By Ju-min Park and Joyce Lee
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's 15 former air force chiefs have signed a petition opposing the selection of Boeing Co's (BA) F-15 Silent Eagle for the country's 8.3 trillion won ($7.64 billion) fighter jet program, one former chief said on Thursday, saying the plane lacked the cutting-edge stealth capabilities of more modern fighters.
The petition comes after Boeing's F-15SE became the only bid eligible to be chosen in South Korea's biggest-ever arms procurement program, ahead of Lockheed Martin's (LMT) costlier F-35 stealth fighter and the Eurofighter consortium's Typhoon.
Lockheed and the Eurofighter consortium are technically still in the race but not eligible to be chosen according to current interpretations of local law because the bids were over the allotted budget. If the government doesn't approve the Boeing bid, the current auction must be cancelled and the entire process restarted.
The petition, which people knowledgeable about the content said was sent to the presidential office and to parliament in late August, adds to the unease among some defense experts that the selection of the Boeing aircraft may sacrifice air defense capabilities because of cost concerns.
"We can't just choose minicars over sedans because they are cheap," said Kim Hong-rae who served as the air force chief of staff in 1994 and 1995.
"Like the United States and Japan, we need F-35s as fifth-generation aircraft. We can wait another one or two years, looking ahead 40 years, with the finally selected fighter jets," Kim told Reuters, referring to any delay if the current process is cancelled.
The "F-15SE is still a paper airplane under development based on 1970's models, which raises lots of questions on the effectiveness" of upgrading the F-15 platform, the statement said. "Japan recently bought 42 F-35s and the crucial weapons system to deter North Korea's threats is a stealth fighter," it added.
Boeing's bid to supply 60 fighter jets was the only one below the price ceiling set by the country's arms procurement agency. The bid must be approved by a committee chaired by the defense minister.
The 19-member committee had been scheduled to meet this week, but that has been postponed, sources with direct knowledge told Reuters. It is unclear why the meeting was delayed.
The petition was also sent to the arms procurement agency - the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) - another source with direct knowledge of the matter said. The agency declined to comment on the petition.
The current air force chief of staff, Sung Il-hwan, told lawmakers last week that no matter what model is chosen, the current tender should be honored.
Experts said the defense ministry would take the veteran air force chiefs' petition seriously as criticism over Boeing's capabilities mounted.
"This could end up having crucial influence. Not only do these former chiefs have the most knowledge about the air force, at least two had directly overseen this project during their time as chief. The presidential office has to take note," said Shin In-kyun, president of the Korea Defence Network, an alliance of defence experts based in Seoul.
Boeing's U.S. office could not be reached for comment, but Dennis Muilenburg, president and chief executive of Boeing's defence division, said at the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit last week "we're confident in the bid that we've provided. It's an affordable bid, and also a very capable bid.
(Editing by Jack Kim and Matt Driskill)