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.
Nonetheless, questions remain over the F-35’s cost and reliability, and in South Korea are exacerbated by Boeing’s strong position as the supplier of the F-15K Slam Eagle. The F-15K won FX-I and FX-II, supplying 61 aircraft to the Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) and building a solid reputation for interoperability, firepower and deep strike capabilities that would serve Seoul well against a North Korean attack. The Eurofighter, meanwhile, came out of the 2011 Libya conflict with its combat credentials enhanced and is gradually developing into a true multi-role aircraft.
Whichever aircraft wins the competition, the reality is that the capability gap between North and South Korea’s air forces has been growing for years. Estimates by IHS Jane’s reckon that North Korea has only 35 or so MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ air-supremacy fighters in service, alongside about 260 obsolete MiG-21 ‘Fishbeds’ and MiG-19 ‘Farmers’ that would provide little more than target practice for the RoKAF’s Lockheed Martin F-16C/D fighters and the FX-III winner.
That is not to say that the threat is not there. Randy Howard, director of F-35 Business Development activities for the Republic of Korea, points to North Korea’s “integrated air defense system … that does not allow South Korea, with its current assets, to penetrate and hold those strategic targets at risk.” According to Howard, that’s where the F-35 comes in. “What 5th generation aircraft do is give you proactive strategic deterrence. It’s the ability to penetrate heavily defended airspace and hold targets of interest at risk any time you want to. That’s what the F-35 can do because it’s stealthy, it’s really stealthy,” he says.
Howard also points out that North Korea notwithstanding, Northeast Asia is a dicey neighborhood. “China and Russia are developing stealth fifth-generation fighters,” say Howard. “South Korea has to decide: is fourth generation OK for us or do we have to move to fifth generation with the rest of the world?”
The difference between a modern fourth-generation fighter such as a new-build F-15 or Typhoon and a fifth-generation fighter such as the F-35 is a matter of some conjecture, but in layman’s terms comes down to one key factor: stealth.
And as Howard makes clear, stealth is at the heart of Lockheed Martin’s sale pitch. “The fact is, if you want a stealthy airplane, a truly stealthy airplane, you have to design that in from the very beginning,” says Howard. “You cannot take an existing platform, a fourth-generation non-stealthy platform, and make it stealthy for the 21st century in a way that the fifth-generation F-35 and F-22 do.”
Boeing, unsurprisingly, sees it differently. The F-15SE includes structurally stealthy features such as radar absorbing material, angled vertical tail fins and conformal fuel tanks and weapons bays that go some way to reducing its radar cross section, or RCS. Meanwhile, Howard Berry, Boeing’s FX-III campaign manager, says that stealth, or radar signature, “is but one element” of a concept that he calls “balanced survivability” that also includes the F-15’s electronic warfare (EW) suite and its advanced AESA radar (both of which the F-35 also fields).
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.