S. Korea's ex-air force chiefs slam Boeing choice in fighter deal

Thu Sep 12, 2013 6:08am EDT
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By Ju-min Park and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's 15 former air force chiefs have signed a petition opposing the selection of Boeing Co's (BA.N: Quote) F-15 Silent Eagle for the country's 8.3 trillion won ($7.64 billion) fighter jet program, one former chief said on Thursday, saying the plane lacked the cutting-edge stealth capabilities of more modern fighters.

The petition comes after Boeing's F-15SE became the only bid eligible to be chosen in South Korea's biggest-ever arms procurement program, ahead of Lockheed Martin's (LMT.N: Quote) costlier F-35 stealth fighter and the Eurofighter consortium's Typhoon.

Lockheed and the Eurofighter consortium are technically still in the race but not eligible to be chosen according to current interpretations of local law because the bids were over the allotted budget. If the government doesn't approve the Boeing bid, the current auction must be cancelled and the entire process restarted.

The petition, which people knowledgeable about the content said was sent to the presidential office and to parliament in late August, adds to the unease among some defense experts that the selection of the Boeing aircraft may sacrifice air defense capabilities because of cost concerns.

"We can't just choose minicars over sedans because they are cheap," said Kim Hong-rae who served as the air force chief of staff in 1994 and 1995.

"Like the United States and Japan, we need F-35s as fifth-generation aircraft. We can wait another one or two years, looking ahead 40 years, with the finally selected fighter jets," Kim told Reuters, referring to any delay if the current process is cancelled.

The "F-15SE is still a paper airplane under development based on 1970's models, which raises lots of questions on the effectiveness" of upgrading the F-15 platform, the statement said. "Japan recently bought 42 F-35s and the crucial weapons system to deter North Korea's threats is a stealth fighter," it added.

Boeing's bid to supply 60 fighter jets was the only one below the price ceiling set by the country's arms procurement agency. The bid must be approved by a committee chaired by the defense minister.   Continued...

KF-16 fighter jets of the South Korean air force prepare to take off during a night flight operation at an air base in Chungju, about 100 km (62 miles) southeast of Seoul in this picture taken April 17, 2013 and released April 18, 2013. REUTERS/South Korean Air Force/Handout