WASHINGTON, Nov 4 (Reuters) - A retired top U.S. Air Forcegeneral on Monday said South Korea will need Boeing Co F-15 fighter jets in the short term since Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 will not be able to carry a full load of weaponsuntil after South Korea needs to replace its aging F-4 and F-5fighters.
Ron Fogleman, who works as a consultant to Boeing and alsoheads the board of Alliant Techsystems Inc, a big F-35supplier, said South Korea would eventually need some F-35s,with their greater "stealth" or ability to evade enemy radar.
But Boeing's F-15 offered South Korea the ability to carrymore weapons than the F-35 when it starts to retire its currentF-4 and F-5 fighters in 2016 and 2017, given delays in thedevelopment of the F-35 software.
"You can buy a stealthy airplane, but if it doesn't have alot of combat capability you kind of have a paper tiger,"Fogleman told reporters.
South Korea is now reexamining its requirements for a $7.2billion fighter competition, after an acquisition task forcelast month rejected a bid to buy the Boeing F-15 because thecountry needed more stealth capability.
Seoul is expected to reaffirm in coming weeks that it needsradar-evading capabilities like those offered by the F-35,according to sources familiar with the process.
However, Boeing and its supporters are pressing for a splitbuy of both F-15s and F-35s.
Fogleman, Air Force chief of staff from 1994 to 1997 and whoheaded the combined U.S.-Korean air forces from 1990 to 1992,said the F-35 would not be able to carry its full range ofweapons until the 2020s after Lockheed completes work on thefinal 3F software being developed for the plane.
Lockheed did not immediately comment on the timeline for thesoftware but has previously said it is working to complete thesoftware as quickly as possible.
Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall last week said theF-35 program was making progress, but he remained concernedabout development of the plane's software, particularly thefinal 3F version, which he said was "behind schedule."
The early 2B software will allow the F-35 to carry twoAIM-120 air-to-air missiles and two 1,000-pound satellite-guidedbombs, or Joint Direct Attack Munitions, according to thePentagon's F-35 program office.
The Navy says it will wait until late 2018 or early 2019,when the 3F software is done and the plane has its full combatcapability, including the ability to carry a 2,000-pound JDAM, astand-off weapon, and external weapons.
Fogleman, who says he has "a foot in two camps" on the SouthKorean competition, said the Navy's decision underscored thatthe F-35 would not reach its full combat capability until wellafter 2017, when South Korea says it needs new fighter jets.
Backers of the F-35 argue that even the early software willgive military users more electronic warfare and othercapabilities than any other fighter available today, in additionto being nearly invisible to enemy radar.
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