The South Korean KF-X program is in trouble because of a US ‘no’ over technology transfer concering several key elements of the design. The US move is a surprise for the Koreans after their ‘yes’ to the purchase of forty Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II aircraf last year. Seoul has started a probe into the proceeding.
South Korea is willing to spend close to 15 billion USD on the indigenous KF-X fighter jet, a program that should result in a fighter aircraft that should serve alongside the F-35s ordered and F-15Ks already in service. A total of 120 aircraft is said to be on the cards for the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF).
With Washington’s refusal to hand over key technologies, it seems the program suffers a severe setback at an early stage. The goal was to have the KF-X ready to fly in 2025.
The Republic of Korea Air Force huge KF-16 upgrade deal is back on track. After having a quarrel with BAe Systems, the upgrade now landed – as expected – with Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
The US Congress has already been informed by the US State Department of this new proposed Foreign Military Sale that will make 134 KF-16C/Ds better than ever before. The modifications include a new Modular Mission Computer, Active Electronically Scanned Array Radars (AESA), an AN/APX-125 or equivalent Advanced Identification Friend or Foe (AIFF) System, an Embedded Global Positioning System/Inertial Navigation Systems, Upgraded Radar Warning Receivers (RWR) and AN/ALQ-213 EW Management Units.
Moreover the RoKAF is getting 3 Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) II Group C Helmets, five GBU-54 Laser Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), some weapon practice equipment, guidance units, spare parts, training and some other stuff for 2.5 billion dollar.
Work will primarily be done by Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas, and Northrop Grumman Corporation in Falls Church, Virginia. Negotiations are not entirely over, however, as Seoul is asking for US orders for its industry (offsets) in return.
South Korea has opted for the Airbus A330 MRTT as the future tanker aircraft for the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF). Seoul announced the decision on Tuesday, ending a close competition between Airbus, Boeing and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). The ROKAF should welcome the first of four tanker aircraft in 2018.
The deal is worth an estimated 1.07 billion USD and supplies South Korea with its very own tanker dedicated aircraft. The tankers will act as flying gas stations for South Korea’s fleet of F-4, F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft, plus future F-35s.
The Boeing KC-46 Pegasus, based on the Boeing 767-200, is currently being developed by Boeing. The first flight with the air to air refueling boom attached took place recently, but many more tests are to take place before the KC-46 is ready to replace large numbers of KC-135s in US service.
IAI was offering a modified version of the Boeing 767. Colombia and Brazil in the past chose this Israeli option.
The US Department of Defense is seeking Congressional approval to buy another 400 (!) Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II stealthy multi-role fighters at once. Defense Undersecretary Frank Kendall said this on Friday 29 May during a press conference. Aim is to buy for both the US armed forces and export partners and get a large discount in the process.
Currently orders for the future backbone of many air forces are placed in batches of tens up to 150 a year, but the Pentagon thinks it could get a larger reduction from Lockheed Martin if it orders 400 jets at once, to be produced over the course of three fiscal years: 2018 to 2021. In between the lines: such a block buy would also ensure a fairly quick modernization of many of NATO’s and other allies air forces with a capable 5th generation fighter jet to keep up the pace with Russia and China. Cutting down on the current unit base cost of 98 to 116 million per aircraft will certainly help.
Three base versions
Lockheed Martin is producing the Lightning II in three base version. The F-35A is the conventional take off and landing (CTOL) variant originally designed for the US Air Force, with more than 1,750 planned.
The F-35B is the short-take off and vertical-landing (STOVL) version for the US Marine Corps, which is planning 420 aircraft including some of the C-variant developped for the US Navy. This F-35C is adapted for carrier-based (CV) operations but lacks the vertical landing and hover option of the USMC jets (which can land on carriers as well of course). That should make the C both cheaper and easier to fly, and easier to maintain. The US Navy plans for 260 F-35Cs.
Britain’s Royal Air Force/Royal Navy are also buying the most advanced version. The UK’s F-35Bs are to operate from the RN’s two new large aircraft carriers: HMS Queen Elizabeth to be commissioned in 2016 (initially without the F-35s, because they are not ready yet) and the HMS Prince of Wales planned for 2020. A total of 48 F-35Bs are ordered, of which 4 are in testing phase, with plans for another 32 or more.
Both the Italian Air Force and Navy are to operate the F-35, with 15 B-versions planned for the Marina Militare – to fly from the aircraft carrier C 550 Cavour – and 60 F-35As for the Aeronautica Militare (with 6 ordered so far). Italy is much involved in the F-35 program, with the Finmeccanica-Alenia Aermacchi being a strategic part of the production. On 26 May the first F-35A wing-set produced by the Italian manufacturer at its plant in Camiri entered the F-35 production line in Fort Worth, Texas, USA. , marking a milestone for the Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT)-Alenia Aermacchi collaboration on the program. Finmeccanica-Alenia Aermacchi has been contracted for 835 full wing assemblies. Italy is even producing entire aircraft.
All other export orders are for the “simplest” F-35A variant: to the Turkish Air Force (100 planned); the Royal Australian Air Force (72 ordered of which 2 in testing; with the Australians making hundreds of tails); the Royal Norwegian Air Force (52 planned of which 16 ordered); the Japan Air-Self Defense Force (42 planned of which 5 ordered); the Republic of Korea Air Force (40 ordered) and the Royal Netherlands Air Force (37 planned of which 8 ordered with 2 in testing).
The Israeli Air Force plans for 75 F-35Is, which are F-35As with Israeli modifications such as in the electronics on board. Thirty-three F-35Is are ordered, with the first 2 to be delivered in 2017. The Royal Canadian Air Force is opting for the CF-35, which will be an A-variant with a drag parachute (like the Norwegian jets; handy on short icy runways) and possible a refuelling probe like on the F-35Bs and Cs. Denmark and Belgium are likely to choose for the F-35A as well.
Embedding at sea
Just this week the USS Wasp has seen the debut of the first semi combat-ready F-35 unit-style training at sea ever, after the US Air Force put 10 of its jets through a deployment in April. Six F-35Bs flew more than a hundred sorties, clocking 85.5 flight hours during Operational Testing 1 (OT-1) to see how the embedding at sea is going. Royal Air Force and Royal Navy personnel went along as well, to use the experience to incorporate on their vessels once the F-35s are delivered. Meanwhile Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 at MCAS Yuma in Arizona is working to reach initial operational capability in Mid-2015, becoming the world’s first F-35 combat unit.
South Korea has officially entered the beginning of the end of the selection process of an in-flight refuelling aircraft for its Republic of Korea Air Force. Long due and delayed many times, Seoul has officially opened the bidding contest on Tuesday 14 April 2015.
With money and interoperability with the US Air Force as important issues the three candidates for the four tanker aircraft are the Airbus A330 MRTT, the Boeing KC-46 Pegasus and the Israeli Aerospace Industries Boeing 767-300ER MMTT solution. Two of the four aircraft of the expected future have to be available by 2018, the second pair within two years after that, according to sources in Seoul.
The Israeli solution of refurbishing existing aircraft seems to be the cheapest solution, with the type on its way to the Brazilian Air Force, the KC-46 the most logical choice politically speaking and the A330 MRTT probably the best choice if Seoul chooses for a proven platform instead of a new.
The A330 MRTT already is or will be in service with the Royal Air Force (Voyager; 10 aircraft plus 4 planned, flown by AirTanker), Royal Australian Air Force (KC-30; 5 aircraft with 2 more expected), the United Arab Emirates Air Force (3), the Royal Saudi Air Force (3 plus 3 ordered), Singapore (6 planned), Qatar (2 planned), France (12 planned), India (6 planned), Spain (2 planned), the Netherlands (2 planned) and European NATO nations Belgium / Norway / the Netherlands (2 planned). Note that only 9 RAF Voyagers are fully equipped as in-flight refueller to have London save costs.
Although the number of 62 A330 MRTTs looks impressive, it is small compared to the 179 to 400 KC-46s the US Air Force is expecting to field the coming years. But the Boeing project has been hit by delays and the first fully-equipped Pegasus is yet to make its first flight, planned for July this year.