Berry also made a subtle dig at the F-35's troubled development. "[The customer is looking at] capability, availability and what I’ll call risk. Risk from the development perspective and risk that when somebody says to them that you’re going to get an aircraft on such a date that they’ll know when that aircraft shows up, it’s ready to fight the fight."
The concept of "survivability" is not just Boeing’s sales blurb. One of the key developments in the defense aerospace in recent years has been the growth of sub-system renewal rather than aircraft replacement: air forces around the world, including the USAF, are more interested in replacing key systems such as avionics, sensors, cockpit displays and fire control radars, than in buying new airframes. One key reason for this is that platform design has stabilized in the past 15-20 years – beyond stealth, the flight performance of a new F-16 and a new F-35 are not so different.
This is why the F-15 and the Typhoon still have a fighting chance in South Korea. Both would be delivered with AESA radars, EW suites and bolt-on sensors that are not so different to what is built into the F-35. Both are mature, proven platforms in service with top air forces and both also come with attractive offset options to sweeten the deal — in Boeing's case, it includes the joint design and construction of the stealthy conformal weapon bays. In Berry's words: "It's not just, as it might have been in the past, a build-to-print activity. Rather, it’s Korean design teams working side by side with their Boeing counterparts, doing design, development, development testing and, in the end, manufacturing those conformal weapons bays in Korea."
Lockheed Martin, for its part, is offering to support South Korea's KFX indigenous fifth-generation fighter program, which Indonesia has also signed up for, and is teaming up with Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) to pitch KAI's T-50 Golden Eagle for the USAF's advanced jet trainer contest.
Choosing the Typhoon would show that South Korea is not entirely dependent on U.S. imports and may open the European market up to Korean military imports such as the T-50, while Eurojet has also offered a version of the Typhoon's EJ200 engine to power the KFX program.
So FX-III appears to be a more finely balanced contest than initially thought. It is also being swayed by political considerations after Park Geun-hye, the conservative candidate, reportedly asked President Lee Myung-bak to postpone the decision until after the December Presidential Election due to concerns that going ahead with it would undermine South Korea's negotiating position on costs. It's unclear quite why this would be the case, and the delay has been openly opposed by the RoKAF officials, but as Taiwan's interminable quest to buy 66 F-16C/Ds from the United States illustrates, fighter aircraft can have a funny effect on politicians.
James Hardy is Asia-Pacific Editor of IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.