The South Korean defense agency has authorized the acquisition of additional F-35A fighter jets as part of the country’s F-X program, integrated with the government’s retaliatory strike plan “Kill Chain,” to address North Korean nuclear and missile threats.

To discuss the F-X project, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) attended a defense committee meeting on June 9, according to Daesik Kang of the governing People Power Party, a member of the National Assembly, according to  Defense News. By 2030, South Korea’s Air Force would get 20 F-35A fighters built by Lockheed Martin, according to DAPA. The defense bureau also mentioned that if more jets are ordered, the nation will spend 3.9 trillion won ($3 billion) by the following year.

An F-35A out of Eglin AFB on approach at Tyndall AFB, Florida. (Balon Greyjoy, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

ROK Air Force aims to acquire 20 more fifth-generation stealth multirole Joint Strike F-35As, known for their conventional take-off and landing prowess. This will reportedly improve its air combat effectiveness in an armed struggle with North Korea. The F-35A is equipped with “top-of-the-line” weaponry, including the Joint Direct Attack Munition, and has a top speed of Mach 1.8.

Given North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile technology gains, the lawmaker regarded the acquisition as “acceptable.”

“It is imperative that the ROKAF [South Korean Air Force] increase its counter-North Korea deterrence capabilities with F-X, as the lack of air power of the ROKAF is expected in the mid-2020s.”

DAPA is expected to speed up processes by as much as possible, shortening the project feasibility period to meet the committee’s deadline of July 13 for a final verdict. In addition, the South is developing a strategy to synchronously destroy all North Korean missile bases and other significant military installations in the event of a confrontation. This is why the expansion of ROK air power is a top priority.

As of December 2021, Lockheed Martin delivered all 40 F-35A Block 3 fighters the nation had purchased. The 20 more jets would be of the Block 4 variety, which has a superior electro-optic system, can carry more ammunition, and can interfere with opposing force radars and other electronic devices.

The North Korean Response

North Korea’s ballistic missile – North Korea Victory Day-2013. (Source: Stefan Krasowski, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Due to the F-35’s potential to dodge radars and infiltrate its territory, North Korea has protested the aircraft’s deployment in South Korea. As a result, Pyongyang threatened to annihilate every F-35A that arrived in South Korea in July 2019.

New short-range ballistic missiles and guided rockets from North Korea have just been tested. Experts believe that the weapons specifically target the F-35 base. The KN-23 ballistic missile is thought to have been inspired by the Russian SS-26/Iskander. The ballistic missile can evade anti-ballistic missiles by altering altitude and trajectory while in flight.

As part of the light aircraft carrier project CVX, the former South Korean government greatly favored the F-35B over the F-35A, despite early studies conducted from 2018 to 2019 finding that the nation needed the “A” model.

The Air Force stressed the need to expand its air defense systems in light of an “aging” fighter jet fleet, North Korean nuclear missile technology developments, and neighboring nations’ focus on developing fifth-generation stealth aircraft.

Speculation on Pentagon’s “Refusal”

Pentagon Office Building Complex, Jefferson Davis Highway/VA 110 at I-395. North of Pentagon City. Pentagon City. (Source: Joeyp3413, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Some analysts predicted that the Pentagon’s decision to keep these four highly sensitive technologies private could terminate the F-35A deal as a whole.

In September 2014, under the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales Program, South Korea and the United States inked a so-called Letter of Offer and Acceptance for the acquisition of 40 F-35A fighter jets with conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) capabilities. The deal between the United States and South Korea specifies that 20 additional F-35A fighter jets may be purchased at a later time based on the security situation on the Korean peninsula, even though South Korea downsized its initial request from 60 to 40 aircraft. The ROK Air Force anticipated fielding the first F-35As in 2018 and receiving all 40 aircraft by 2021.

The aircraft manufacturer of the F-35 series, Lockheed Martin, secured the $7 billion defense contract by pledging to offer 25 F-35-related technology to help launch South Korea’s KF-X fighter aircraft program. The $15 billion KF-X fighter program’s goal is to produce 80 stealth fighter planes for the Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU) and 120 stealth fighter jets for the Republic of Korea Air Force between 2025 and 2030. However, out of the 25 technologies, the US only declined to transfer 4: the active electronically scanned radar, the infrared search-and-rescue systems, the electro-optical targeting pod, and the radio frequency jammer.

If the F-35A purchase is canceled, South Korea won’t have a fifth-generation fighter for a long time. The report said that this situation is deplorable to South Korean political and military officials, given the existing state of insecurity on the Korean peninsula.