SOUTH KOREA - 2 MARCH 2011 Boeingâ€™s F-15 Silent Eagle, Lockheed Martinâ€™s F-35 most likely candidates for FX-III project South Korea is accelerating moves to purchase a high-end fleet of stealth fighter jets to counter North Koreaâ€™s asymmetrical threats and keep pace with neighboring countries seeking to secure their own radar-evading combat aircraft. Under the FX-III acquisition project worth around 10 trillion won ($8.86 billion), the Seoul government is seeking to purchase some 60 next-generation fighters with an aim to have them delivered for operational deployment to begin in 2016. The government is expected to draw up an acquisition strategy in the first half of this year, start receiving proposals from bidders early next year and determine which jet it will buy as early as August that year, according to Seoul officials. As the Defense Ministry failed to secure 15.7 billion won, which it wanted to include in this yearâ€™s budget to get the acquisition work started, in the face of opposition from the National Assembly and budget authorities, it was expected that the military would not be able to start deploying new warplanes in 2016. However, the Seoul government has recently begun moving faster to secure stealth fighters as calls have persisted for the military to acquire the strategic precision-guided weaponry that can handle asymmetrical threats from the North. Along with Japanâ€™s ongoing efforts to develop its own Advanced Technology Demonstrator-X Shinshin stealth fighter, Chinaâ€™s successful test flight on its first stealth jet, the J-20, in January also appears to have prompted Seoul to accelerate its acquisition efforts. Seoul also believes that the FX-III project should be fast-tracked due to projections that the Air Force may suffer a shortage of fighter jets after the mid-2010s when its aging fighters are due to be decommissioned. It estimates the Air Force may lack some 100 fighters in the late-2010s. The Air Force believes it needs at least 430 fighter jets of different levels to prepare for possible wartime operations -- some 100 high-end, 200 middle-end and 100 low-end fighters. The FX-III competition also appears to be in connection with the KF-X project, designed to develop homegrown battle planes that would replace aging F-4 and F-5 fighters. Observers here say that the Seoul government is likely to see how much a bidder can contribute to the KF-X project in terms of technology transfer during the acquisition process. Military officials and experts largely agree that stealth fighters should be introduced early as North Koreaâ€™s provocations continue to destabilize the security environment on the Korean Peninsula. â€œAs the North possesses nuclear arms for strategic purposes, stealth fighter jets will serve as our strategic weapons. Even if we would not use it immediately, the stealth fighter could serve as a strong deterrent against potential enemies,â€ an Air Force official said, refusing to be named. â€œNothing has yet to be determined on what we plan to require for the new fighter jets we will purchase. We will consider various factors including how to manage the current groups of fighter jets we have and how to replace the aging aircraft.â€ Experts also note that the early introduction of high-end fighter aircraft is crucial considering the possibility that the U.S. air support could dwindle after Seoul retrieves wartime operational control from Washington in December 2015. They also argue that the strategic weaponry is needed when the likelihood of additional provocations by the North remains high as it is seeking to portray itself as a â€œstrong, prosperous stateâ€ next year with the second hereditary power succession underway. Boeingâ€™s F-15 Silent Eagle and Lockheed Martinâ€™s F-35 are being considered as the two most likely candidate fighters for the FX-III project. Source: Herald Media Inc.