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Moon reveals U.S. weapons purchase plans for next 3 years

Sept 25,2019
President Moon Jae-in outlined to U.S. President Donald Trump Korea’s plans to purchase many American weapons over the next three years as they held a summit in New York on Monday.

A Blue House official told reporters that Moon during the talks briefed Trump on Seoul’s weapons purchases over the past decade and “also plans for our purchases for the next three years.”

Moon is expected to have explained to Trump Seoul’s purchase of American weapons systems between 2009 and 2018. This is likely to have included the acquisition of 40 F-35A Lockheed Martin stealth fighters and three American-made Aegis combat systems, worth some $6.279 billion, according to data by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).

During the 10-year time frame, Korea ranked as the fourth-largest U.S. weapons importer, following Saudi Arabia, Australia and the United Arab Emirates, according to Sipri data.

The next three years, according to the Blue House official, refers to weapons acquisition plans while Seoul is aiming to regain wartime operation control (Opcon) from Washington by 2022, the year that Moon’s five-year term as president ends.

In order for a smooth Opcon transfer to Seoul, the Ministry of National Defense is planning an extensive strategy to build up the Korean military’s strength.

As part of its FX next-generation fighter jet project, Korea plans to import an additional 20 Lockheed Martin F-35 jets. While Korea had initially been eying purchasing the F-35A stealth fighters, F-35B jets that can be carried on light aircraft carriers are now looking more promising. The F-35Bs deployed by the U.S. Marine Corps have vertical takeoff and landing capabilities unlike the F-35As operated by the U.S. Air Force.

Korea is also considering purchasing maritime helicopters that can be carried on its destroyers with top contenders being the British AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat, the European NHIndustries’ NH90 and the U.S. Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk multirole helicopter.

The two European companies are concerned that Korea may select Sikorsky because of politics with the United States.

The Korean Defense Acquisition Program plans to enter the second phase of its early warning system project in 2021 and there is a high likelihood that Seoul will purchase additional Boeing E-737 Peace Eye airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, currently deployed by the Korean Air Force.

Likewise, Seoul is looking to introduce an airborne ground surveillance platform like Northrop Grumman’s Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, after 2022.

The Korean Navy also plans to deploy three additional Aegis-equipped destroyers with an advanced radar system by 2028, loaded with U.S. Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) ship-based interceptors or something comparable like the SM-6.

The summit in New York came as Korea and the United States kicked off negotiations on renewing their bilateral defense cost-sharing agreement in Seoul on Tuesday.

Washington has been pushing for Seoul to pay a much steeper share as the current one-year Special Measures Agreement (SMA), which determines Korea’s contributions to the upkeep of U.S. troops here, expires on Dec. 31.

Moon, during his talks with Trump, stressed the need to establish the cost of stationing the U.S. troops at a “reasonable and fair” level.

Trump, alongside Moon, told reporters at a hotel in New York on Monday, “We’ll be talking the purchase of equipment. South Korea is one of our largest purchasers of military equipment. And we’re working together very well.”

Defense experts point out that it is very rare for leaders’ summits to directly discuss arms projects. But Moon’s briefing on the arms purchases was a strategic move to help bolster Trump’s understanding on the weapons cooperation and also play a favorable role in the Korea-U.S. alliance and enable smoother defense cost-sharing negotiations.

BY LEE CHUL-JAE, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]