Sunday, June 30, 2013

South Korea's F-X competition. One to watch.

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".  
South Korea already utilizes the F-15K Slam Eagle, suggesting an easy sell for the F-15SE.  Training and infrastructure would be a snap, and Korea is said to be very happy with its F-15Ks.  Of course, the F-15SE isn't a huge step beyond that of the F-15K, since many of the Silent Eagle's improvements have already been implemented on the F-15K.  In fact, on the surface, the F-15SE appears to be little more than a slightly stealthier F-15K...  And that stealth only work in the front aspect.

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?

5 comments:

  1. The Silent Eagle will most likely win from price alone. If Boeing repeats what it did with the Apache sale, that ends the doubt. The only reason the F-35 would win the order is because of politics and nothing else. Eurofighter truly has no chance unless South Korea gets angry at the United States over the next few weeks.

    Also, in the grand scheme, 60 airframes is not much for the F-35 program, it's a huge amount for Boeing and the F-15. The Saudi deal already paid for the most expensive part; the fly-by-wire system. If South Korea chooses the Eagle again it will be icing on the cake for both them, and Boeing.

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  2. I agree. A Silent Eagle win makes sense. Given the North Korea "threat", F-15K seems already largely enough...

    If F-35 wins, that would be another proof USA consider allies as vassals and not partners with their own needs.

    U.S influence already proved in the past to be very strong in South Korea, so I would not risk a cent on a Eurofighter win (would have been the same for rafale, gripen, su-35, ...).

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  3. Oh, and something else, 2 points:

    1/"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."

    ==> That's amazing! And sort of hypocrisy. Because US taxpayer is actually subsidizing other militaries. I read just today that US military aid to Egypt was worth more than $1 billion… per year. For Israel, that seems to be more than $2 billion per year. No wonder why they procure U.S hardware, even at Pentagon price…

    2/“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.”

    ==> So you admit it! That’s the same for Gripen E/F (sorry, that’s was TOOOO tempting). Besides, I agree without U.S political backing, that’s tough to sell abroad.

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  4. 1/ It is weird. The US will give foreign nations billions worth of military aid, but they won't cut them a deal on weapons...


    2/ Good point about the Gripen E/F similarities with the Silent Eagle... However, the Gripen E has government backing along with 2 fairly solid orders (Sweden and Switzerland). It also has a flying demonstrator. The Silent Eagle hasn't quite gotten to that stage yet.

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  5. 1/ Yeah, that's a way to do the same thing. But more importantly an incentive to such countries to purchase U.S weapons in my opinion. Sort of 'reverse offset' : instead of an investment as a compensation for the order, they invest to obtain orders...
    (no competition then!)

    2/ I agree risks for the Gripen are only on a technical side (to achieve full production within technical specifications and cost) but both on technical and political sides for Silent Eagle. Besides, political backing is more about money, especially for a big manufacturer such as Boeing. In fact, when a first customer (or Sweden + Switzerland in the Gripen E/F case) has already paid the development cost of a new variant of a fighter, order is significantly cheaper for the second one. In the Gripen E/F case, development of a new radar, new avionics, production/manufacturing upgrade and many needed flight tests to validate new aerodynamics are worth several billions $. So that's very convenient to wait for another one to pay for the hard part...

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