Lockheed and Martin’s Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter and EADS’ Eurofighter Typhoon have been eliminated from the FX-III competition to build South Korea 60 new fighter jets, Yonhap News Agency reports. That leaves Boeing’s F-15 Silent Eagle as the only remaining aircraft vying for the contract.
Citing a source who is familiar with the matter, Yonhap reported on Friday that Lockheed Martin had failed to submit a bid that was within South Korea’s 8.3 trillion won ($7.43 billion) budget, effectively eliminating the F-35 from contention.
Then, on Sunday, South Korea’s defense procurement agency, Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), said that EADS had failed to follow procedures. As Yonhap explained the decision: “South Korea is seeking 45 one-seater aircraft and 15 two-seaters. But EADS proposed only six two-seater aircraft, which are costly to produce, due to budget problems.”
South Korea’s FX-III competition was being contested by three aircraft: Lockheed’s F-35, Boeing’s F-15 Silent Eagle, and the EADS’ Eurofighter Typhoon. The F-35 was the early favorite among defense analysts. As James Hardy wrote on The Diplomat last November, the “FX-III should be a one-horse race.”
After 55 rounds, however, DAPA suspended bids for the contract last month after all the ones it received were above the 8.3 trillion won allocated for the program. It reopened bids last week and closed bidding on Friday.
According to Yonhap, both Boeing and EADS submitted bids before Friday that were within the program’s budget, which is the ROK’s largest defense import contract ever. With the elimination of the F-35 and Eurofighter, Boeing’s F-15SE is the only candidate still in contention. DAPA is expected to officially announce the results of its review of the bids next month.
Already, however, EADS objected to its elimination on Monday.
“I would like to stress that Eurofighter's intention has been to provide DAPA, to consider within its discretion, fully within the boundaries of the Request for Proposal (RFP), a bid package that would meet the declared essential budget,” an EADS spokesperson told Yonhap.
The spokesperson went on to say that only a preference as to the amount of twin-seat aircraft had been conveyed to the company, not a mandatory requirement. Additionally, EADS said that offering an alternative option was, a “simple, legitimate and constructive response” to the budgetary constraints South Korea faces.
EADS had tried to strengthen its proposal to Seoul by promising technology transfer, local manufacture of the vast majority of the aircraft, and a US$2 billion investment in Seoul’s aerospace industry.
Lockheed Martin, on the other hand, vowed to continue its bid for the FX-III competition.
“Lockheed Martin has not received an official notification from the Republic of Korea regarding the results of the price bidding for the F-X Program,” the company said in a statement released over the weekend. “The F-X source selection process has multiple phases and we will continue to work closely with the U.S. government as they offer the F-35 to Korea.”
Unlike the other jets in the competition, which were allowed to offer commercial sales of their products, the F-35 is sold through the foreign military sales (FMS), a U.S. program of government-to-government defense sales. As a result, the U.S. government is able to set the price Lockheed can offer to South Korea.
Although price appears to be the factor that eliminated the F-35 from the FX-III competition, it is another instance of South Korea skirting weapon systems that would tie it to the larger U.S.-led regional alliance system, which China views as antagonistic.
In many ways, it’s unsurprising that Boeing’s F-15SE would prevail in the FX-III competition. The F-15K, a less advanced variant of the F-15E, won in one the first two phases of South Korea’s fighter jet modernization program. In the first phase in 2002, the ROK ordered 40 two-seat F-15K jets from Boeing. It followed up in 2008 with the order of an additional 21 F-15K fighters.
While the F-15SE Silent Eagle has greater stealth radar than the F-15Ks, the F-35 is superior in terms of radar signature reduction. Further, the F-15SE fighter jets are only optimized for air-to-air combat stealth, according to Yonhap.
When The Diplomat asked Boeing’s F-X Campaign Director, Howard Berry, how similar the F-15SEs are to older variants of the F-15, he said:
“The Silent Eagle was designed in response to the needs expressed by current international F-15 operators. Silent Eagle builds on a continuous evolution of capability in the combat-proven F-15 family of aircraft with a bundle of additional advancements that allow us to offer a
'2-Aircraft-in-1 Platform' solution that brings an unprecedented balance of survivability and lethality to meet customer needs in all phases of air combat.”
Berry also told The Diplomat:
“The Silent Eagle has range, payload, and versatility advantages that others do not. Furthermore, we recognize that threats faced by Silent Eagle will continue to evolve in the decades ahead. Silent Eagle is uniquely capable in its growth potential given its excess capacity of payload, volume, cooling, power, computer memory and computer throughput thereby well positioning Silent Eagle for incorporation of new advanced systems over the life of its airframe.”
The Diplomat also spoke with Lockheed Martin's F-35 Campaign Director Korea Randall Howard about the F-X program last November.