South Korea Plans to Procure More F-35A and F-35B Variants Aircraft

U.S. Marine Corps Col. Benjamin Hutchins, commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 13, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), departs the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) in an F-35B Lightning II from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 122, MAG-13, 3rd MAW, during routine training in the eastern Pacific, Oct. 7, 2019.

South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) has announced earlier this month that 20 more F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation stealth fighters will be procured under the second phase of its F-X3 program.

The South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) has decided in August to double its fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets. A total of forty additional “Joint Strike Fighters” will be procured, including 20 F-35B short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant for its light aircraft carrier project known as LPX-II.

According to multiple local media reports quoting officials, South Korean military authorities plan to acquire an additional 40 F-35 Lightning II fighter jets, among which 20 F-35B will be acquired by the Republic of Korea Navy (ROK Navy). The transfer of F-35B data and technology is seen as essential for designing the future 30,000-tons LPX-II vessel, which should be operational by 2033.

In parallel, the Republic of Korea Air Force will order 20 additional F-35A variant aircraft to fulfil its requirement for 60 5th generation fighters. South Korea green-lighted an initial procurement of 40 F-35A on 24 September 2014. About a dozen of F-35A from this first batch entered operational service with the Air Force in December 2019.

Although the F-35B are set to be procured by the ROK Navy’s budget, Naval News understands that the aircraft will be flown by ROK Air Force pilots. While ROK Navy personnel flies fixed wing aircraft (P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircrafts, to be replaced by the P-8A Poseidon), it lacks pilots with experience with fast jets.

ROK Navy LPX-II aircraft carrier
LPX II Aircraft Carrier

An initial power struggle between the Air Force and Navy was resolved by granting wishes of both branches: The ROK Navy will receive the F-35B first to accommodate the LPX-II program. The ROK Air Force will operate the Navy’s F-35B while also getting their own additional F-35A after the F-35B are delivered. In the end, South Korea will operate a total of 80 F-35 (60 A variants and 20 B variants).

The final approval is expected during a Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting held in October 2020.  The contract is expected to be signed between 2021 and 2022 with delivery beginning around 2025.

“The government is preparing to launch the second phase of the F-X III in 2021 for the five years to come,” DAPA said in a report to the country’s National Assembly on October 7, according to Defense News.

The procurement of twenty additional F-35 fighter jets is estimated to cost around $3.35 billion. It is uncertain which version of the F-35 will be procured during the second phase of the F-X3 program.

The Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) is currently inducting the F-35A, the aircraft’s conventional takeoff and landing variant. Overall, the service will receive 40 F-35As by through 2021 under the U.S. Department of Defense’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program.

Total acquisition costs for the 40 conventional takeoffs and landing aircraft are estimated at approximately $7 billion. The first two F-35As arrived in South Korea in March of this year. Eight F-35As have so far been delivered to South Korea.

A total of 26 F-35As are scheduled to arrive in the country by the end of 2020. The ROKAF’s new F-35A fleet will reportedly be stationed at Cheongju airbase.

In July, North Korea threatened to “destroy” all the F-35As arriving in South Korea. Consequently, the South Korean military made an effort to induct the aircraft in a low-key manner in order not to provoke Pyongyang.

All 40 F-35As are being assembled at a Lockheed Martin production facility in Fort Worth, Texas, where the first ROKAF F-35A was rolled out in March 2018. ROKAF pilots are currently being trained to fly the new aircraft at Luke Air Force Base in the U.S. state of Arizona.

South Korea is reportedly also considering the F-35B, the aircraft’s short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant, as the National Assembly’s National Defense Commission is considering procuring a 30,000-ton landing platform helicopter (LPH) ship by the late 2020s capable of launching the F-35B.

The F-35B has been specifically designed to be launched from smaller carriers and amphibious assault ships. However, it appears more likely that South Korea will purchase additional twenty F-35A aircraft, according to a source at the Ministry of National Defense cited by Defense News.

“The state-funded Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, or KIDA, has concluded a study on the additional acquisition of F-35 aircraft, and the study is to suggest the introduction of more F-35As be more feasible,” the source was quoted as saying.

“There are two issues [with getting] the F-35B. First, it’s more expensive than the conventional-takeoff-and-landing version. Second, the deployment of a carrier-type landing ship is far away from now,” the source added.

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