The F-X project in South Korea was initially proposed in the early 1990s, to ultimately replace the country’s F-4 and F-5 fleet and gain air supremacy over North Korea. Following the financial crisis of 1997, however, the project was scaled back from an initial plan for 120 fighters to just 40, with 40 F-15Ks being purchased in 2002 (phase 1). Then, in the second phase of the project, another 20 F-15Ks were purchased in 2007.
To reach its original target, the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) still needed another 60 next-generation fighters. Thus, the F-X Phase 3 (F-X III) project was launched, with the aim of procuring those 60 additional air fighters to supersede the aging F-4 and F-5 fleet. The plan is to introduce them between 2017 and 2021 at a cost of 8.3 trillion won ($7.3 billion).
But even though the ROK economy has grown steadily over the years and the country has continuously modernized its armed forces, such a rapid increase in military spending on its air force looks to be an almost impossible task, particularly given the major role that ground forces plan in ROK military and the need to prepare for the wartime command takeover in 2015. For this reason alone, the entire F-X III project cost, involving initial procurement and future maintenance, needs to be examined more closely.
Should the project proceed, then given the initial procurement budget and the astronomical maintenance costs, the F-X III could well lead to the structural disarmament of ROKAF. Structural disarmament – a concept first suggested by Thomas Callahan – has its roots in the increased technological sophistication of weapons systems. Technological improvements cost money, making each new generation of weapon system much more expensive. With higher unit costs, fewer systems can be produced and purchased.
The F-X III
Formal bids for the Boeing F-15 Silent Eagle, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Lockheed Martin F-35 were submitted to the ROK in June 2012. With this project, the ROKAF is seeking to achieve a balance in both the quality and quantity of air power with North Korea and other regional powers by replacing its soon-to-be retired F-4 and F-5 fleet. The ROK Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) will choose the fighter that meets the ROKAF’s Required Operation Capability (ROC) and ceiling cost (8.3 trillion won), and that offers a sound industrial spillover package.
In terms of cost, DAPA will try not to spend more than an initial procurement ceiling; however, since the second round of bidding ended unsuccessfully on June 28, various options have been discussed, such as increasing the budget, breaking up the purchase, or reducing the number of air fighters. DAPA is also interested in industrial spillover, through offsetting trade and technology transfer. In particular, it seeks to acquire relevant technology for the KFX (Korean Fighter eXperimental) project.
The ROC for the F-X project is classified and so it is hard to get concrete information. However, based on government leaks and the ROK’s security threat assessment, one can speculate. First, to prepare for the wartime command takeover in 2015, ROKAF wants to be equipped with an independent deep and precise operational capability vis-à-vis the North Korean center of gravity and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) production and storage units.
Most North Korean WMD production units and storage facilities are situated in the mountainous areas near the Russian and Chinese borders. This is far enough away to be well protected from U.S.-South Korea alliance artillery and short- to mid-range missiles. A deep and precise operational capability that can paralyze the North Korean wartime command and neutralize key asymmetric warfare assets is thus highly desirable.