September 23, 2015 13:09
Korea signed a contract in September last year with Lockheed Martin to buy 40 F-35A fighter jets for a whooping W7.34 trillion (US$1=W1,183).
At the time, the military and the Defense Acquisition Program Administration justified the enormous expense by saying Korea would get technical assistance on 25 technologies, which would in turn generate so-called economic effects worth US$1.4 billion.
Above all, they said, the technologies to be transferred would include essential elements for Korea's development of its future homegrown jet, the KF-X fighter.
But now an audit has revealed that the U.S. government never approved the transfer of four of these technologies -- technology integration for the AESA radar, an infrared search and track sensor, an electro-optical search and track sensor, and electromagnetic interference equipment -- which would constitute key equipment for the KF-X fighter jet.
The epic KF-X project, now scheduled to be completed by 2025, is the country's largest-ever weapons development program and needs more than W18 trillion of taxpayers' money.
And now the entire project is up in the air again.
Despite Lockheed Martin's breach of contract, DAPA has no effective means of calling the American firm to account. When it announced its selection of the F-35A as the KF-X model last year, DAPA specifically cited the technology transfer as a decisive factor. But now it says the transfer of the four core technologies was never mentioned in the formal contract at all.
If DAPA had tried to find out what the U.S. government's position was on the technologies, this absurd situation could have been avoided, and Korea would have been in a much stronger position in negotiations with Lockheed Martin.
In Tuesday's audit, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Jeong Kyeong-doo claimed there would be "no problem" developing the KF-X even without the transfer of the four technologies. DAPA will just develop them on its own or in cooperation with a European firm, he said.
Then why did DAPA boast about them so vociferously in the first place?
Public trust in the government's weapons procurement projects has hit rock-bottom as a result of a series of recent corruption scandals. Nobody can trust the military's explanations. Taxpayers will have to shoulder the heavier burden due to this blunder, but who will take responsibility?
American arms dealers cannot be permitted to keep taking advantage of Korea like this by making promises they will never keep. But it is the incompetence of the military that allows this to happen.
The government must find out what was behind this disaster and what problems the military has, and call Lockheed Martin to account by any available legal means. In the worst-case scenario, the whole purchase needs to be reconsidered.
Lockheed Martin still looks set to take charge of the entire KF-X project. The government should scrap this plan and find another partner, perhaps a European firm, that presents better and more viable conditions.
As some people worried from the start, the F-35 deal has put Korea at a serious disadvantage.
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