WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea said on Thursday it will not send its F-35 fleet to Japan for heavy airframe maintenance, one of the two Asian hubs chosen by the United States to service the Lockheed Martin Corp stealth fighter.
Instead, it is likely to fly the jets to Australia for maintenance, about eight times further away than Japan and well beyond their operating range. The three nations, all key US allies, are the only countries in the region to have ordered the F-35s.
The F-35 programme has been lauded as an example of the United States and its allies working together to bolster inter-operability, but in Asia the maintenance plan is bringing traditional rivalry between Seoul and Tokyo to the fore. The three-star air force general who runs the F-35 programme for the United States, Chris Bogdan, told reporters on Wednesday that Japan would handle heavy maintenance for the jets in the northern Pacific from early 2018, with Australia to handle maintenance in the southern Pacific.
“There will never be a case where our fighter jets will be taken to Japan for maintenance,” said an official at South Korea’s arms procurement agency, the Defence Acquisition Programme Administration.
“South Korea has the right to decide where to conduct maintenance for its F-35 jets, and it will decide whenever the need arises.”
The plan at the moment is for the 40 F-35s to be acquired by South Korea to be serviced in Australia, an Australian defence ministry source told Reuters on condition he wasn’t identified.
South Korea will receive the first of the stealth planes in 2018.