South Korea yesterday said it would not send its F-35 jet fleet to Japan for heavy airframe maintenance, one of the two Asian hubs chosen by the US to service the Lockheed Martin Corp stealth fighter.
Instead, it is likely to fly the jets to Australia, about eight times further away than Japan and well beyond their operating range. The three nations — all key US allies — are the only regional players to have ordered the F-35s.
The F-35 program has been lauded as an example of the US and its allies working together to bolster interoperability, but in Asia, the maintenance plan is exacerbating a traditional rivalry between Seoul and Tokyo.
US Air Force Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, who runs the F-35 program for the US, told reporters on Wednesday that Japan would handle heavy maintenance for the jets in the northern Pacific staring in early 2018, with Australia to handle maintenance in the southern Pacific.
“There will never be a case where our fighter jets will be taken to Japan for maintenance,” said an official at South Korea’s arms procurement agency, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration.
“South Korea has the right to decide where to conduct maintenance for its F-35 jets, and it will decide whenever the need arises,” the official added.
The plan for now is for the 40 F-35s set to be acquired by South Korea to be serviced in Australia, an Australian Department of Defence source told reporters on condition of anonymity.
South Korea is to receive the first of its stealth planes in 2018.
A source familiar with the F-35 program said South Korea could — at a later stage — negotiate with Washington about the possibility of handling the heavy maintenance of its own F-35 jets.
Such a deal would require a significant investment by Seoul, including specialized equipment used to test the jets’ stealth.
However, barring unforeseen circumstances, the jets are not likely to require much heavy maintenance until five years after their delivery, said the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Heavy maintenance involves repairs that get into the structure of the airplanes.
“At the moment, the regional hub in Japan will deal with the 42 Japanese F-35s. We will discuss with the Pentagon what others will be handled in Japan,” Japanese Ministry of Defense Aircraft Division Deputy Director Katsuyuki Komatsu said at a briefing in Tokyo.
He said that the discussion would cover the F-35s to be operated by South Korea and those to be flown by the US from bases in northeast Asia.
Bogdan said the F-35 program office would re-examine the maintenance assignments every two to three years, providing opportunities for other nations with F-35s to benefit from a market valued at billions of US dollars in coming years.
The US$399 billion weapons program has already produced 120 jets, with the US and foreign militaries gearing up to start operating the fighters around the world in coming years.
In Japan, the airframe maintenance decision benefits Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which is already slated to run the final assembly and checkout plant being built in Japan at a cost of ￥63.9 billion (US$538.92 million).
Future engine work in Japan would be done by IHI Corp, which is already building engine components for Japan’s F-35s, a source familiar with the program said.
In Australia, the airframe maintenance work could be done by Britain’s BAE Systems, although the Australian government could opt to complete the work, the source said.
“The Australian defense industry stands to win well in excess of A$1.5 billion [US$1.22 billion] in related production and support work over the life of the program,” Australian Minister for Defence David Johnston said in a statement.
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