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South Korea And The Twilight Of The F-15

October 18, 2013
Last month the Yonhap News Agency revealed Boeing’s vaunted F-15 Silent Eagle tender was cancelled after presumably winning the $7.7 billion contract for the Next Fighter (F-X) Program.

Or as the latest from Reuters put it:

The F-15 had been poised to win the South Korean tender, but Seoul pulled the plug after former military top brass and ruling party lawmakers criticized the plane for lacking stealth capabilities.

The two-seater F-15SE was competing against the Lockheed Martin F-35A and the Eurofighter Typhoon, both of which presumably failed to meet the Defence Acquisition Program Administration’s (DAPA) standards.

DAPA launched the F-X Program in 2012 to find a suitable replacement for the South Korean Air Force’s F-4 Phantoms and F-5 Tigers. Combined, these two aircraft number more than 200 in the air force’s current inventory. (Although the existence of the F-X Program dates earlier, as noted in a 2011 post.)

The air force also maintains a sizable fleet of F-16’s as well an estimated 60 F-15K Slam Eagles, with deliveries for the latter still ongoing.

Aside from a recent deal with Saudi Arabia and a much smaller contract with Singapore, the F-X Program is the only other offering of the F-15 to a foreign client in the last few years. With several US allies in Europe and Asia expecting the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, the market for F-15’s is getting smaller and smaller. Without fresh orders, Boeing foresees its production line shutting down by 2018.

Rolled out in 1976 as an air-superiority fighter, the combat-proven F-15 and its variants possess a formidable reputation earned across a dozen conflicts. During the Cold War, the Soviets took the concept to heart and produced a suitable rival, the SU-27, often billed as the most widely exported fourth-generation fighter. (The F-15 is only operated in five other countries: the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Singapore.)

South Korea originally sought an ideal multirole fighter that could give it an edge against its rival in the north, whose decrepit air force hasn’t been upgraded in 20 years. Upon approval, the winning tender of the F-X Program would provide 60 units of the aircraft with deliveries estimated to begin by 2016.

It’s unclear if the expensive F-35 is going to figure in DAPA’s renewed attempt at choosing a multirole fighter. While the F-15SE was designed to have some sort of stealth features as well as advanced avionics–including a cutting-edge smart helmet–speculation was rife that Boeing’s close relations with South Korea’s military gave them an unfair advantage.

Another controversy that besmirched the bid was the belief that the F-15SE would be outclassed in a region where full-fledged fifth generation fighters soon become the norm, be they F-35’s, the Russian SU-57, or the Chinese J-20.

The scuttling of the F-15 tender isn’t a total loss, however, since South Korea’s military does field advanced weapons on par with the US, Israel, and some NATO countries.

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