Lockheed Should Do Its Part
By Oh young-jin
Assistant Managing Editor
What upset me more than Japan's 2-14 rout of Korea in the ongoing World Baseball Classic was the crash of the T-50 Golden Eagle advanced tactical trainer in a two-way dogfight to get a $1.3 billion deal offered by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Korea beat Japan 1-0 in their follow-up match but I am not sure of Golden Eagle's chance of a winning bid in Singapore in September and Iraq and Poland in the coming months, unless Lockheed Martin, the co-developer of the supersonic trainer with the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), holds its end of the bargain.
The best Lockheed can do right now is plug their joint project to the United States.
First, there are few operational or technical problems for the U.S. Air Force in adopting T-50 as a replacement for its aging fleet of jet trainers.
The aircraft itself has been built on Lockheed designs, starting as an ``offset'' program coming with Korea's purchase, assembly and license production of 120 F-16Ks, Lockheed's upgraded model, at a cost of billions of dollars, excluding its provision of spare parts for maintenance purposes.
Thus, avionics and other key components are U.S.-designed and meet its air force's operational requirements. T-50 will have no problem in interoperability or compatibility with the U.S. Air Force's F-18A Super Hornets and F-22 Raptors, as well as F-35 JSF. Lockheed is the main contractor of both F-22 and F-35 Lightning II, the future mainstay of the U.S. Armed Forces.
As a matter of fact, U.S. pilots test-flew them and gave their thumbs-up.
The benefit of the U.S. Air Force's T-50 adoption is obvious, giving Korea's first jet what it lacks most ― a seal of approval at the highest level. Once the U.S. Air Force takes it, prospective buyers would instantly recognize this. Singapore could be a shoo-in for T-50 and Poland, also aspiring for closer ties with the United States, also would give it a closer look. Iraq would be like ``being in the bag.''
Of course, there is a slight problem with this rosy scenario.
Is Lockheed so committed to T-50 as to put pressure on its government to buy some? The leading U.S. defense contractor has business interests all over the world. In the global defense procurement market, today's rivals can be customers tomorrow. For instance, Alenia Aermacchi's M346 of Italy is a rival to T-50, but the Italian company, or the Italian armed forces, may be a buyer of important components or whole kits from a wide selection offered by ``Lockheed Department Store of Military Hardware.''
But Korea has a couple of levers to pull to make Lockheed act.
First, the Korean government can tie its future military acquisitions from Lockheed with its degree of effort to promote the sale of T-50. Of course, it requires subtle approaches for two reasons. First, the military acquisition market is not always a buyer's market. Korea may be eager to want Lockheed-made F-22s for its air force's future fleet, but the United States wouldn't necessarily be happy with the Korean orders, perhaps considering the premature transfer of sensitive military technology to third countries.
In this case, Korea can play European cards. Europe has a range of weaponry just about matching the United States. In previous big weapons purchases, Korea often played the United States against Europe to get a better deal in localization portions, or in terms of prices. In most cases, however, Korea ended up buying U.S.-made weapons because of its ``special'' relationship. U.S. troops have played a key role in the defense of Korea against North Korea, a leverage Washington rarely fails to use to steer Korea toward buying things made in the United States.
Then, direct appeals to the U.S. government during summits or high-level meetings can also help. Korea has recorded a big deficit on the weapons trade account with the United States. If U.S. senators from farming or automotive states knew of the size of surpluses, they might rethink their opposition to the ratification of KORUS FTA.
To give a better chance to T-50, KAI, the main contractor, has first to improve the transparency in its operations. It caught many by surprise, when UAE officials told the Korean National Assembly Speaker Kim Hyung-o during his Middle Eastern swing that they hadn't heard from Korea for months.
An experienced procurement official told me that it was against the basic code of business. ``Your prospective buyers are kept posted at all times. Leaving them out of the loop for months is like giving up on a bid.''
That hiatus came in the middle of a government transition. It is fortunate that Cheong Wa Dae is also giving the T-50 sale priority. Considering the UAE deal was folded because of the usual KAI secrecy-first policy, it is time to go unconventional about marketing ― going open and gaining more publicity. Korea's 1-0 revenge on Japan was attributed to coach Kim In-shik's tactical change. Why not so with T-50? The problem is that KAI doesn't have a coach Kim in its current management setup. But one can be scouted from outside, can't they?