silent Eagle jets within the proposed budget from 2016 as required by the South Korean Air Force.
South Korea's KF-16 fighter jet (Yonhap file photo)
It doesn't offer the same radar signature reduction as an F-35 and is only optimized for air-to-air combat stealth. What it does offer is greatly improved radar stealth over the F-15K and internal weapons.
Boeing stresses interoperability of the F-15 SE with other models purchased in the first two stages of the fighter modernization programs. Seoul has purchased 60 Boeing F-15 fighter jets since 2002.
It is also offering to closely cooperate with South Korea's defense firms to help its own fighter jet development, codenamed K-FX project. Patrick Gaines, the president of Boeing Korea, stressed that his company works with more than 20 Korean companies for commercial airplane and defense programs and looks forward to working with other technologies on multiple platforms.
While EADS's twin-engine Eurofighter is not equipped with stealth, it is most aggressively offering a setoff program to help develop South Korea's fighter jet development project and proposed to phase in Korean assembly for the project.
Although not designated as a stealth fighter, EADS says measures were taken to reduce the Typhoon's radar cross section, especially from the frontal aspect.
Regarding interoperability with other U.S.-made flights, Col. Salvador Alvarez, the Spanish representative of the Eurofighter Joint International Export Team, said Eurofighter is totally compatible with other U.S. equipment and conducted joint operations with F-series combat crafts in several countries, including Spain, Italy and Saudi Arabia.
EADS says Eurofighter focused on agility, long-range sensors and long-range weapons, but experts question whether that combination will be enough because many of its preferred weapons aren't in South Korean Air Force's stocks.
Eurofighter Typhoon by EADS (Yonhap file photo)
Military officials and defense experts say it is essential to replace South Korean Air Force's aging fleet, mostly F-4s and F-5s, with the growing threats from North Korea, which launched two deadly attacks in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans.
However, they point out more time is needed to select the winner that meets the requirement and gets a better deal.
"The evaluations should particularly focus on the fighter's combat capability considering North Korean threats and potential standoffs with neighboring countries, including Japan and China," Lee Han-ho, the former Air Force Chief of Staff, said in last week's conference. "Although the test periods can be prolonged for perfect evaluation or selection of a model, the project should not be canceled or delayed."