South Korea mulls buying F-35Bs

South Korea mulls buying F-35Bs

Felix Kim

Seoul’s wing of F-35A stealth fighter jets may soon be joined by a squadron of F-35Bs, the short vertical takeoff and landing (SVTOL) version of the same plane. Republic of Korea (ROK) military leaders are considering using the F-35s’ SVTOL capability. They plan to carry them aboard the 14,000-ton Dokdo-class vessel, their newest amphibious landing ship slated to be deployed in 2020, as part of efforts to strengthen ROK naval power to deter and defend against threats from North Korea. (Pictured: F-35B fighter jets, the type being considered by ROK’s Navy, fly by the USS America).

The potential purchase of F-35Bs would augment the wing of 40 F-35As being added to ROK’s defense assets, reported Yonhap, the government-affiliated South Korea news agency, thus avoiding a possible shortage of warplanes that could occur with the decommissioning of F-4s and F-5s.

During the current deliberations, “they have begun considering the deployment of a small number of F-35B fighters for the Navy, as the U.S. does for its Marines,” said Dr. Choi Myoung-jin, a professor with the Department of Defense Science & Technology at Howon University and an official advisor to the ROK Ministry of National Defense. “And they’re discussing whether Dokdo-class vessels can carry them. If deployed, the F-35B would become a very important asset for the Navy, given its virtues. It is very strong in an air battle and also on ground attacks.”

The U.S.-made F-35B is described by its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, as “designed to operate from austere bases and a range of air-capable ships near front-line combat zones.” This would in principle make them right for the Korean-made Dokdo-class carrier, which can carry up to 15 UH-60 Black Hawk or 10 SH-60F Ocean Hawk helicopters.

While the carrier was designed with SVTOL aircraft in mind, modifications would be needed to enable it to launch the F-35B, according to Choi. “There are also lots of other hurdles to deploy them such as the operation and maintenance costs,” he added.

A pair of U.S. defense analysts described some of the benefits offered to ROK by the F-35B to U.S. broadcaster CNBC in late December 2017.

Seth Cropsey of the Hudson Institute described the plane as a deterrent and a fighter suitable for deployment inside enemy territory in case of a contingency. John Pike at spoke of how the F-35B could bolster ROK’s fleet air defenses and ship-to-shore ground attack capabilities. He added that keeping a squadron of F-35s on a mobile platform at sea would make them less vulnerable than if they were at land-based airfields.

ROK is not alone in measuring the appeal of the F-35B, according to Yonhap. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force is considering buying F-35Bs for its large escort ships, adding that the Japanese military is weighing the options of shifting its original plan of buying 42 F-35As to include some F-35Bs, or to make an additional and separate acquisition of F-35Bs, Yonhap reported.

The U.S. Marine Corps Fighter Attack Squadron 121 has had a squadron of 16 F-35Bs at an air base in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan, since November 2017. The squadron deployed from the U.S. in response to heightened nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.

“The F-35B would definitely help strengthen ROK naval power,” Choi said. “It is a superb fighter. That’s why the navies of so many developed countries, most recently Japan, want to have them. But before purchasing them, there need to be lots of discussions and examinations followed on how to operate them effectively.”

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.