South Korea will purchase 40 Lockheed Martin's F-35A stealth fighters from 2018, with an option to buy 20 more later, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) was quoted as saying by Yonhap News.
JCS Chairman Choi Yun-hee held a meeting of top commanders to approve the plan to buy the 40 F-35 Block 3s, which are capable of conducting air-to-air and air-to-ground missions with internal carriage and external stations for missiles and bombs.
The software configuration is expected to reach the initial operating capability around 2016, according to the U.S. Air Force.
As the F-35 is sold only through the U.S. foreign military sales (FMS) program, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) is expected to purchase the aircraft through a government-to-government deal and without an open bid.
The total budget hasn't been confirmed as the FMS condition requires a foreign government to pay the amount specified by the U.S. government for the F-35s at the time of payment. Seoul had initially assigned 8.3 trillion won (US$7.2 billion) for the past program for 60 jets, according to the report.
The move comes as the Air Force has asked the government to buy the combat aircraft with a lower radar cross section, one of the key stealth functions, and advanced avionic warfare capabilities.
"The F-35A will be used as a strategic weapon to gain a competitive edge and defeat the enemy in the early stage of war," JCS spokesman Eom Hyo-sik was quoted. "The South Korean military will also use the aircraft to effectively deal with provocations."
For an additional 20 jets, the South Korean government will reconsider the required operational capability and security situations with a goal of deployment between 2023 and 2024, Eom added, giving Boeing and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EDAS), which participated in the past bidding, an opportunity to secure a contract.
Boeing earlier proposed a mixed purchase of F-15s and F-35s to minimize a security vacuum, while EADS highlighted an offset deal, including the transfer of technology and industrial participation for South Korea's indigenous fighter jet project in synergies between the aircraft procurement and development program.
"The JCS decided to buy 40 jets first to minimize the security vacuum and purchase the remaining 20 after reassessing the required operational capability in accordance with the changing security situations and aerospace technology," Air Force Brig. Gen. Shin Ik-kyun was quoted as saying in the report.
Shin said the stealth jet will play a critical role in destroying major enemy targets as part of the so-called "Kill Chain" defense system, which is designed to detect signs of impending missile attacks and launch pre-emptive strikes.
The move comes as calls have risen to acquire the fifth-generation jet as the Korean Peninsula is encircled by China and Japan, which are at odds with each other over territorial disputes and seek to expand their military power. Russia is preparing to equip its Air Force with stealth jets to counter the U.S. F-35s and F-22s, the report added.
During Friday's meeting, the JCS endorsed the indigenous fighter development project, codenamed KF-X, to be included in the mid-term defense budget plan, allowing the defense ministry and the state procurement agency to make a blueprint for system development. The plan needs final approval from the DAPA.
The military aims to complete the development of a fighter jet around 2020 with the goal of deploying it from 2023, according to the officials.