Workers assembling an F-35 at Lockheed Martin's factory in Fort Worth, Texas

Military chiefs to back South Korean F-35 deal

Military chiefs in South Korea will endorse a plan to buy just Lockheed Martin F-35s for its next generation fighter program.

Two sources familiar with the competition said today, that the country’s Joint Chiefs of Staff are expected to back an "all F-35 buy" of 40 F-35s and an option for 20 more at a meeting on November 22, dashing Boeing’s hopes of selling Seoul at least some F-15 fighters as a hedge against delays in the F-35 program, which is currently completing development.

The South Korean government voted down a bid by Boeing to supply 60 F-15 Silent Eagle’s in September, even though it was the only one of three bids submitted that was under budget.

At the time, South Korean officials said they would restart the 8.3tn won (£4.9bn) tender process to get a more advanced, radar-evading jet, but Boeing and its supporters had hoped the government would opt for a split buy of F-35s and F-15s.

"Clearly the US will be pleased with this direction," said one of the sources. "By committing to accept early production planes, (South) Korea will help bring down the price for early production aircraft purchased by the United States, Japan and others."

The Joint Chiefs' decision must be approved by a committee chaired by the South Korean defence minister at a meeting in early December, according to the sources, who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

One source said South Korea was sticking to its initial plan to buy 60 jets to preserve the terms of an industrial offset package that accompanied the Lockheed offer and included a satellite to be launched and placed in orbit. Any changes in the number of planes ordered would require reopening negotiations with Lockheed, said the source.

The South Korean Air Force has asked for enhanced stealth capability for the fighter jets, a move seen as bolstering the F-35's chances ahead of the Joint Chiefs meeting.

US officials have said Seoul needs to make a decision by the end of the year to ensure delivery of initial F-35s in 2017 since the US government must order advanced materials for the planes in the coming weeks. Seoul is said to be looking at buying six F-35 fighters in the ninth batch of early production jets.

The Eurofighter consortium, which includes BAE Systems, EADS and Finmeccanica, also submitted a bid in the South Korean competition.

The sources said there was still a chance the committee that is chaired by the South Korean defence minister could reverse the expected Joint Chiefs decision, but that was seen as unlikely.

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