October 20, 2014 11:57
The government went ahead with the purchase of U.S.-made F-35A stealth jet fighters at W121 billion per aircraft even after being informed of potentially fatal engine problems (US$1=W1,066).
Seoul is to spend a staggering W7.34 trillion on upgrading its fleet of fighter jets with the fifth-generation F-35A stealth aircraft from 2018 to 2021. But the Defense Acquisition Program Administration attempted to cover up a major flaw in the jets.
Ahn Gyu-baek of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy obtained data from the DAPA showing that Washington told Seoul on Sept. 13 of the causes of a fire in an F-35A during takeoff at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida back in June.
The fire broke out in the rear of the jet, raising concerns over defective engines. The jet's pilot made an emergency escape, and the U.S. Air Force temporarily grounded the planes.
The government pledged to wait with the purchase until Washington revealed what caused the fire.
The U.S. found that the cause of the fire was wear and deterioration in the engine's titanium skin due to friction between the rotor and stator. This caused minute cracks to form, leading to excessive friction that sparked the fire.
The Air Force here analyzed the U.S. government's findings and concluded that the engine's rotor and stator system should be redesigned.
But the DAPA simply left it up to the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, to fix the problem and went ahead with the purchase.
On Sept. 24, Defense Minister Han Min-koo gave the final green light to the purchase, and the DAPA signed the purchase agreement on Sept. 30.
The acquisition cost for the faulty jets will be shouldered by taxpayers.
Experts say the government is in a predictable bind because there were no rival bidders left once Lockheed Martin was chosen as the finalist in the epically delayed multi-billion-dollar project.
The government originally sought bids from Airbus and Boeing as well, but then alighted on Lockheed Martin as a single bidder, which critics say put Seoul at a disadvantage in negotiations.
A military source said, "It's common sense for a customer to either postpone the contract or seek more concessions if engine defects or other problems arise. It was totally beyond reason for the government to push ahead with the deal simply by trusting the U.S. to solve all the problems."
The F-35A had been deemed "unfit" in seven categories the military had presented to the government for the next-generation fighters. It lacked electronic intelligence functions, while its navigational and target-acquisition software were also below the standards the military had sought.
But the DAPA ignored these red flags. A DAPA official said, "The fighter jet purchase program was decided after the U.S. informed us of its findings about the defect and the matter went through the proper Defense Ministry channels.
"We also obtained a letter from the U.S. pledging that the fighter-jet acquisition will not be affected."
The official said the F-35A is still in the development stage and the design can be altered.
Ahn said, "How can the government let the U.S. get away with murder in such a huge project? Concerns for bilateral relations should not keep the project from being fair and transparent.
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