WASHINGTON: A day after locking in Japan as the next the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter partner nation, Defense giant Lockheed Martin is setting its sights on South Korea.
The fifth-generation fighter “can meet [all] the requirements” laid out by the South Korean military for its FX-III fighter competition, Steve O’Bryan, Lockheed’s vice president of program integration and Business Development for the JSF, said today. “I personally do not see any roadblocks” in getting the F-35 into the hands of South Korean pilots, he said during a press briefing. But before Lockheed can move ahead with any South Korean deal it must first wrap up a few details on its recently-inked contract with Japan.
The Japanese ministry of defense selected the JSF over Boeing’s F/A-18 and the Eurofighter Typhoon to replace its legacy F-4 Phantoms. Lockheed officials announced the deal late last night. The Japanese Air Self-Defense Force plans to buy between 40 to 50 F-35s over the life of the deal. The JASDF will receive the first four jets by 2016, O’Bryan said. Those fighters will be built at the company’s facility in Ft. Worth, TX and be used for training missions. The remaining jets will be built in Japan. Tokyo has yet to approve a Lockheed proposal to build a final assembly and checkout facility in Japan, according to O’Bryan. Company officials have also offered to do component and subcomponent work on the Japanese jets, he added.
O’Bryan’s bullishness on a possible JSF deal with Seoul comes amid fears another key military sale may fall by the wayside. Defense lawmakers expressed concern that a deal to sell the Air Force’s Global Hawk unmanned aircraft to the Asian nation has “stalled out”, according to a report accompanying the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill. Washington and Seoul have been at odds over the deal since September. South Korean officials claimed the Pentagon was gouging the price for the aerial drones. That month DoD and Global Hawk manufacturer Northrop Grumman pitched a new price for the planes. That proposal apparently fell on deaf ears.
But if Lockheed can lock in a deal with South Korea, the country would join Australia, Singapore and now Japan as the next U.S. ally in the Pacific to field the JSF. Those foreign F-35s coupled with the American-flagged fighters would create “a strategic coalition” of JSFs in an “area of the world that has significant security challenges,” O’Bryan said. The United States is already shifting focus from Southwest Asia to the Pacific to counter an increasingly aggressive China and unstable North Korea. The recent death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il and the ongoing power transition in Pyongyang has only added to the growing sense of instability in the region.
As the situation in the Pacific inches closer to a tipping point, American forces in the region will have to rely more on its allies to keep things from boiling over. And the JSF could play a large role in making that happen. The JSF would ensure that American and South Korean forces will be able to coordinate air operations if tensions flare up. The fighter’s presence in so many Pacific countries also would demonstrate a united front against Chinese or North Korean aggression, according to defense analysts.