South Korea's first F-35 stealth fighter unveiled at a sensitive time for inter-Korean diplomacy

South Korea's first F-35A stealth fighter jet making a test flight during a rollout ceremony, after taking off from Lockheed Martin's assembly plant in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 28, 2018.
South Korea's first F-35A stealth fighter jet making a test flight during a rollout ceremony, after taking off from Lockheed Martin's assembly plant in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 28, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL - The first F-35A stealth fighter aircraft for South Korea has made its public debut amid a series of diplomatic encounters ahead of an inter-Korean summit next month (April).

South Korea and the United States held a joint rollout ceremony for the jet at Lockheed Martin's assembly line in Fort Worth, Texas, on Wednesday (local time), reported Yonhap news agency.

The aircraft is the first of 40 F-35As South Korea has agreed to purchase in a 2014 contract. Each aircraft is reportedly priced at around 120 billion won (US$112 million).

South Korea may buy 20 more F-35s as the Air Force has requested more assets, reported Yonhap.

Defence officials said the production of the fifth-generation F-35A Lightning II represents a milestone in South Korea's combat readiness.

"Today is a truly meaningful day as we celebrate the rollout of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Air Force's first F-35A, the world's best fighter jet, which will secure the sovereign airspace of the ROK," South Korea's Defence Song Young Moo said in a video message.

"The deployment of the F-35 will serve as momentum to enhance the combined operations of the ROK-US Air Forces and advance ROK Air Force's support capabilities for ground operations."

On behalf of Song, Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo Suk attended the event, along with Lt. General Lee Seong Yong, vice chief of staff of the nation's Air Force.

Also on hand was a group of US defence officials, including Ellen Lord, under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, and Vice Admiral Mat Winter, programme executive officer for the F-35.

"This is a major step forward for our F-35 enterprise and our ROKAF partners as we deliver Korea's first F-35, the first of six F-35 aircraft that will be delivered this year," Winter said. "The F-35A is a game-changing capability that will enable the South Korean forces to operate side-by-side with our U.S. forces in protecting your nation's homeland."

Adding to the Air Force's existing fleet of F-15Ks and F-16s, the F-35As are expected to play a key role in South Korea's envisioned Kill Chain pre-emptive strike system.

Under the Kill Chain programme, South Korea aims to detect impending missile attacks from North Korea and launch pre-emptive strikes.

"Based on a superb stealth capability, it can also contribute greatly to deterrence by enabling a clandestine infiltration into a site anytime, anywhere and a selective strike," the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, South Korea's state arms agency, said in a press release.

The F-35A jet will be based at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona to be used for the training of South Korean pilots before it is delivered to Cheongju Air Base in South Korea in the first half of 2019.