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(LEAD) S. Korea seeking early purchase of stealth jets: sources

All Headlines 14:36 January 30, 2011

(ATTN: UPDATES with additional remarks, more details in paras 5, 10-13)

SEOUL, Jan. 30 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is moving to introduce the fifth generation of stealth fighter jets at an early date to replace its aging Air Force fighters and to secure capabilities to counter North Korea's increasing provocations, government sources said Sunday.

The move comes after the parliament cut the defense ministry's request for some 15.7 billion won (US$14 million) to launch a new fighter jet procurement program this year, granting only 300 million won.

"There is a growing consensus within the government that the next-generation fighter program must be launched at an early date," a government source said, asking not to be identified.

"There is only a 300 million won fund for research this year, but (the government) may allocate additional funds from its defense budget if necessary," he added.

Sources said Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin has ordered the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) to "find ways to launch the (new fighter jet) program at an early date."

South Korea purchased 60 F-15K fighter jets from U.S. manufacturer Boeing under an earlier program, known as FX II, and is set to have some of the remaining 20 aircraft from the program delivered before the end of next year.

The military earlier sought to launch an FX III program this year to have new fighter jets commissioned in 2016.

The government now seeks to introduce and weaponize new stealth fighters before the target year.

"It usually takes about four years for the first shipment of aircraft after a contract is signed, which means the new aircraft can be commissioned from as early as 2015," an official from the national defense procurement office, DAPA, said.

A military official noted the country has yet to decide what it will require in new fighter jets.

"Whether we will purchase jets with complete or partial stealth capabilities will depend on a future study of costs and efficiency," the official said.

Still, the country could start receiving proposals in June if the national defense acquisition program committee endorses an early launch of the program for next-generation fighter jets, the DAPA official said.

South Korea may then sign a deal as early as in August 2012 following a test of all candidate models.

The recent increase of frequency and intensity of North Korean provocations is apparently adding to the military's urgent sense of a need to introduce stealth fighter jets, after the country once considered introducing fighter jets with only partial stealth capabilities.

"There has been a call for the military's increased capabilities for precision strikes since North Korea's provocations in the northwestern region last year," a government source said. "And this has also led to a growing voice in the government to speed up the next fighter jet program."

North Korea sank a South Korean warship, Cheonan, near a western border in the Yellow Sea last year, killing 46 South Korean sailors. Then in November, the communist nation hit a South Korean island, also near the border, with artillery shells, killing two civilians and two armed service members in the first direct attack on a South Korean territory since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The new fighter jet program is expected to be worth some 10 trillion won ($8.97 billion). Possible candidates for jets include Boeing's F-15SE and Lockheed Martin's F-35, sources said.


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