South Korea seeks stealth jet edge while North's MiGs age

Thu Sep 26, 2013 1:52am EDT
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By Joyce Lee and Ju-min Park

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's decision to reject a bid by Boeing (BA.N: Quote) to supply 60 warplanes and to re-issue a tender was made in the interests of stealth technology but may not be justified given North Korea's weak air capabilities, experts said.

Lockheed Martin's (LMT.N: Quote) F-35A, previously considered too expensive, has shot to the front of the race for a multi-billion dollar deal after the Defence Ministry singled out a fifth-generation fighter as the preferred option.

Boeing's F-15 Silent Eagle, the only bid within budget, had been poised to win the 8.3 trillion won ($7.7 billion) tender. But former military top brass and ruling party legislators had criticized the aircraft for lacking stealth capabilities.

However, the air power of old rival North Korea was, by itself, not enough to warrant scrapping the tender in favor of stealth, experts said.

"It should not be hard to get air superiority against North Korea using conventional fighters because the air force is basically grounded, their pilots don't have any experience, and their air defence is from the 1950s," said Markus Schiller, senior analyst at Munich-based Schmucker Technologie.

"The capability that they get with the F-15 would be sufficient."

The North Korean air force operates a fleet of more than 1,300 aircraft, most of them Soviet-era models, the U.S. Department of Defense wrote in a report to Congress in 2012.

The North's most capable combat aircraft are its MiG-29s, one of which appeared as the backdrop in a photograph of North Korea's young leader, Kim Jong-un, posing with soldiers last year.   Continued...

South Korea's Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok leaves after a briefing at the Defense Ministry in Seoul September 24, 2013. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji