South Korea’s defense procurement agency has officially said that it will purchase 40 F-35 joint strike fighters, Reuters reported on Monday.
According to the report, which cited two unnamed sources with knowledge of the matter, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) told lawmakers on Monday that South Korea is looking to pay 7.34 trillion won ($6.79 billion) for 40 F-35s, which are made by Lockheed Martin. A DAPA spokesperson confirmed that South Korea’s Finance Ministry has approved the budget, and said that it hopes to finalize the deal in the third quarter of this year, with deliveries of the jet beginning in 2018.
In a statement on Monday, a Lockheed official said: “We are honored by and appreciate the trust and confidence the Republic of Korea has placed in the 5th generation F-35 to meet its demanding security requirements. This decision strengthens and extends our long-standing security partnership while enhancing regional stability across the greater Asia Pacific theater.”
The report is broadly consistent with what Lt. Gen. Hyungchul Kim, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Republic of Korea’s Air Force (ROKAF), told a forum in Arlington, Virginia on Friday. “The acquisition plan will be finalized next month, and the contract will hopefully be signed before August of this year,” Kim said, according to InsideDefense.
According to Defense News, South Korea will purchase the F-35A conventional-takeoff-and-landing (CTOL) variant of the joint strike fighter (JSF).
The decision to purchase the F-35 JSF caps a long and often twisted process to select a replacement for Seoul’s F-4 and F-5 fleets. Besides the F-35, South Korea considered Boeing’s F-15SE and Eurofighter’s Typhoon. At one point, the F-15s, which the ROKAF already flies, seemed to be the certain winner, as the Eurofighter and F-35 were said to be disqualified for submitting bids that went over South Korea’s budget.
Then, in September of last year, South Korea surprised everyone by announcing that it was rejecting the F-15 because it lacked the necessary stealth capabilities. At the same time, Seoul indicated it would be open to reducing the size of the new fleet, which was initially set at 60 jets. Soon after, the F-35 emerged as the clear favorite in the FX-III program for a new fighter jet.
South Korea’s decision to go with the F-35 will be a boon to the embattled F-35 JSF program, which has recently suffered a number of setbacks as countries have pulled out or reduced their planned purchases of the new fighter. According to Reuters, South Korea is the tenth country to make a firm commitment to purchase the F-35, although a number of other countries such as Singapore have expressed interest.
The decision by Seoul will more firmly tie South Korea to the U.S.-led security order in the Asia-Pacific. That’s because, as Robbin Laird wrote on The Diplomat, to understand “the real value of the F-35 one must consider its operation as a fleet, not simply as an individual aircraft.”
Laird continued: “The F-35 also has the capability to operate miles away from one another, but with a major difference. The individual airplanes are interconnected, operate in 360-degree operational space, and the machines pass the data throughout the network.”
Thus, to get the true value from its new F-35 fleet, South Korea will have to operate with other forces in the region that fly F-35s, which will include the U.S. and Japan.