15 Dec 15. South Korea’s KF-X programme to develop next generation combat aircraft has come under severe criticisms with politicians now calling for the programme to be restarted. The programme fell into political crosshairs in mid-2015 when the US denied transfer of four crucial technologies to South Korea. The current political tensions have two major implications: the continuation of the KF-X programme; and Seoul’s continued participation in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme in the wake of US denial of technology. The office of the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs has launched a probe into the KF-X programme. In addition, the former National Security Office (NSO) chief Kim Kwan-jin has come under fire for his role in the original decision in 2013, which was to reject a Boeing bid in favour of the F-35.
KF-X development and Offset arrangement
South Korea planned to procure 120 of the indigenous twin engine multirole fighters, which are to be replete with high-end avionics systems and stealth features. Under the programme outlines, the development stage – valued at USD8 billion – will last until 2025.
The Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) was expected to field 120 units by 2032. In September 2014, the US agreed to transfer 21 technologies required for the development of the KF-X fighter aircraft. This list of technologies included four core ones which are crucial for the KF-X programme, but the precondition was the US government’s approval of the technologies. In April 2015, the US denied export licenses for the four core technologies, which were:
- active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars
- infrared search and track (IRST)
- electro-optical target tracking devices
- RF Jammers
The US cited its national technology protection policy to explain its decision to deny transfer of technology to South Korea. The US has always had some concerns regarding South Korea’s close defence industrial ties with Indonesia (which has historically shared defence ties with Russia). Indonesia is currently the only KF-X foreign development partner, with 20% of the project. In early December, the Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI), KF-X’s preferred bidder, signed tentative deals with Indonesia’s state-owned PT Dirgantara including industrial collaboration and technology transfer. KAI exported T-50 trainer aircraft to Indonesia with technical help from Lockheed Martin, but it is understood that the US limited some technologies in the T-50s sold to Indonesia. It appears that the US is trying to employ a similar degree of caution with technology related to the KF-X.
South Korea is now trying to find a way to develop or source these parts from elsewhere. This could result in a delay in the KF-X development timeframe. In addition, this has resulted in a political backlash within South Korea with some political members calling for the programme to be restarted from scratch. Sourcing the core technologies South Korea is now looking for ways to source these parts, locally or from the international market. There are conflicting reports about South Korea’s industrial capability to produce crucial components.
According to DAPA, the localization rate for aviation components is only 39.6 percent in South Korea. This means that South Korea is largely dependent on imports of technology in the aviation sector. South Korea claims that around 90 percent of the integration technology for the AESA radar has already been accumulated through KAI’s experience of integrating one in an indigenous FA-50 light combat aircraft. This claim could not be independently verified. If true, it suggests that each of the remaining three technologies are likely to be sourced from abroad.
South Korea has the option of doing this through direct purchases by considering collaborative agreements with countries it has close defence ties with.
Problem f or F-35 participation:
The KF-X is linked to Lockheed Martin’s sale of 40 F-35As to South Korea under the F-X III programmes through the Foreign Military sales (FMS) process. Lockheed Martin offered to provide a list of technologies required to build the KF-X fighter jet as part of the F-X III offset agreement. South Korea is worried if the denial of technology for the KF-X programme foreshadows some issues the US may have in honouring its offset commitment for the F-35 deal. South Korea has been vocal about potentially cancelling the F-35 deal, but a look at the cancellation charges suggests that Seoul is more likely to reduce the total order, rather than proceed with a full cancellation.
Kim Kwang-jin, a representative of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) party, told The Korea Times that the government is considering cancellation of the F-35 deal if it is hard for Korea to acquire US technology. Recent debates and news reports suggest that DAPA is considering costs before committing to any change of plans. The National Assembly Defence Committee, on 25 November, estimated the cost to total USD1.2 billion. Given the cancellation fees, the other possibility is a reduction in the number of F-35s South Korea will procure.