Is the Air Force Capable of Protecting Korea's Skies?

      March 04, 2010 13:04

      Another two F-5 Air Force jets crashed five minutes after take off on Tuesday, killing three pilots when they crashed into a mountain in Pyeongchang, Gangwon Province. The Air Force has grounded all F-5 planes until the cause of the latest accidents becomes clear and kept most of its fighter jets in for emergency safety checks.

      North Korea has threatened "powerful military counteraction" against the joint U.S.-South Korean military drill known as "Key Resolve" that takes place between March 8 and 18. There are fears that the North may launch more missiles into the East Sea, but the South's F-5 jet fighters, which are among the main aircraft on the front lines in Gangwon Province and should be monitoring North Korean developments, are grounded.

      The main duty of the F-5 jets in an emergency would be to launch surgical attacks against North Korean artillery. The F-5s account for 170 of the Air Force's 480 fighter jets. But they are only armed with mechanical radars and manual weapons systems and lack air-to-air combat capabilities.

      A fighter jet's average life span is about 30 years, but the F-5 jets that crashed had been serving for 35 and 26 years. It has become difficult to find components, prompting the Air Force to resort to "cannibalization," namely taking parts out of one jet and putting them in another. An investigation in 2006 found 1,209 cases of cannibalization among F-5 fighter jets, between two to six times higher than for other aircraft. This dangerous practice may have played a role in the seven crashes and deaths of the 11 pilots of F-5s since 2000.

      Such accidents do not just cause financial losses as each fighter jet costs tens of billions of won, but more importantly they shatter the dreams and future of young pilots. It costs close to W9 billion in taxpayers' money to train a pilot to fly the state-of-the-art F-16 fighter jet. Similar investments must be made on F-5 pilots too. 

      Last year alone, 142 Air Force majors went over to work for civilian carriers, 3.2 times more than in 2004. Air Force pilots make less than 80 percent the annual salaries of civilian pilots and decreasing confidence in the safety of their fighter jets is prompting more to quit the military. The battalion commander who was killed in the latest crash met his fate after filling in for a shortage of trainers due to the exodus of experienced fighter pilots.

      Each time a fighter jet crashes, the Air Forces blames insufficient funding and its ensuing inability to purchase new aircraft. But if the Air Force is unable to maintain older fighter planes, how can it hope to protect South Korea's airspace once Seoul takes over full operational control of its military from the U.S. in 2012? The Air Force must thoroughly investigate the cause of the latest crash no matter how long it takes so that the families of fighter pilots will no longer have to worry about the lives of their fathers, sons and husbands.

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