The pain is pervasive in St. Louis after Seoul announced Sept. 24, 2013, that it is rejecting the Boeing Company‘s bid to build 60 new fighters for the Republic of Korea under the program known as F-X Phase III, or FX-3.
The Korean decision not to invest in the F-15SE Silent Eagle came weeks after the Boeing fighter was left alone as the only contender in what had been a three-way competition.
“Based on evaluation results on capacities and cost, we decided not to select the sole remaining candidate,” said DAPA spokesman Baik Yoon-hyung. “We will try to reopen the bidding as quickly as possible so that there [will] be no delay in complementing our military strength.”
South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), which is headed by Vice Minister of Defense Lee Young-geol, earlier had ruled out the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter on cost grounds and had found irregularities in the bid by EADS to sell a version of the Eurofighter Typhoon.
Observers had thought a production order for the F-15SE Silent Eagle was a done deal after the F-35 and Typhoon were dropped.
The contract seemed such a certainty that South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that it had happened. “Korea Selects F-15SE” became the title of a news story in the October Combat Aircraft magazine.
And then came the announcement. “Based on evaluation results on capacities and cost, we decided not to select the sole remaining candidate,” said DAPA spokesman Baik Yoon-hyung. “We will try to reopen the bidding as quickly as possible so that there [will] be no delay in complementing our military strength.” What Baik did not say, according to analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group in a September 30 telephone interview, is that the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) overruled DAPA, a fairly young agency that was created in 2006 to institute acquisition reform. “The ROKAF took one look at the result and said, ‘Go buy us some F-35s, please,'” Aboulafia told Defense Media Network.
Political leaders in Seoul may have decided the game changed when Japan invested in the F-35. Or they may have been influenced by the introduction of advanced fighters and air defense systems in mainland China.
Boeing has contracts for F-15SA Eagles for Saudi Arabia and for EA-18G Growlers and F/A-18E/F Super Hornets for the U.S. Navy, but without the Korea order, the production line could shut down in 2019.
Boeing said it is “deeply disappointed” at being passed over. Defense Media Network talked with several people associated with aerospace in St. Louis and all expressed similar sentiments, although none wanted to be quoted by name. Some pointed out that planemaking has been a tradition on the grounds of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, or nearby, for decades.
Curtiss manufactured aircraft there during World War II, McDonnell took over the plant in the postwar era, and Boeing later acquired the St. Louis assembly plant. From the obscure Curtiss SNC-1 trainer to the mighty McDonnell F-4 Phantom II, aerospace workers almost take it for granted that they were placed in the Missouri riverside city to make airplanes. One, referring to the Korea decision, said he was “crestfallen.”
Boeing has contracts for F-15SA Eagles for Saudi Arabia and for EA-18G Growlers and F/A-18E/F Super Hornets for the U.S. Navy, but without the Korea order, the production line could shut down in 2019. This is happening at a time when Boeing also faces, even sooner, the likely shutdown of the Long Beach, Calif., plant where it manufactures the C-17 Globemaster III.
Korea is Critical
The $73 million FX-3 competition was for 60 fighters to be procured over the next five years between 2017 and 2021. Boeing won the previous two F-X contracts with orders for a combined total of 60 F-15K Slam Eagles, the last of which has now been delivered. Korean officials now say the competition will be rebooted and entry into service of a new fighter will be postponed from 2017 to 2019.
Unless another purchaser can be found for the F-15SE – or Boeing gets a second chance when the FX-3 competition reboots – the United States could end up with just one production line for fighters, the mile-long, windowless plant in Fort Worth, Texas, where F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-35s are assembled. With the F-16 likely to run out of buyers in the near future, the U.S. could end up with only one type of fighter in production.
The F-15SE, which is yet to find its first customer, is Boeing’s response to the notion that fighters come in “fourth” and “fifth” so-called “generations,” and that low-observable properties – the “stealth” that makes them difficult to detect on radar – is the price of admission to the higher category. A production F-15SE would use stealth features such as internal weapons carriage and radar-absorbent materials. It would take longer to introduce to a new user than the proven F-15K, which is highly regarded in South Korea.
Aboulafia suggests that Boeing needn’t wait for a re-start of FS-X. The planemaker “should offer an interim solution,” Aboulafia said. “They should propose another two F-15K squadrons as a gap filler.”