S. Korean defense chief tries to dispel worries over F-35
By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, Dec. 4 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's defense minister on Wednesday supported Seoul's plan to buy Lockheed Martin's F-35s through the U.S. foreign military sales program (FMS), vowing to get a good deal from the reduced number of stealth jets to be purchased.
Kim Kwan-jin briefed ruling Saenuri Party lawmakers on the plan to buy 40 F-35s without an open bid, as they are only sold through the U.S. government's sales conditions, which reduces Seoul's negotiating leverage.
"I will make sure that (the government) doesn't get a bad deal for price under the FMS program, and ensure a smooth technology transfer process," Kim was quoted as saying by Saenuri spokesman Yoo Il-ho during the closed-door meeting.
Kim made the promise as senior ruling party lawmakers criticized the government's flip-flopping over the fighter jet program and confusion over the process. They called for the government to demand that the U.S. contractor comply with the commitment it had made during past rounds of negotiations, Yoo said.
Industry experts have said the F-35 purchase would pose a greater challenge to Seoul when negotiating the technology transfer due to the tight U.S. arms export policy.
Last month, Seoul announced its plan to buy 40 F-35A jets for four years starting in 2018, with an option to buy 20 more later, depending on the security situation and budget.
The total budget hasn't been confirmed, as the FMS condition requires a foreign government to pay the amount specified by the U.S. government for the F-35s at the time of payment. Seoul had initially assigned 8.3 trillion won (US$7.2 billion) for the past program for 60 jets.
The purchase plan has been scaled back from the previous one, in which Boeing's F-15 Silent Eagle was the only bid within the budget. The advanced variant of the F-15 was voted down due to its relatively weak stealth capabilities.
Lockheed Martin's F-35, which is still under development for the U.S. military, had initially been considered as a favorite, given the South Korean Air Force's long pursuit of stealth fighter jets against North Korea and close relations between the two allies.
However, the past rounds of negotiations that placed a high priority on the acquisition price effectively eliminated the F-35, which has been plagued by cost overruns and technical problems.
Unlike the fierce competition for the past project, industry experts say the one-way bid would give Seoul less room to negotiate other conditions, such as a technology transfer or industrial cooperation in connection with the program.
For past biddings, Lockheed, Boeing and EADS had proposed aggressive offset programs to sweeten their bids, ranging from technology transfers to promises of purchasing Korean-made parts.