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RoKAF seeks commercial deal for F-16 spare parts

May 24, 2007 (by Lieven Dewitte) - The Republic of Korea Air Force is considering to purchase spare parts for its 136 KF-16 fighter jets under a commercial contract directly from Lockheed Martin or from other nations.

ROKAF F-16C block 32 #86-595 on the runway with a number of sister-ships. Note the special hi-speed HAS on the side of the platform [ROKAF photo]

Until now, the RoKAF has always been purchasing the parts from the U.S. government through a foreign military sales (FMS) program. They have however had difficulty securing them due to complicated U.S. administrative procedures and South Korea's low FMS status.

Despite its large arms deals with the United States, South Korea is in the lowest FMS group "major non-NATO ally" along with Egypt, Thailand and others.

Purchases made through FMS do have the advantage of a U.S. government guarantee of quality, but the disadvantage is that South Korea is pushed behind in priority, delaying delivery of the parts.

There is also the cost issue. Under the U.S. Arms Export Control Act those countries have to pay an extra 1.7 percent of the total cost of the weapons, far more than the 0.2 percent to 1 percent paid by NATO member states and favored nations.

According to a 2005 audit document obtained by a local news paper, budget constraints and lack of parts have forced Air Force engineers to cannibalize their KF-16s, replacing problematic parts with ones from other aircraft. As a result, the aircraft's operational rate fell from 89.3 percent in 2000 to 77.8 percent in 2006, it said.

Poor maintenance caused the crash of a RoKAF F-16 off the west coast last February. As it turned out, mechanics failed to replace cover plates of the engine with new ones when they last repaired the plane, a breach of the Time Compliance Technical Orders (TCTO), a method used throughout the Air Force to implement aircraft hardware changes. Fragments from a broken cover plate damaged and stopped the engine during the flight.

South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) also unveiled a plan to use aging U.S. components, including F-16 parts, from other nations operating similar weapons. But the State Department would still need to issue export licenses.

South Korea will also have to consider the liability questions. Buying directly from the manufacturer raises questions about who would be responsible in case of accidents caused by faulty parts. Under the FMS system, the U.S. government is legally responsible.

Lockheed Martin currently has commercial F-16 contracts with Italy and is said to be planning similar contracts with Singapore and Poland.

South Korea completed production of the 140th KF-16 in 2004 as part of $5.5 billion contract run as a joint venture by state-run Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and Lockheed Martin. Each fighter plane costs approximately $43 million to produce and more than $720,000 to maintain.