South Korea’s F-X Project and Structural Disarmament

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South Korea’s F-X Project and Structural Disarmament

The ROK’s plans for next-generation fighters could prove very costly indeed.

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.


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.

Second, the ROKAF would want sufficient operational range and high-performance fifth-generation air fighters that can compete with regional equivalents (Japan’s F-35 and China’s J-20) in remote disputed territories of Dokdo (Takeshima) and Ieodo (Suyan Rock). But this high standard comes at a cost. Moreover, if DAPA decides to choose stealth fighters, following the lead of Japan and China, the maintenance costs will climb even higher, given substantial stealth coating cost.

Structural Disarmament  

In fact, the ROKAF is already starting to struggle with the heavy maintenance costs of cutting-edge air fighters. According to a Korea Times report which cited a senior air force official (speaking on the condition of anonymity), maintenance costs for the F-15K rose 10-fold, from 9.7 billion won ($8.5 million) in 2008 to 95.82 billion won ($85 million) in 2011, about the price of a new F-15K. This is natural given that the ROKAF itself only repairs 60 avionics parts. Yet the maintenance costs associated with the potential F-X III partners will be even higher.

According to a parliamentary reply by Peter Luff dated September 14, 2010, the Royal Air Force (RAF) calculated that the cost per flight hour of operating the Tornado GR4 was £35,000, the Harrier GR9 £37,000 and the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 £70,000, while the German  Defense Ministry estimated last year that a one-hour flight in a Eurofighter would cost €76,000.

After the global financial crisis in 2008 and subsequent military budget cuts, Spain sold its 18 Tranche 1 Eurofighter combat aircraft to Peru, while those of the RAF are set for early retirement in 2015. Those decisions were made based on costs related to upgrades, but maintenance costs would surely also have played a role.

Maintenance for the F-35 would be similarly expensive. The international auditing firm KPMG estimated that the full life-cycle cost of the F-35s in Canada’s Next Generation Fighter Capability project would be $44.8 billion. This estimate covers the period beginning in 2010, with the government’s announcement of its intention to acquire the F35, and ends 42 years later with the disposal of the last aircraft in 2052. The report also estimated that $35.9 billion would be spent on future maintenance, which excludes development and acquisition cost.

The U.S. and South Korea reached an agreement on ROK war potential during a summit after the Korean War on July 30, 1954, which was codified in the Agreed Minute of Understanding (Appendix B). After further settlement in 1958, the ROK armed forces consisted of 565,000 soldiers, 16,600 sailors, 26,000 marines, and 22,000 air force personnel, for a total of 630,000 military personnel. Compared to the 450,000 troops just after the cease-fire, the number of ROK troops in fact expanded, and without question the mainstay of the ROK armed forces became the army.

In return, the United States pledged full-scale engagement in the event of a North Korean invasion, and offered a nuclear umbrella and strong air and information power support. This has contributed to successful deterrence on the Korean Peninsula, and compensated for the ROK’s inability to develop costly air, nuclear, and information power during postwar reconstruction.

Even today, with the ROK armed forces viewing North Korea as its most likely opponent – one that shares a 155-mile land border – the army remains the most important element of the armed forces. Indeed, the army accounts for 50% of total ROK military spending, while the Navy and Air Force get 25% each.

Moreover, ROK armed forces need to prepare for the approaching wartime command takeover. In particular, the South Korean military is keen on enhancing its surveillance and reconnaissance capability. In a briefing for President Park Geun-hye on April 1, 2013, the National Defense Minister said the military is mapping out “an active deterrence and will build an attack system to swiftly neutralize North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, while significantly improving our military’s capability of surveillance and reconnaissance.”

In short, a steep increase in the air force budget is not possible, given the armed force’s structure and its future spending priorities.

Yet it has been suggested that the initial procurement cost of 60 F-35s would be 12 trillion won ($10.8 billion) and, as the purchase would likely be through the U.S. government’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, there is very unlikely to be any scope for negotiating the price. Under FMS, the US government procures defense articles and services on behalf of the foreign customer.

The total budget for the ROK armed forces in 2013 is 34 trillion won ($36 billion), of which 10 trillion won has been allocated to defense build-up. One can infer that 2.5 trillion won ($2 billion) has thus been allocated to the ROKAF. Moreover, the ROK Ministry of Strategy and Finance insisted that DAPA did not add the infrastructure building budget when it estimated the project cost. It explained that, because of the size of the new air fighter, the ROKAF could not use the existing hangars housing the F-4 and F-5, and that it would have to expand its runways and build new maintenance facilities. All this would require an additional 2 trillion won ($1.6 billion). Meanwhile, according to the KPMG report, the lifetime maintenance costs would be $35.9 billion (40 trillion won).

This massive outlay could lead to the structural disarmament of the ROKAF. According to a military white paper in 2012, the ROKAF had 460 combat aircraft. However, if the F-X project is pursued as planned, the air force may have to scrap the contentious Korean Fighter eXperimental (KFX) project, which means it would not be able to replace the remaining 212 aging F-4 and F-5 air fighters. If the entire F-4 and F-5 fleet is retired and not replaced, then the ROKAF will possess only around 200 fighters.

All of which is quite alarming for South Korea given the increasingly challenging region it inhabits.

Dr. Soon Ho Lee recently completed his Ph.D. in Politics and International Studies at the University of Hull, United Kingdom. His thesis was titled “Military Transformation on the Korean Peninsula: Technology Versus Geography.” Dr. Lee’s research interests include Asia-Pacific regional security (the peaceful rise of China), conflict prevention and resolution, and the security of the Korean peninsula (peacebuilding between the North and South).