|Korea's KF-X fighter concept.|
South Korea has recently extended the bidding process on phase 3 of its F-X fighter program. This program is quite interesting as it includes two fighters currently being considered for the CF-18 replacement as part of Canada's "reset" and "reevaluation" of the F-35.
The first jet is, obviously, the F-35. The second, the Eurofighter Typhoon. The third, Boeing's F-15SE "Silent Eagle" isn't on Canada's current shopping list... But should be. Each fighter obviously has its own strengths and weaknesses, of course, but the main selling point for Seoul is price. Hence, the bidding extension to keep the offers coming in.
There is another aspect to the F-X competition however. Seoul isn't just looking for fighter jets, it's looking for a partner to help it develop a planned indigenous stealth fighter, the KF-X.
Although many have speculated one way or another, this one is currently "too tough to call".
|F-15SE "Silent Eagle".|
The Silent Eagle also has the disadvantage of being still in development. With no units in service yet and no fully functional prototype, the F-15SE program still carries a certain amount of risk and uncertainty. Also, since Boeing is developing the Silent Eagle on its own, with no government support, the Silent Eagle also lacks the substantial political backing of the other two aircraft. Although approval from the US government shouldn't be a problem. Boeing itself has pledged to build parts for the F-15SE and other aircraft in S. Korea in a deal worth $1.2 billion.
|The F-35 Lightning II|
Many would feel that Lockheed Martin's F-35 should be a shoe-in for South Korea, and it would be hard to argue with that assumption. The JSF is certainly the newest and most technologically advanced of the three, and Lockheed, the US government, and all the JSF partner nations would love to see more Lightning IIs sell to help mitigate ongoing cost concerns. Of course, there is the not-so-insignificant desire to maintain positive relations with the US and its military, in case tensions with North Korea ever escalate any more than they already have on countless occasions. Lockheed also enjoys close connections with S. Korea thanks to the KAI/Lockheed Martin T-50 Golden Eagle, a jet that many believe to be a strong contender to replace the T-38 Talon training jet.
So why hasn't the F-35 been declared the winner yet? In a word: Cost. More specifically, a lack of certainty regarding the F-35's cost. Since the F-35 is still undergoing an infamously troubled development, its final costs are still very much up in the air. Since it is sold by the Pentagon, and not directly through Lockheed, US law states that neither a fixed price nor a maximum price can be set for foreign sales. This is (theoretically) in place to keep the US taxpayer from subsidizing other militaries.
|The Eurofighter Typhoon|
Which leaves us with the "dark horse" of the F-X competition, the Eurofighter Typhoon. Entering service in 2004, the Typhoon is certainly a much more modern aircraft than the F-15, even with the F-15's upgrades throughout the years. Although not as cutting edge as the F-35, the Tranche 3 version of the Typhoon checks off all the right boxes with full air-to-ground capability, AESA radar, and the ability to mount conformal fuel tanks (CFTs). Better still, while the Typhoon has a reputation for being expensive both to purchase and maintain, it is still likely to be cheaper than notoriously fuel thirsty F-15 or the still unknown stealth and technology premiums needed for the F-35. Recent rumblings promising further cost savings for the Typhoon only make it more attractive for prospective buyers.
To sweeten the deal, EADS, the Eurofighter partner company marketing the Typhoon to S. Korea, has pledged $2 billion towards developing the KF-X. This would include technical assistance not available from the American jets due to US government imposed restrictions. EADS has also offered to assemble the Typhoons in South Korea.
So who will be the likely winner?
At this point, it is simply too close to call. All three manufacturers are being very aggressive in their bidding, and all three jets look to be more than capable for South Korea's needs. Of the three, the Typhoon stands out for being the lowest risk, given that it is currently in service and it has already been to war. The Silent Eagle, on the other hand, offers the highest risk, but on a tried-and-true platform. Meanwhile, the F-35 has both a technological and political advantage, but adds a huge amount of uncertainty to the equation as well.
Which one do you thing will win?