South Korea could become the next nation to order the F-35 from Lockheed Martin after military leaders recommended buying 40 fighter jets with stealth capabilities.
In a statement, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff didn’t specifically name the F-35 as the winner of the multibillion-dollar order, though it’s the “only aircraft that fits requirements” set by the military, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok told journalists in Seoul on Friday.
South Korea wants a jet with stealth technology to defend against North Korea’s growing nuclear threat.
The original tender process, which began almost two years ago, bogged down after the rejection of Boeing’s F-15 Silent Eagle. And defense priorities shifted after North Korea launched long-range rockets and tested a third nuclear device.
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In recent months, South Korea has revised its security strategy to include the possibility of first strikes against the North, putting a premium on radar-evading technology.
“The stealthiness of the F-35 is a key consideration when you think about what kind of missions the Republic of Korea air force could be conducting — deep strike, for one,” said James Hardy, a London-based analyst at IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly.
If the deal moves forward, South Korea would become the eighth export customer for the F-35, after Australia, Great Britain, Israel, Italy, Japan, Norway and the Netherlands. About 10,000 people are employed in the F-35 program at Lockheed’s west Fort Worth complex.
The Joint Chiefs’ decision came hours after North Korea threatened to lash out at President Park Geun Hye and turn the presidential Blue House in Seoul into a “sea of fire” if South Korea makes any provocations, an unnamed North Korean military spokesman told the official Korean Central News Agency.
The fighter jet South Korea will buy “should be able to strike strategic targets after stealthily penetrating” North Korea, the Joint Chiefs said in the statement.
South Korea will sign the contract for the jets next year and take delivery starting in 2018, the Joint Chiefs said. The original tender was for 60 planes. An additional 20 jets may be ordered, depending on security needs, according to the statement.
“We greatly appreciate that the Republic of Korea is pursuing a 5th Generation solution to meet their demanding security needs,” Lockheed Martin said in an emailed statement.
The company, based in Bethesda, Md., said that it will work with the U.S. government on South Korea’s requirements and that it is “committed” to meeting technology transfer and industrial demands.
The F-35 was originally rejected as too costly.
But the initial order of 40 jets would now be within the original $7.8 billion budget, easing final passage of the purchase by the Park government.
The decision was also a setback for Boeing. In September, the Defense Ministry indicated that it might consider buying a mix of planes after refusing Boeing’s F-15SE for the entire order because it lacked sufficient radar-evading capabilities.