SEOUL, April 9 (Yonhap) -- U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin believes its F-35 stealth jets are well-suited to meet the South Korea Air Force's requirements amid growing threats posed by North Korea's missile and nuclear programs, a senior company official said Tuesday.
Pointing to the U.S. deployment of its B-2 stealth bomber and F-22 stealth jets to South Korea for joint drills last month, Dave Scott, Lockheed's F-35 International Business Development director, expressed confidence that the company's aircraft will help deter North Korean aggression in the wake of heightened tension in the region.
"Activities of North Korea have reinforced the need to be strong and to be recognized. People recognize F-35's capability and they know it's the best and they know it is stealthy. I think that's fundamental," Scott said during an interview with Yonhap News Agency during his visit to Seoul.
Lockheed Martin is currently negotiating with South Korea's Defense Acquisition and Procurement Agency over the 8.3 trillion won (US$7.2 billion) fighter jet purchase program. Boeing's F-15 SE Silent Eagle and multinational European company EADS's Eurofighter are competing for the deal for 60 advanced jets. Seoul is expected to pick a bidder as early as June.
His visit came at a time when many are questioning the radar-evading jet recently criticized by some U.S. media over its growing costs and flaws, with some describing it as "a too-big-to-fail project" kept alive partly due to about 133,000 manufacturing jobs depending on it. Concerns also emerged that the U.S. government's automatic spending cuts could lead to the delay or cancellation of orders, and it could raise the overall price tag and postpone delivery of F-35s to South Korea.
The Defense Security Cooperation Agency recently notified the U.S. Congress that Seoul could order 60 conventional A-model aircraft and associated support equipment for $10.8 billion. The estimate is far above the 8.3 trillion won (US$7.2 billion) budget set aside for Seoul's procurement program, sparking media speculations that Lockheed would not be able to meet the budget.
Scott stressed the price estimated by the Pentagon is a "cost ceiling," which can go down depending on the condition and contents of the procurement program that encompasses maintenance support, training and other pieces of equipment.
"We're confident that the price could be lower than that," Scott said, without going into details of price citing ongoing negotiations. "The final negotiations will be set by negotiations between the U.S. government and the Korean government."
Responding to suspicions that there may be little room for price negotiations for F-35s sold through foreign military sales (FMS), Scott said South Korea will "benefit" from the government-to-government deal because it will get the same price as the U.S. government. Over the next three decades, the U.S. military plans to buy 1,763 F-35s for its Air Force and 680 for its Marine Corps and Navy.
In regard to the delivery schedule, Scott said Lockheed can deliver the first batch of airplanes as early as 2016, as required by Seoul.
"We can begin in 2016, or 2017, anytime afterwards. Discussions on how best to deliver optimal profile for Korea are under way," he said.
While technology transfer is another condition Seoul has been emphasizing as it is grappling with its own long-overdue fighter jet development project called "KFX," Lockheed has proposed "comprehensive" conditions to transfer the core technology needed to build Korea's own fighter jets.
"We have made a very comprehensive offer for sending people to Korea and co-development work with the Korean industry to develop the KFX," Scott said, stressing the KFX is the "centerpiece" that can advance Korea's aerospace industry in the coming decades.
Scott stressed his company has experience with transferring technology for the T-50 supersonic jet, which was South Korea's sole aircraft maker Korea Aerospace Industries, as part of F-16 purchase program.
Scott stressed his company has experience transferring technology for the T-50 supersonic jet, which was produced by South Korea's sole aircraft maker Korea Aerospace Industries as part of the F-16 purchase program's offset obligation.
His remark was seen as efforts to dispel negative sentiment that the U.S. company is less willing to transfer the core technology Seoul needs for its KFX project compared to its European competitor, which has recently offered to manufacture 48 planes in local factories.
First launched in 2002 to build F-16 class fighter jets, Seoul's ambitious plan to develop fighter jets in the next decade has been delayed as local think tanks and experts question the feasibility of the multi-billion dollar project as well as the technical aspects to domestically produce aircraft and meet overseas demand.
Under President Park Geun-hye, who took office in late February, Seoul faces tough a decision to either go ahead with the large-scale airplane development project or put on the brakes if it is deemed economically unsustainable.
During negotiations, Lockheed also offered to assemble some parts, including horizontal tail wings, vertical tail wings and the center wing box, in local factories and it has received preliminary approval for the initial proposal.
"We have done this many times before, so we do understand how to structure them and receive the approval from the U.S. government," he said. "We're very confident we're able to support KFX for the offset program."