Option to Buy Foreign Copters Scrapped
The Tiger helicopter of Eurocopter
By Jung Sung-ki
South Korea has decided to build about 270 indigenous light-medium attack helicopters armed with advanced missile and self-defense systems in partnership with foreign defense firms, a military source said Wednesday.
The Army wants to initially deploy the aircraft in the field between 2013 and 2018.
The Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) made the final decision last week after a 19-month feasibility study on the Korea Attack Helicopter (KAH) program estimated to cost between $5 billion and $10 billion, the source told The Korea Times on condition of anonymity.
The KAH program aims to replace the Army's aging fleet of AH-1S Cobra and Hughes 500MD TOW attack helicopters. It is also designed to help boost the Army's independent anti-tank and fire support capabilities after 2012 when South Korean commanders take over wartime operational control of their troops from the U.S. military.
DAPA had been weighing since January last year whether to buy foreign attack helicopters or develop the country's own aircraft with the help of foreign manufacturers. Many defense experts have advised, however, the latter option would not be affordable.
The agency commissioned the study by a private defense think tank, late last year.
The results also recommended Seoul purchase 36 older U.S. AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters to help fill the Army's possible operational gap before the KAH is completed around 2013 at the earliest, according to the source.
The agency wants to buy the older Apache helicopters for about $864 million, or $24 million apiece, and upgrade them to the newest Block III standard, the source added.
The U.S. government plans to offer for sale about 260 Block I Apaches in the near future, according to the Joint U.S. Military Affairs Group-Korea (JUSMAG-K), which coordinates the South Korean purchase of U.S. weapons.
International customers would be able to refurbish or completely rebuild the helicopters to the customer's preferred configuration all the way up to Block III Longbow models, an official of the group said.
Major helicopter makers in the world have expressed keen interest in joining the KAH program, offering a package of benefits for Seoul, including technology transfer regarding the development of sophisticated attack helicopters, DAPA officials said.
Among the firms eyeing participation are Boeing and Sikorsky of the United States; AgustaWestland, a British-Italian joint venture; Denel Aerospace Systems of South Africa; and the Franco-German consortium Eurocopter, a subsidiary of the European Aeronautics Defence and Space (EADS), they said.
Sources say Eurocopter is expected to have the edge since the South Korean Army's proposed operational requirements closely reflect the firm's Tiger helicopter.
The Tiger is a medium-light air-to-air combat and fire support helicopter used by the armies of France, Germany, Australia and Spain. Its maximum takeoff weight is 13,000 lb (6,000 kg).
The Agusta A129 Mangusta and Denel's AH-2 Rooivalk are expected to compete for the KAH program.
According to the information on the KAH issued by DAPA to the foreign helicopter manufacturers in April, the Army wants a twin-engine medium-weight helicopter that has a flight endurance of more than two hours.
The KAH should have a maximum cruising speed of 130 knots or more and be equipped with satellite-guided GPS and inertial navigation systems, and systems supportive of night/instrument flights.
The helicopter also should be fitted with radar, laser and missile warning receivers and an integrated countermeasures system. Armament is to include more than eight anti-tank guided missiles and 38 70mm air-to-ground fire support rockets, as well as a 20mm cannon and more than two air-to-air missiles, the document said.
In 2005, Eurocopter beat out U.S. maker Bell Helicopter and AgustaWestland for South Korea's Korea Helicopter Program (KHP) to develop and produce 245 troop-carrying helicopters.
In June 2006, the state-funded Korea Aerospace Industries and Eurocopter signed a $1.3 billion research and development contract, South Korea's biggest arms deal ever with a non-U.S. company.
Production contracts worth $4.1 billion will be signed around 2011, a year before the start of mass production, once it is clear how much technology transfer has occurred.