The FX-III competition to provide South Korea with 60 new fighter aircraft is being decided at a transitional moment in the history of manned fighters.
On one side sits the fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, Lockheed Martin’s winning design for the U.S. and UK’s future multi-role fighter requirement. It’s the F-22’s single-engine little brother: a stealthy platform built for strike and air defense, laden with sensors and the epitome of modern, network-centric warfare. It’s also delayed, over-budget and has the unwanted distinction of being known as the trillion-dollar plane.
On the other side sits the Boeing F-15SE Silent Eagle – the latest, stealthy version of the F-15E Strike Eagle – and the Eurofighter Typhoon: two late Cold War-era aircraft that have been re-roled and upgraded for the new missions and realities of 21st century air warfare.
Despite the many strengths of both the F-15 and the Typhoon (more of which later), FX-III should be a one-horse race. The conventional take-off F-35A being offered to South Korea is the U.S. Air Force’s replacement for the venerable F-16, while in Asia-Pacific it is due to enter service with Australia and Japan – both nominal South Korean allies, and probably Singapore too. In the words of numerous USAF leaders, in fighter terms it is “the only show in town,” and if you believe Lockheed Martin, it is head and shoulders above the competition in terms of technology and capabilities.
The FX-III program also comes at a good time for the F-35, which this year has actually beaten its test schedule with a series of missile drops and firings, ironed out problems with the carrier and vertical take-off versions, and started ramping up to full production. It also has momentum on its side: South Korea’s FX-III contest follows hot on the heels of Japan’s F-X fighter program – also to replace 1970s-era F-4 Phantoms. The F-35 won in Tokyo in December 2011, beating the Typhoon and Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet.