U.S. Allies Need a Stable F-35 Program from the Biden Administration

U.S. Allies Need a Stable F-35 Program from the Biden Administration

Before the global security environment takes a more dangerous turn, Washington would be wise to strengthen its alliances, instead of unsettling them with rushed political projects.

 

Now more than ever, America needs its allies, and its allies need America. As hostile actors continue their aggressive, increasingly militarized behaviors, the Biden administration must find ways to stabilize and strengthen its relations with its key strategic partners around the world.

Nowhere in the world does this hold truer than the Indo-Pacific. President Joe Biden has made this region as a key focus in his foreign policy agenda, as shown by the administration’s recent high-level visits to Asia. To meet the rising security challenges posed by regimes including Russia and China, America’s emphasis on the Indo-Pacific is crucial to its safety, as well as its allies.

 

As a retired lieutenant general of the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA), I welcome the Biden administration’s proactive posture towards our region. Key U.S. allies in East Asia including South Korea have historically partnered with America to contain threats to the region, and maintaining a robust military alliance between our two countries is essential to achieve our mutual interests of peace in this part of the world.

For reasons of interoperability and to maintain the highest quality armed forces, the South Korean military uses U.S. arms to conduct its mission to maintain peace. These include Apache attack helicopters, F-15 and F-16 fighters, and the F-35 stealth fighter. The South Korean Air force operates forty F-35s and is planning to acquire twenty more to supplement its capabilities.   

U.S. secretary of defense Lloyd Austin recently visited Seoul and reassured the South Korean government that the United States will continue to deploy strategic assets including F-35 fighter jets as deterrence assets against North Korea. This was a much-needed move against an ever-growing nuclear threat from North Korea, and it reassured many Koreans as to the credibility of the U.S. commitment to the region. Having said that, conflicting news from the United States on the F-35 program and its future is concerning, to say the least.

The main concern is the ongoing dispute in Washington about the F135 engine that powers the F-35. There are those in the Pentagon and Congress who have called for an upgrade to the propulsion system—and rightfully so, given the F-35’s need for better thrust and vertical lift—but there are also voices calling for a completely new engine system called the Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP). Thus far, we have seen hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for the development of this new engine and this year is a pivotal year for the future of the F-35 program. 

The proposed creation of an entirely new engine, compared to upgrading the existing F135, would greatly burden South Korea and other allies who operate the F-35. Not only would the U.S. military have to build out an entirely new infrastructure and supply chain to produce and install these new engines, but it would affect the procurement of F-35s, with the current engine, by allies like South Korea. If this year’s Congress authorizes this overhaul and leads to Korean F-35s being retrofitted at extra cost, this will be a huge strain on both American and global supply chains and would most likely force the South Koreans to cancel its purchase of additional F-35s, leaving Seoul with fewer deterrence assets when crises arise. 

In more detail, the estimated cost of this replacement program is approximately $6 billion, whereas the upgrade to the existing F135 engine will save the program up to $40 billion. It is yet unclear as to how much of that $6 billion will fall on the shoulders of allies who have defense cost-sharing agreements with Washington, but this much is clear: South Korea cannot bear the burden coming from the increased defense costs for this program. 

South Korea and the United States are engaged in a delicate process of mending their bilateral alliance that was injured by President Donald Trump. In fact, the former administration strained the relationship by demanding that Seoul pay more for the U.S. military’s presence in the region. The last thing both governments need at this moment is another call for Seoul to take on higher defense costs as it would derail the sensitive process. 

The F-35 program is not just a matter of domestic politics in Washington. The national security interests of America’s most important allies also hinge on the viability of this program. Therefore, the Biden administration must settle this debate on the F135 engine by focusing on the impact of a replacement program or the benefits of updates to the existing components of the aircraft. It should also consider whether it would be viable to replace the engine in the later future—perhaps with the introduction of sixth-generation fighters. 

Allies like South Korea deserve timely and cost-effective deterrence measures from Washington, not politicized arrangements that are blind to the ever-changing threats from our common enemies. More importantly, it is in America’s best interests to avoid souring relations with its partners by force-feeding expensive and premature defense initiatives.

Before the global security environment takes a more dangerous turn, Washington would be wise to strengthen its alliances, instead of unsettling them with rushed political projects. 

Lieutenant General (Ret.) Chun In-bum currently serves in many advisory positions, including the National Bureau of Asian Research, the Korea Foundation, the Association of the United States Army, and the Stockholm-based Institute for Security & Development Policy. Chun served as the director of U.S. Affairs at the Korean Ministry of National Defense and all levels of command to include the ROK Special Warfare Command.

Image: DVIDS.