Global Insights: With F-35 Decision, South Korea Reverses Course on U.S. Arms Purchases

Global Insights: With F-35 Decision, South Korea Reverses Course on U.S. Arms Purchases

During his current visit to South Korea, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will likely discuss long-standing issues on the alliance agenda, including the timing of the transfer of wartime operational control from U.S. to South Korean forces as well as plans for sharing the costs of defending South Korea in coming years. But Hagel’s visit might well be dominated by Seoul’s abrupt decision last week to annul its tender to purchase 60 advanced fighter planes and launch a new one.

Boeing's F-15 Silent Eagle—an upgraded version of the F-15E, the dominant model in the South Korean Air Force—looked set to win the $7.7 billion tender as the only bid to fall under the proposed budget limit. But the South Korean military insisted on again considering the more advanced Lockheed Martin F-35A, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, which is the only genuine fifth-generation fighter among those on offer. The government will now develop a new budget and tender.

The South Korean decision to revamp the tender should not come as a big surprise. Its military has increasingly demanded only the most modern and highest-quality weapons. Although the air threat from North Korea is minimal, the South Korean military’s points of comparison are China and Japan—the latter country is buying the F-35 while China is developing its own stealth fighter.

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