8/15/2013

All Eyes on Korea as the F-35 Faces Judgment: Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program

The Korean Administration began its final bidding session on Tuesday, August 13th to find a replacement for its obsolete 1960’s-era F-5 fighter plane.

The bidding is expected to last until Friday, August 16th. It’s anybody’s guess as to whether Korea is going to go with the Boeing F-15, Eurofighter Typhoon, or Lockheed Martin F-35. Of these planes, the F-35 is by far the most advanced – and the most expensive, at nearly USD 100 million per unit.

While the F-15 seems to be the favored plane at the moment, a Korean rejection of the F-35 could spell disaster for the F-35 program itself. The Pentagon’s controversial F-35 program has definitely seen better days. The fifth-generation stealth fighter, which is still in development, has been designed to replace the Pentagon’s now-aging fleet of F-16’s and eventually make up the bulk of the U.S. Air Force.

The Pentagon hopes to make the F-35 into its “one-size-fits-all” fighter (as much as this concept is possible). The three F-35 variants, the F-35A, F-35B, and F-35C, each have different mission capabilities and combat roles. The idea of an easily-upgradeable and mission-shifting aircraft is very attractive to the Pentagon given that the potential mission objectives for the U.S. are nearly limitless in scope.

This open-ended development philosophy has also unfortunately led to a problem of “feature creep” in the design, where proposed features seem to be endlessly added at a cost that is spiraling out of control.

While it’s not unusual for a Defense Department project to experience the usual political ups-and-downs over cost, for some reason the F-35 just can’t catch a break. Let’s take a look at the estimated costs of the program: Projected development cost: USD 40 billion. Projected acquisition cost of 2,443 aircraft: USD 391 billion Projected total cost over the 55-year lifetime of the aircraft: USD 1.5 trillion

These numbers have led to the program being the subject of repeated calls for cancellation by U.S. politicians and elites in the Pentagon. Sequestration has increased the frequency of these calls. Are these just idle threats designed to get the project moving in the right direction? Nobody knows.

The Pentagon’s equally controversial F-22 stealth fighter program was itself cancelled two years ago after only 195 of the planes were produced – so outright cancellation is certainly not out of the question. Is the F-35 going to face a similar fate?

What happens in Korea on Friday may help answer this question. Korea purchasing the F-15 or Typhoon may create a crisis of confidence in the US-ally states that are helping with the development of the F-35 program. Several of these states have already voiced concern that steep prices would lead to a reduction in the overall amount of units purchased – a few have even threatened outright cancellation of orders.

The F-35 cannot afford to lose the bid in Korea. It’s also not even a certainty that Korea is going to choose an American plane over a European one, so we can’t just assume that the F-15 is going to win the bid as a cheaper and safer alternative to the F-35.

This past February, Korea opted to purchase attack helicopters from the Anglo-Italian company AgustaWestland instead of American - Sikorsky Aircraft. Any of these planes are fair game, and several other countries are waiting to see which direction Korea goes before they make their own decision on the F-35.

What do you think? Would the F-35 be good for Korea?
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