South Korea to get its first F-35A stealth fighter jets in March. How will the North react?
- The jets and their pilots have been put through their paces at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona
- It remains undecided whether South Korea will want to give its new F-35A jets a high-profile welcoming ceremony, for fear of angering the North
South Korea will receive its first F-35A stealth fighters in March, a milestone in the country’s effort to boost its defence capabilities despite a diplomatic thaw with its nuclear-armed neighbour North Korea.
A South Korean military official said the first two jets would be “combat-deployed in April or May” and that 10 jets would be ready for deployment by the end of this year.
The jets and their pilots have been put through their paces at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, a training facility for the state-of-the-art jet fighter.
South Korea is among a handful of US allies to buy the jet, including Japan and Australia. However the jet programme, which launched in 2001, has been plagued by cost overruns and technical problems.
South Korea approved a deal in September 2014 to acquire 40 F-35As for about 7.3 trillion won (US$6.8 billion).
“By the end of 2021, all of the 40 F-35A strike fighters will be deployed, combat-ready as planned”, the military official said.
The F-35A is one of three variants of the aircraft, including the F-35C used aboard aircraft carriers.
The jets have radar-evading capabilities and can perform ground-attack and air-superiority missions with a variety of precision weapons.
That would give it a significant advantage over North Korea’s air defences and fleet of ageing combat aircraft.
However, it remains undecided whether South Korea will want to give its new F-35A jets a high-profile welcome ceremony when they are delivered in March.
It may instead consider something more low key to avoid provoking the North following months of rapprochement that includes three inter-Korean summits and a meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
North Korea reacted angrily after high-ranking South Korean officials attended a ceremony in March last year for the first jets to roll off the assembly line at Lockheed Martin’s production facility in Fort Worth, Texas.
“The South’s war maniacs are indulging in a spending spree to buy F-35A Stealth jet fighters. This stems from an adventurous plot to stage a pre-emptive strike against us that goes along with US attempts to start a war,” the ruling Worker’s Party daily, Rodong Sinmun, said at that time.
South Korea, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with its 2019-2023 midterm defence project known as “Defence Reform 2.0” to help to counter potential threats from North Korea and elsewhere.
South’s defence ministry plans to spend 32 trillion won during this five-year period, up 30 per cent from the previous five-year period, the defence ministry said.
This programme includes the F-35As, tactical surface-to-surface guided missiles, the upgrading of Patriot air-defence missile systems and strengthening other assets with surveillance and strike capabilities.
“The most outstanding point in the Defence Reform 2.0 is the shift of focus from threats from North Korea to overall security threats (including those from other countries)”, the ministry said.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in last month called for a “strong defence capability” all the more although negotiations have been underway with the North.
“Peace is being made on the Korean peninsula but it is still a precarious peace”, he said, urging the military not to lower its guard.