S. Korea to announce winner of fighter jet project next week

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, Sept. 17 (Yonhap) -- South Korea will select the winner of its fighter jet project next week, with Boeing's F-15 Silent Eagle deemed a favorite as it is the only candidate to meet the 8.3 trillion won (US$7.2 billion) budget, the state procurement agency said Tuesday.

The Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) has completed biddings and evaluations on three jets -- Boeing's F-15 SE, Lockheed Martin's F-35 and the EADS' Eurofighter -- and briefed President Park Geun-hye on the results last week.

It is not yet known which jet scored highest, but the DAPA said it will pick a bidder in a meeting on Sept. 24, which will be presided by Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin.

After conducting a comprehensive evaluation with greater weight given to price, the procurement agency is expected to recommend the F-15 SE as it is the sole candidate to meet the budget approved by parliament. The DAPA meeting is only authorized to accept or reject the candidate with no say over choosing other candidates or extending the program budget.

"The project cannot be reversed at this point as the Air Force should replace its aging jets," a senior DAPA official said, asking for customary anonymity. "The DAPA should make a final decision."

If confirmed, Boeing will provide 60 F-15 SEs between 2017 and 2021 to operate alongside 60 F-15Ks, which have been adopted since 2002, effectively replacing the South Korean Air Force's aging fleet of F-4s and F-5s.

The final selection comes amid lingering controversy over the combat capability of the stealth version of the F-15 modified for the South Korean Air Force since the procurement project was initially aimed at acquiring "the next-generation aircraft" to replace old combat jets.

Late August, 15 retired Air Force generals sent letters to the National Assembly, presidential office and defense ministry to suggest a reconsideration of the current evaluation process that put top priority on price over capabilities, effectively weeding out the other two bidders with higher price tags.

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