Facing Down the Threats of the Second Nuclear Age: The South Korean Air Chiefs Make the Case for 5th Generation Aircraft

This map view underscores why the impact of enhanced and more agile defense capabilities in South Korea has an immediate impact on the defense of Japan (Credit image: Bigstock)

2013-09-15 In a twist of the South Korean procurement dynamic, the MOD procurement officials are excluding two of the three competitors for the next cycle of acquisition of combat aircraft for the South Korean Air Force.

The Eurofighter and the F-35 are being excluded from consideration because of procedural issues in the first case and cost in the second.

Initially, all three bids were over the budgetary allocation, but with the cost reduction of a plane in development – the next iteration of the F-15 – the MOD considers the “Silent Eagle” as the “winner.”

But in an unprecedented action by former Chiefs of Staff of the South Korean Air Force, an open letter to the President of South Korea has been released underscoring their concern that without the acquisition of the F-35, the security of South Korea is in jeopardy.

Clearly, the South Korean Air chiefs understand what the current COS of the USAF has argued and did so in the Pacific:

As Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh visited airmen in Hawaii and at Kadena AB, Japan, this week, he emphasized that the service is committed to seeing the F-35 program to fruition, as the fifth generation fighter’s success has great implications for the Air Force’s role in future conflicts.

“The F-35 is flying, it is a real thing, and progress is real,” he said.

Several countries, including Russia and China, are working on fifth generation fighters, he said, and even if the United States does not go to war with these countries, it will inevitably have to confront the military technology they sell to others.

Extending the service lives of fourth generation aircraft, and even supplanting the force structure with generation “4.5” fighters, does not solve the problem.

“When a fifth generation fighter meets a fourth generation fighter—[the latter] dies,” said Welsh. “We can’t just dress up a fourth generation fighter as a fifth generation fighter; we need to get away from that conversation,” he said.

Air power is the bedrock for the defense of South Korea facing a founding member of the Second Nuclear Age club.

This map view underscores why the impact of enhanced and more agile defense capabilities in South Korea has an immediate impact on the defense of Japan (Credit image: Bigstock)
The case being made in public by the former chiefs underscores their analysis of why a 5th generation aircraft is central to the defense of South Korea and a foundation for 21st century deterrence.Credit image: Bigstock

We are publishing the text of their letter here as well as the text from recent TV appearances by the authors of the letter.

Among the key elements presented by the Chiefs are the following:

South Korea lives in a tough neighborhood, and one populated by powers modernizing the naval and air assets;

South Korea needs a 5th generation aircraft in order to “respond to the North Korean threat and potential threats from surrounding countires.”

Fifth generation aircraft are essential because only they “can eliminate the Norh Korean nuclear threat by infiltrating North Korea’s dense air defense network.”

South Korea lives in a neighborhood where allies and adversaries alike are moving down the path towards transitioning to stealth aircraft;

The silent eagle is not a 5th generation aircraft; it is an aircraft built on “a model that was first produced in 1970s and has not been built into an actual tangible figure. Thus, doubts rise on the possibility of remodeling the fuselage.”

And the chiefs argued that even if initial costs of the F-35 might be higher than a “silent eagle” (and they are questioning whether that really will be true” or as the Chiefs put it: “No doubt there is a difference in capabilities and cost between an aircraft that was produced 40 years ago and a plane that applied high-end technology and material.”

The bottom is clear for the chiefs: fifth generation aircraft are not a luxury but a necessity for 21st century South Korean defense and security.

“If the sky is absent against surrounding countries’ threat, the sea is absent as well. To be prepared against the threat made by the surrounding countries that are also arming themselves with stealth fighters, we must acquire stealth fighter as a strategic weapon.”

Text of the Former Chiefs of Staff to the President of South Korea

‘Proposition for National Security’ to President Park, Gune-hye

Dear Honorable President Park, Geun-hye

We here by express our wholehearted respect for your work in establishing economic prosperity, national welfare, and foundation for peace and prosperity.

This is our proposal about the F-X project that also is gaining increasing attention nationwide.

The F-X project is the national business to supplement the combat power gap caused by retiring Air Force aircrafts, deter North Korean provocation, and respond to the potential threat in the surrounding countries.

People are interested in the fighter project because it is the central combat force that will protect our sovereign airspace for the next 40 years in such fast-forwarding security environment, prepare for the unification and the threat from surrounding countries after the unification.

The initial core capability the Air Force proposed was the stealth technology that can respond to North Korean threat and potential threat from the surrounding countries. Only the stealth technology can eliminate North Korean nuclear threat by infiltrating North Korea’s dense air defense network, while prepare for the threat made by the surrounding countries.

Surrounding countries like Russia and China are currently pursuing stealth fighter development and Japan confirmed its order for 42 F-35s. Stealth fighter is the main weapons system that can deter the threat made by North Korea with nuclear power.

However, the project alleviated the stealth technology condition twice in 2011 to induce price competition since there is no contender available if stealth technology is required operation condition. As a result, the competition formed amongst the F-15SE and the Eurofighter, which are 4th-generation fighters, and the F-35 5th-generation fighter with stealth technology.

No doubt there is a difference in capabilities and cost between an aircraft that was produced 40 years ago and a plane that applied high-end technology and material.

Thus, DAPA established a rule to select a fighter through comprehensive evaluation based on the evaluation factors such as life-cycle cost, which accounts for 30%, mission execution capability for 33.61%, military operation adequacy for 17.98%, and economic and technological benefits for 18.41%. The Air Force, national defense researchers, and DAPA conducted the evaluation for each category.

Unfortunately, even before DAPA started the comprehensive evaluation, the F-35 and the Eurofighter out of three contenders were viewed as ‘inadequate’ as it exceeded the KRW 8.3 trillion budget. DAPA announced that only the F-15SE will be evaluated for the final project fighter selection process.

Meanwhile, the F-15SE is based on a model that was first produced in 1970s and has not been built into an actual tangible figure. Thus, doubts rise on the possibility of remodeling the fuselage.

Dear Honorable President Park, Geun-hye

Stealth fighter is known to have deterrence feared by enemy as it can secretly infiltrate enemy territory. Many people still remember the time when the US calmed the provocation threat made by North Korea with nuclear experiment and long-range missile launch with the B-2 and F-22 stealth fighter.

However, it is not guaranteed that the US will support us when there is a weapon conflict with the surrounding countries. Especially with Japan turning rightist and increasing its military force by founding Marine Corps, and reinforcing its dominium on Dokdo.

If the sky is absent against surrounding countries’ threat, the sea is absent as well. To be prepared against the threat made by the surrounding countries that are also arming themselves with stealth fighters, we must acquire stealth fighter as a strategic weapon.

President Park, Jung-hee established the foundation for independent national defense capability and in 1969 when per capita income was USD 210, he introduced the Phantom F-4D, the high-end all-weather fighter-bomber at that time, as the 3rd country in the world after the US and England.

We spent 64million dollars to procure these aircraft, which is 64 % of the 100 million dollars that we received as a special military aid from sending third troops to Vietnam War.

Until then, North Korea Air Force had more advanced air assets, both in terms of quality and quantity. North Korea frequently threatened us with aerial provocation, but such behavior was put to stop after we introduced phantoms to our air force.
In 1974 citizens made donations to the national defense fund and we procured additional F-4D. These fighters guarded our sky for 41 years and retired honorably in 2010. Considering economic hardship, such political decision was a groundbreaking and strategically farsighted.

Dear Honorable President Park, Geun-hye

If the F-X project proceeds as is, we will be getting a fighter with weak stealth capabilities. It is difficult for our citizens to understand the rationale behind spending KRW 8.3 trillion of budget to buy 4th generation fighters that does not really exist yet. They will not tolerate it well knowing that its capabilities are not adequate to guard our national security.

As you are well aware, air power is critical for war deterrence and victory. Our Air Force who wished for stealth fighter for strategic weapon is in dilemma.

The reasons are that force vacuum is expected for significant period of time and it will be difficult to secure budget if the project is to be reevaluated from the beginning.

However, we have faith, that our brilliant president can implement special measurements to modify other defense project budgets in the total defense budget which will allocate enough fund for our nation can obtain stealthy fighter in scheduled time.

We, as a former Air Force Chief of Staffs, who have dedicated the entire life to guard our skies, are asking earnestly that the decision is made based on the long-range national security plan. The fighter should be able to defend our nation against North Korea’s nuclear threat and potential threats from other surrounding nations. Please do not base the decision solely on the price factor, but consider the results of the comprehensive evaluation of the three models, which will include the life-cycle cost, operational capability, operational suitability, technological/economic benefits. Even if this means to go over the budget, we sincerely ask you to make the adequate arrangements.

We wish for the eternal growth and victory of our proud Nation

August 27, 2013

Former Air Force Chief of Staffs

KIM Chang-gyu, PARK Won-seok, KIM Shin,
KIM Du-man, YOON Ja-jung, KIM, Sang-tae,
SEO Dong-yul, HAN Ju-seok, KIM, Hong-rae,
LEE Kwang-hak, PARK Chun-taek, LEE Uk-su,
LEE Han-ho, LEE Gye-hoon, PARK Jong-hun

YTN Interview with former AF Chief of Staff Lee, Han-ho

Q: Why did you and the other Chiefs of Staff of the Air Force decide to step forward on the FX program?

General Lee, Han-ho: We were reluctant to speak out. However, we observed how performance of the aircraft was disregarded and price became the only relevant issue for the FX program. I felt that this was a serious problem.

Q: Is DAPA’s current plan to procure 60 4th gen fighters for KRW 8.3 trillion?

LHH: Yes.

Q: DAPA is being focused on price.

LHH: Yes, and they are insisting that it does not go over the budget.

Q: Strategically, you believe that F-15SE is not the right choice, but rather stealth is required.

LHH: In consideration of the situations we have with North Korea and the surrounding regions, stealth is the only option. However, a competitive selection program was needed to promote lower price of the aircraft. We don’t have a problem with a competitive procurement program. We simply believe that all the relevant elements should be taken into consideration for the source selection, and are pointing out that price deciding the selection is a problem.

Q: F-15SE is looking very likely for the selection, but you appear to support the F-35. What are the F-35’s advantages?

LHH: We do not have any particular favored platform, and we do not intend to promote or denigrate a particular platform. We have no desire to become involved in that.

Q: Are F-35’s stealth capabilities better?

LHH: Eurofighter and F-15 are not designed with stealth from the beginning. F-35 is the only platform which was designed for stealth from the inception.

Q: F-35’s price is known to be high, and MND is saying that any delays would be problematic, so at this point they need to select 4th gen fighters. What do you think should happen?

LHH: I understand that the price difference between the F-35 and the total program cost is about KRW 1-2 trillion. I think that this is well within the range for budget adjustment, bearing in mind the total defense budget of KRW 34 trillion, of which KRW 10 or 11 trillion is allocated for improvement of defense capabilities. Plus, the budget will be expended over a ten-year period. This means a yearly addition of KRW 0.1 trillion, which is well within the range for adjustment.

Q (surprised): Is the cost difference that small?

LHH: Nothing’s been clearly disclosed, so I don’t know exactly. But I believe that it is roughly around that range.

Q: We heard that F-35 was twice as expensive.

LHH: That is not quite the case.

Q: What are the criteria for source selection?

LHH: Provides an overview of the source selection criteria

Q: Was there a problem with how the total program cost was estimated?

LHH: Yes. The total program cost was estimated back in 2009-10, and it does not take into consideration the fact that the price has decreased since then.

Q: Some are advocating the acquisition of the F-15SE for the current FX program, and then procuring F-35s as additions down the line.

LHH: Again, why are we making a decision based on price alone? The results of a comprehensive evaluation should be the basis for selection.

Q: But would it not necessitate additional cost?

LHH: Yes, but that’s why I said that the budget can be adjusted.

Q: Korea’s neighboring countries have plans with stealth fighters. Japan has signed a contract for F-35s, Russia and China are developing stealth fighters of their own. So is this why you believe that we also need to have stealth fighters?

LHH: Yes. The Air Force needs to have stealth fighters not just for itself to protect the airspace, but also to allow the Korean Navy to operate properly in the sea.

Q: There is a line of argument which believes that F-35 with its stealth capabilities will be useful for infiltrating and striking enemy targets, but that F-15 with its greater munitions carriage is more suitable for the Korean theatre and terrain.

LHH: That argument lacks understanding of Air Force strategy. Ever since the Korean War North Korea has constructed the most densely defended air defense system in the world. F-15 with all its armament will be easily caught out by NK radar and will be destroyed. Stealth is necessary in this situation.

Q: Why did you not come forward and speak about this earlier in the FX program? Why are you saying this so late in the program schedule?

LHH: The need for stealth is felt not just by us Air Force chiefs, but also by active Air Force pilots and defense staff. Like I mentioned earlier, I don’t have a problem with the fact that a competitive acquisition program is being conducted. I believed that the competition would lead to a comprehensive evaluation in which all relevant factors are considered. However, now I see that price is the only thing that seems to matter – this is why I have come forward at this time.

Q: MND and DAPA are mainly composed of ROK Army personnel. Perhaps the Army is driving the decision for the F-15SE?

LHH: Like in any sphere where the three services work together, there is friendly competition among them when it comes to the weapons systems being procured and used. However, in this case the need for asymmetric power is clear, and is understood by all services.

Q: If the decision is indeed made on price alone, and the F-15SE ends up being selected, what will you do?

LHH: If the government makes the decision, what can anybody do? However, if it happens, I think that a procurement process for at least 20 stealth fighters must be initiated immediately afterwards.

Q: Have you received any response from the Blue House and the National Assembly to your letter?

LHH: I think that the letter is still being reviewed.

Channel A telephone interview with former AF Chief of Staff Park, Chun-taek

Q: Could you summarize your views on the F-15SE?General Park, Chun-taek: F-15SE is an F-15K that has been partially modified to fit some external weapons in internal bays, and to apparently offer limited stealth capabilities.

Q: So it is similar to what the Air Force is already operating.

PCT: Yes, it is claimed that F-15SE has limited stealth capabilities, but the aircraft currently does not exist.

Q: The former Air Force Chiefs have all said that F-15SE is not the right choice. Why?

PCT: The core capability which was the goal of the FX next gen fighter was stealth. Stealth fighters are not caught on radar, and can strike enemy targets without being detected.

Q: And the F-15SE doesn’t have it (stealth capability)?

PCT: They say that it has limited stealth, but the aircraft doesn’t actually exist, so we can’t rely on such claims.

Q: What do you think we should do? Should we restart the whole program?

PCT: We need stealth. If we don’t have this capability, and with other countries getting stealth, we will not be able to protect our airspace. If we don’t have stealth our pilots will not be able to safely return to base from missions.

Q: One candidate platform is very expensive, while another platform we were not able to test by actually flying it. What should we do?

PCT: The insistence on KRW 8.3 trillion restricts our ability to make a choice. DAPA’s such insistence is not acceptable. We can’t simply keep doing these programs, because the budget is a lot of money.

We need to make the right choice here.

We need to have the stealth capability, either by reducing the quantity of aircraft, or adding more budget. We have to have stealth capability. I am deeply concerned about Korea’s security. Stealth is very important and necessary for this.

The slideshow below highlights a visit by the South Koreans to Eglin AFB to gain deeper understanding of the roll out of the F-35 at the Eglin training facility:

[slidepress gallery=’south-korean-air-force-visits-f-35-eglin-facility’]

 Credit Photos: 33rd Fighter Wing

And one South Korean source asked the simple question: Is the Ministry of Finance Now the Ministry of Defense?


Or as the article puts it: “One hawk is stronger than 1oo sparrows.”