Will South Korea be fielding F-15SA variants as their FX-III-winning fighter aircraft?

Will South Korea be fielding F-15SA variants as their FX-III-winning fighter aircraft? (Source: Star Defense)

Boeing’s participation in South Korea’s FX-III fighter acquisition bidding will likely remain a roller coaster ride, with Boeing claiming continual advancements in their F-15SE designs, while the Republic of Korea complains about their previous generation of F-15Ks and threatens to leave Boeing behind. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

We’d previously reported on Boeing’s lack of effort in developing the F-15 Silent Eagle (F-15SE), a revised F-15 design with internal weapons bays and canted wings, modifications originally favored by the Republic of Korea’s Defense Acquisition Procurement Administration (DAPA). While some of the reports came via the mouths of competitors, little public data hinted at Boeing’s advances with the design. The best sources for project advancements continually came via Korea Aerospace Industries’ research and design of the internal bays and not anything from Boeing’s end.

After various sources (including us) reported on Boeing’s backpedaling with the F-15SE, the company came out swinging, assuring DAPA and the public that the F-15SE was still very much on the table and that tests were progressing perfectly on schedule.

The truth lies between the two extremes. With DAPA sensing the departure of Sukhoi from the bidding war, Boeing’s potential failure to meet DAPA’s needs, and EADS’s design lacking those needs to begin with, DAPA downgraded their initial plans in an attempt to make the bidding war more than just the Lockheed Martin F-35 show.

While Boeing is sticking to their guns on the F-15SE’s progression, it is becoming more and more apparent that the company will offer the ROK a variation of their F-15SA aircraft, recently sold to Saudi Arabia. The regression in DAPA’s requirements makes this an extremely favorable option for Boeing, in transitioning between the construction of the Saudi and potential South Korean orders.

The F-15SA, while lacking the internal bays and canted wings, would be an upgrade to the ROK’s current F-15K from a systems standpoint. Aviation Week reports that the F-15SA features BAE Systems’ digital electronic warfare system, fly-by-wire, dual helmet-mounted displays and various other internal upgrades.

Unfortunately, as Boeing becomes more likely to offer the F-15SA variant to South Korea, problems continue to crop up with the current fleet of F-15Ks. The Korea Times has reported on a number of woes with Korea’s FX-II-winning fighter, including high rates of being grounded, and new revelations of soaring maintenance costs:

“We only had to spend 9.7 billion won ($8.61 million) to maintain an operational rate of 82 percent for the 40 F-15Ks in 2008,” a senior Air Force official said on condition of anonymity.

“However, the maintenance cost for the jets jumped to 39 billion won in 2009, 82.28 billion won in 2010, and 95.82 billion won in 2011.”

Rep. Song Young-sun of the governing Saenuri Party noted that despite the surge in maintenance costs, the low operational rate of the F-15Ks has hardly improved over the past several years.(Source: The Korea Times)

While these qualms could spell doom for Boeing’s chances in the FX-III bidding, this continual media frenzy over the F-15K’s performance is potentially bringing Boeing closer together with the ROK, including performance based logistics (PBL) deals and further incentives for the ROK to stick with Boeing in 2012.

South Korea has never been particularly awed by Lockheed Martin’s F-35, and has maintained a comfortable relationship with Boeing for the last ten years. The media firestorm could be South Korea’s attempt to draw out more from Boeing, just as Boeing angles for South Korea to accept their latest design and abandon hopes in the F-15SE.

This author would be surprised to see the ROK deviate from their previous course in the final round of their foreign fighter acquisition program. All the media fervor is likely the ROK’s attempt to chide Boeing while bringing them closer into the fold. The PBL deal and assistance with the ROK’s KFX indigenous fighter design will sweeten the pot and take some of the sting out of not getting the F-15SEs of their dreams.

If I was a gambling man, I’d put my money on South Korea rolling with Boeing’s F-15SA variants when a winner of the FX-III contest is selected.

Special thanks to The Base Leg Blog for alerting us to the Aviation Week article as we scanned our twitter and RSS worlds this fine morning over a cup of mate tea.

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Craig was born & raised in the United States, having recently returned there after over five years in Asia. He is currently pursuing further education in the realms of East Asian Studies and Politics. Craig is an avid fan of the political, economic, and military machinations occurring throughout the Asian continent and how those turning gears affect the rest of the world. He's currently covering both North and South Korea for Asia Security Watch, enjoying shedding light on to this far-too-often ignored slice of Asia.
Craig Scanlan has 82 post(s) on Asia Security Watch