The first South Korea-bound F-35 Lightning II was unveiled Wednesday morning at a joint ceremony between manufacturer Lockheed Martin, the Korean Air Force and the U.S. government. South Korea is the ninth country in possession of the Joint Strike Fighter.
The ceremony took place at Lockheed Martin’s plant in Fort Worth, Texas, which is also the aircraft's construction site. The Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) ordered a total of 40 of the aircraft. The jet, branded as “the most advanced ever built,” will next be delivered to Arizona’s Luke Air Force base where Korean pilots will train.
During the event, speakers from across industry, military and government stressed the importance of cooperation between the U.S. and South Korea and held the F-35 as a symbol of that relationship. In the translated words of Vice Minister of Korean National Defense Suh Choo-suk, “the building of this advanced fighter is not simply (about) the acquisition of fighter jets, but rather holds a symbolic significance of demonstrating ironclad ROK-U.S. alliance at home and abroad.”
Those sentiments were echoed in the comments of American Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord, who emphasized the two countries shared democratic values. “Programs like this are a testament to our enduring alliance and our common security interest in the Asia Pacific and across the globe,” she said.
The other main emphasis of the event was the F-35's capability. Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson referenced a sign in the Fort Worth plant that features of the fighters' image and says “Peace through strength – lots of strength."
Korean ministers, generals and pilots and American legislators all shared that view, singing the F-35's praises and noting the difference it will make in Korea’s defense capabilities.
“As I am standing in front of the F-35, I am reassured that no threats will ever jeopardize security on the Korean peninsula,” Choo-suk said.
He was joined in his enthusiasm by Lt. Gen. Seong-yong Lee, the vice chief of staff of the ROKAF.
“I flew across the Pacific filled with hope and excitement, and to actually see the F-35 in person emblazoned with the Korean flag — I’m overwhelmed with immense pride,” he said.
The only person who tempered his excitement with any negativity was the chairman of South Korea’s National Defense Committee, Hack-yong Kim. During his time on stage, Kim noted the problems Lockheed Martin has had with delivery delays, particularly expressing concern about international weapons system purchases.
Kim also made a pitch for Korean companies as second-tier MRO suppliers in the midst of the ongoing selection process.
In addition to providing a significant economic boost to South Korea, there would undoubtedly be utility for the ROKAF in having a local maintenance depot.
Doug Wilhelm, VP of F-35 customer programs for Lockheed Martin, confirmed that the Korean F-35s will be part of the same global support network and supply chain as all other F-35s. He also said that F-35 maintenance will be performed by Korean technicians, but that they will be trained by Lockheed Martin personnel.
Training of Korean F-35 pilots will begin soon in Arizona. After training, delivery of the 40 fighters to South Korea’s Cheongju Air Force base is slated to begin in 2019.