South Korea to Buy Another 20 F-15K Fighters?
Back in 2002, the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) selected the F-15K advanced derivative of the F-15E Strike Eagle for its Next Generation Fighter Program. Under that $3.6 billion contract, Boeing will deliver 40 aircraft to the ROKAF beginning this year and ending in August 2008. South Korea’s 2-seat F-15K Strike Eagles will be the first F-15s produced with the GE F110 engine common on many US F-16C/D aircraft, and will also carry the SLAM-ER missile as their medium-range precision strike weapon. They will not be equipped with the AESA radars found on some US F-15Cs and Singapore’s forthcoming F-15SGs, however, relying instead on the standard AN/APG-63(v1) radars that equip most Strike Eagles in service around the world. See this RealVideo clip of the first F-15K in flight.
In May 2006, the Korean Overseas Information Service said that the ROKAF would purchase another 20 F-15K multi-role aircraft beginning in 2009 – but that report has since been qualified, and a subsequent report says that South Korea may be examining the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter instead.
According to the Korean Overseas Information Service’s November 1, 2006 report, “a winning model has not been decided yet” in the F-X Phase 2 program to secure an additional 20 “F-15 fighter-level” jets at a cost of 2.3 trillion won ($2.3 billion) “to strengthen [South Korea's] air defense capabilities.”
The report added that Lt. Gen. Kim Eun-ki, deputy chief of the ROK Air Force, recently appeared before a parliamentary hearing and discussed the proposed buy. A ruling party lawmaker pressed for the purchase of the F-35 instead, citing its greater stealth capabilities and claiming that its price is only 60% of the $105 million each F-15K costs.
“Right now, orders for F-35s are enormous, so it will be possible for us to buy and deploy them only after 2010,” replied Lt. Gen. Kim Eun-Ki.
In other words, the exchange doesn’t mean what the KOIS headline would lead you to believe. Leaving aside questions about the F-35’s air to air performance, even that stated 2010 deployment time is beyond optimistic. Official program timelines have the JSF system design & development phase extending to 2013, and full rate production is unlikely to begin before 2015. Even the least-risky F-35A is not going to meet the ROKAF’s needs in the 2007-2011 timeline.
As an aside, it should also be noted that buying a jet during low-rate production is also considerably more expensive. The F-35A may have a target price of around $45-50 million, but that’s to be an average over total production. Buying one during low-rate initial production has been estimated to cost $100-115 million, with the price declining rapidly once full-rate production is reached. Smaller declines tend to follow over time as full-rate production is sustained and refined.
These factors make a Phase 2 ROKAF buy of F-35A Lightning II aircraft almost inconceivable for the 2007-2011 time frame; rather than opening the issue up for consideration, Lt. Gen. Kim Eun-Ki appears to have been saying “no” in an innocuous way. Having said that, the F-35 Lightning II may still have potential as a future ROKAF platform.
Flight International reports that Seoul will decide over the next few years whether or not to buy a third batch of F-15Ks, or move forward with a separate F-X fighter program now under study. A $2 billion package of upgrades to its current fleet of Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters is also being considered.
If there is a Phase 3 buy beyond 2011, the F-35 Lightning II could be a realistic contender by then. It is unlikely to be an uncontested contender, however. The November 1, 2006 KOIS article also discusses the sentiment within Korea to diversify their defense sources – which means the F-35 would be likely to face competition from similarly-priced modernized versions of current aircraft in that price range such as the JAS-39 Gripen, Dassault Rafale (which lost to the F-15K, but has more growth upside if updates can be sustained), or even Russian/Chinese variants of the SU-30 Flanker family that have become so popular in the region (except for North Korea, who doesn’t have any).
The winner, as always, would be based on a combination of the stated requirements, how well each aircraft’s strengths and weaknesses fit those needs, standardization and support considerations, and of course the international commercial-political pressures involved.
- The Korea Times (Jan 17/07) – South Korea to Buy 20 More Advanced Fighters by 2012
- Korea Overseas Information Service (Nov 1/06) – Korea Mulls Purchasing F-35 Fighter Jets for Next-Generation Project
- The Korea Times (Oct 31/06) – Seoul Mulls Buying F-35 Fighter Jets
- Flight International (Aug 6/06) – F-15K crashed after pilots blacked out South Korea resumed flights with its Boeing F-15Ks on August 21 following the investigation. “The South Korean air force, which plans to enhance its biological training structure and introduce G-LOC (g-force induced loss of consciousness) training equipment… A rash of G-LOC incidents which followed the US Air Force’s introduction of the F-15 and Lockheed Martin F-16 led to aeromedical studies that concluded the best prevention was training, particularly for pilots new to the aircraft… The air force says the F-15K left Daegu airbase at 19:42. The aircraft discharged simulated air-to-air weapons at 20:11 but, while manoeuvring to respond to an opponent’s attack, the crew sent a “knock it off” signal at an altitude of 11,000ft (3,350m) – the aircraft crashing 16s later, at 20:12:19.”
- Flight International (March 18/05) – South Korea’s defence ministry approves 20 Boeing F-15K fighters to keep line alive until 2011
- Flight International (April 10/05) – Beyond Rafale
- Military.com Forums – F-15K/RoKAF Updates. An interesting and extensive collection of press releases (good) and republished articles (not good), covering F-15K program developments and Korean fighter program developments from March 2005 onward.
- Republic of Korea Air Force – F-15K