South Korea’s F-X Project and Structural Disarmament By Soon Ho Lee
The ROK’s plans for next-generation fighters could prove very costly indeed.
The F-X project in South Korea was initially proposed in the early 1990s, to ultimately replace the country’s F-4 and F-5 fleet and gain air supremacy over North Korea. Following the financial crisis of 1997, however, the project was scaled back from an initial plan for 120 fighters to just 40, with 40 F-15Ks being purchased in 2002 (phase 1). Then, in the second phase of the project, another 20 F-15Ks were purchased in 2007.
To reach its original target, the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) still needed another 60 next-generation fighters. Thus, the F-X Phase 3 (F-X III) project was launched, with the aim of procuring those 60 additional air fighters to supersede the aging F-4 and F-5 fleet. The plan is to introduce them between 2017 and 2021 at a cost of 8.3 trillion won ($7.3 billion).
But even though the ROK economy has grown steadily over the years and the country has continuously modernized its armed forces, such a rapid increase in military spending on its air force looks to be an almost impossible task, particularly given the major role that ground forces plan in ROK military and the need to prepare for the wartime command takeover in 2015. For this reason alone, the entire F-X III project cost, involving initial procurement and future maintenance, needs to be examined more closely.
Should the project proceed, then given the initial procurement budget and the astronomical maintenance costs, the F-X III could well lead to the structural disarmament of ROKAF. Structural disarmament – a concept first suggested by Thomas Callahan – has its roots in the increased technological sophistication of weapons systems. Technological improvements cost money, making each new generation of weapon system much more expensive. With higher unit costs, fewer systems can be produced and purchased.