South Korean President Moon Jae-in did something very unusual in early October for a leader who once deemed the Korean peace process among the highest priorities of his administration: He promoted the very fighter jets that North Korea says undermine diplomacy.
President Moon was on hand to celebrate the first delivery of the Lockheed Martin F-35A "next generation" fighter jets that, with 40 in total set to arrive by 2021, represent the most expensive weapons purchase in South Korean history according to Reuters.
"The war of the future will be a fight of science and intelligence against all elements that threaten our people’s safety and property," Moon said in a speech to promote the jets, noting that he felt "secure about the might of [South Korea’s] military armed with new … F-35As."
Diplomacy with North Korea aside, one could accept South Korea’s introduction of the F-35A as a necessary evil for national security if the jets were crucial to addressing a critical shortcoming in military capacity. But the evidence suggests the opposite – that there is, in fact, nothing "scientific" or "intelligent" about the purchase. Nor is there any clear need to publicly celebrate the delivery of these jets, using them as a prop to appear strong on national security (itself an acquiescence to South Korea’s hawkish right wing) at a time when the peace process is hanging over the abyss by a thread.
The F-35 Fuels North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Advancements
Perception rules when it comes to national security and the F-35A is, in theory, a game-changer for South Korean force projection. Official claims suggest the jet threatens North Korea’s ability to retaliate in the face of a US-South Korean invasion. This is hugely problematic because a basic element of military strategy is maintaining not only the capacity, but (just as importantly) the appearance of the capacity, to respond with prohibitive force in the event of an enemy attack.
This appearance alone should be enough to discourage any rational actor from considering a pre-emptive strike. This concept is commonly referred to as mutually assured destruction in nuclear warfare, but the principle is the same for conventional weaponry. North Korea relies heavily on ballistic missiles and artillery targeting South Korea for this purpose. As things currently stand, the threat of massive casualties in Seoul is enough to prevent overt attempts at North Korean regime change.
Yet, the F-35A is said to be a stealth jet that can travel undetected at unprecedented speeds to deliver payloads to a target. This would – again in theory – allow the South Korean air force to fly into North Korean territory undetected and destroy their ballistic missile launchers, dealing a serious blow to their retaliatory capabilities and potentially making the price of an invasion much less prohibitive.
The only way for North Korea to respond to such a threat is to make certain their enemy is unable to locate and target these weapons. It is no coincidence, then, that North Korea has recently tested missiles that are more portable, less predictable for missile defense technology, and launched from submarines, "another step forward in North Korea’s pursuit of a sea-based deterrent force" according to 38 North.
The outrage in Western and right-wing South Korean media to these tests is telling: as with the F-35A from the North Korean perspective, here too the actual readiness of these ballistic missile technologies is of less import than the perception of readiness. The context of North Korea’s missile developments is additionally glossed over: these tests are presented as acts of aggression rather than the highly rational aim to maintain retaliatory capability in response to the introduction of the F-35A and the THAAD missile defense system.
North Korea has specifically mentioned the F-35A in some of its most recent invectives against the Moon administration. Indeed, last August a spokesperson for the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country’s said, "He often calls for peace, but is he then going to say the purchase of drones and fighter jets [F-35s] from the US is for spreading agrochemicals and air shows?"
The delivery of the F-35A is yet another case of upping the ante on North Korea, fuelling the arms race by forcing North Korea’s development of countermeasures. Surely President Moon is aware of this. His public appearance promoting the fighter jets may therefore be a signal that diplomacy with North Korea is no longer his primary concern; that perhaps domestic politics are foremost on his agenda.
This may be doubly true because a sober look at the F-35A reveals the plane is all hype; that the purchase and promotion of the jets has nothing to do with actual national security.
Problems Abound for the Unfinished, Inadequately Tested F-35A
Without access to the F-35A, North Korea is forced to believe the hype – and respond to the potential threat it represents. But one would naturally assume South Korea, as an ally of the United States and reliable purchaser of US weaponry surely has in-depth knowledge of just what the F-35A is – and isn’t – capable of. This makes President Moon’s use of the jets as a national security prop all the more disconcerting because even official reports indicate the F-35A is a turkey.
Not even the US military knows whether the jet will ever be reliable because it hasn’t even come close to being adequately tested and still faces myriad issues. Dan Grazier, an F-35 expert at the Project On Government Oversight, reported in August that the F-35 test fleet has only achieved an 11 percent "fully mission capable rate" – embarrassingly low when the initial goal was to reach 80 percent readiness by the end of operational testing.
One might wonder why South Korea is even taking delivery of a plane that, as a model, is still being evaluated and is by no means near full development seventeen years into the program. This is because Lockheed Martin is fast-tracking the rollout of units for foreign purchase to offset the outrageous cost of the program. Essentially South Korea is buying a fleet of unfinished, defective jets.
"I think the Republic of Korea will find that the F-35 will prove much more expensive to operate than has been advertised," Mr. Grazier told me by email. "The aircraft delivered so far have not been fully developed and tested and will require costly upgrades to bring them up to the promised performance standards, if the engineers are ever able to work out all of the technical issues that yet remain."
Operational testing has yielded a series of very troubling issues for the F-35A: the guns don’t shoot straight, which is obviously problematic for a jet that is supposed to be used, at least in part, as air support for ground troops; structural testing remains incomplete and it is uncertain whether the F-35A will ever have the lifespan advertised, a clear issue for already completed units; the jet, as an almost wholly computerized system, is extremely vulnerable to hacking; and the data processing technology required for use of the stealth function is flawed, has never properly been tested, and a 2018 US Air Force report indicates the research lab responsible doesn’t even have the equipment for realistic combat simulations – inadequacies that Grazier notes "…could put missions and troops at risk."
F-35 developers also moved from the development phase to the operational testing phase – "a milestone in any weapons program," according to Grazier – without adequately resolving "941 design flaws … with 102 listed as ‘Category I’ flaws that ‘may cause death [or] severe injury,’ or lead to major damage to the aircraft or seriously inhibit combat effectiveness…" He adds, "Each of these 102 flaws could ground aircraft or force them to abort missions."
What should perhaps be most alarming to South Koreans is that developers are rolling out these jets without the use of combat simulations necessary to evaluate them "…because the available test aircraft and the open-air test ranges in the western United States cannot replicate all the modern threats flights of six or more F-35s might face," per Grazier. The simulation center for this testing was not scheduled for completion until the end of 2019, meaning the units South Korea is now importing have been developed before any such evaluation.
Given the myriad issues facing the F-35 program – one that has been mired in cost overruns and development flaws from the beginning – it is unclear whether the F-35A will ever be of much use to the South Korean military.
This jet is surely not worth the damage it is doing to the peace process. President Moon should have cancelled the purchase as soon as he came into office instead of celebrating the initial delivery and using it as a prop for his national security credentials. But that is not how the US-South Korean relationship works.
South Korea: a Loyal Customer of US Weapons, Regardless of National Interests
It may seem implausible or even impossible that South Korea would commit a record amount of taxpayer dollars to a fleet of fighter jets that probably won’t work as advertised and therefore may put troops at risk and reduce combat readiness.
But weapons procurement is rarely based purely on raw military considerations. US pressure on allies is often intense and irresistible. As longstanding US weapons industry analyst William Hartung told the Hankyoreh in 2012 during the bidding process for South Korea’s next generation fleet (prior to South Korea’s purchase of the F-35): "The bottom line in U.S. arms sales, implicitly and often explicitly, is that a country is not just buying a U.S. weapon but is buying an alliance, formal or informal, with the United States. This is a common talking point that arms companies have used to promote and justify U.S. sales, and U.S. officials no doubt make it behind the scenes."
This could be considered an acceptable price for maintaining the alliance if it was the sole issue facing South Korea at present. But the dynamics of the region are rapidly changing. South Korea is heavily dependent on China economically. At the same time, South Korea would stand to benefit greatly from the ability to geographically reintegrate with the rest of Asia – especially in the form of inter-Korean railway transit – through a peace deal and gradual economic cooperation with North Korea (and perhaps nobody has promoted the economic benefits of peace more than President Moon himself). Reflexive adherence to US demands on military procurement and alliance commitments therefore fuels tensions in the region at a time when peace is needed more than ever and also requires South Korea to remain allied with Japan, a country that – shielded by the United States – has failed to adequately address historical injustices perpetrated during its imperial occupation of Korea.
The purchase of the F-35A must be viewed in this context – in the same vein as the introduction of the THAAD system, which itself is an unproven technology that strains South Korea’s relationship with China as well as North Korea. If the acquisition of flawed and untested weaponry is the price of the alliance, at what point does the alliance itself become prohibitively expensive, both in terms of raw tax dollars and the threat to regional stability?
It is bad enough that a supposed peace president not only fails to address this question; that he flaunts the dubious and provocative F-35A as a political prop is all the more troubling and indicative of South Korea’s unfortunate role in relation to the US – a loyal customer of US weapons above all, regardless of its national interest.
Stu Smallwood is a Korean-English translator currently based in Montreal, Canada. He lived in South Korea for eight years from 2008-2016 and has an MA in Asian Studies from Sejong University in Seoul. His writing has appeared at Antiwar.com, Global Research and the Hankyoreh. He can be reached by email at stuartsmallwood[at]gmail.com or through his Twitter handle @stu-smallwood.