GREGG K. KAKESAKO / GKAKESAKO@STARBULLETIN.COM
The newest F-15K combat jet cleared the Honolulu Airport's reef runway this week on its way to the South Korean air force base at Taegu, 200 miles south of Seoul. By 2008, Boeing will have delivered 40 of the 63-foot combat jets to South Korea under a $5.4 billion contract.
Korea’s new F-15s delivered
The first of Boeing's fighter jets equipped with anti-ship missiles stop here in transit
Over the next three years, the latest models of the F-15K -- Boeing's long-range, multi-mission jet fighter -- will be stopping at Hickam Air Force Base on their way to their new home in South Korea.
These 63-foot combat jets belong to the South Korean air force under a $5.4 billion contract. By 2008, Boeing will have delivered 40 of them to the base at Taegu, 200 miles south of Seoul.
Maj. Youngsu Lee, a South Korean combat pilot who helped ferry the first two twin-engine F-15s to his country earlier this week, said there will be two squadrons eventually stationed at Taegu. The South Korean air force is phasing out its old F-4D Phantoms, which were introduced in the 1960s.
Boeing estimates that it will be sending two new F-15s to the South Korean peninsula every six weeks. Some defense analysts believe the F-15K is better than what U.S. pilots fly, because it comes with the latest radar, computers and cockpit displays. Lee said his government hopes to buy another 40 of the jets from Boeing.
Besides F-15Ks, South Korea is planning to introduce advanced Patriot missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, Aegis-equipped destroyers, aircraft warning systems, multi-purpose helicopters and other high-tech combat systems in the coming years. The buildup in South Korea defenses comes as the United States plans to cut about 12,500 of its 32,500 troops on the peninsula by 2008.
Gen. Paul Hester, Pacific Air Forces commander, said: "These F-15K models are a great boost in combat capability for the Republic of Korea Air Force. They also support and integrate well with the American forces located in South Korea as a part of our alliance. They strengthen South Korea's defense and add to the security of the region. Plus, having Hawaii Air National Guard tankers refuel South Korea's newest fighters is a great example of cooperation and compatibility between our two country's air forces."
Lee, 38, was among the first of four South Korean pilots who spent eight months at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base learning how to fly the F-15. The pilots had to spend another month at Boeing's facilities in St. Louis to get acquainted with the upgraded version of the F-15.
Ed Wilson, a Boeing senior test pilot, said the F-15K is the latest version of the combat jet that first rolled off the assembly line in 1988, and is made specially for the South Korean air force.
"Boeing is thankful we can produce this world-class fighter for the Republic of Korea," said Jim Albaugh, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems president and CEO, when the first F-15 was rolled out at its St. Louis plant in March. "It has advanced technologies and weaponry never seen before on any F-15."
Wilson, who has been a Boeing test pilot for nine years, said the South Korean version -- unlike the F-15E flown by U.S. Air Force pilots -- is configured to carry missiles normally used by the Navy to sink vessels.
Wilson said the F-15E is a multi-role combat jet fighter that can deliver air-to-ground and air-to-air missions in any weather. Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, which Boeing acquired in 1997, have produced more than 1,500 F-15s since the early 1970s.
Last month Boeing scored a major deal when Singapore decided to spend $1.7 billion to purchase the F-15 rather than its rival, the French Dassault Aviation's Rafale.
Lee, who has been flying jets for 17 years, said more sea-surface attack capabilities were needed to defend his country.
The F-15 "has very good capabilities," Lee said, "like precision attack systems and long-distance warning systems to protect the crew from its enemies."
Besides the four South Korean pilots, the U.S. Air Force also trained four backseat weapons officers, or WISOs. Lee said these eight South Korean officers will be responsible for training other members of the new F-15 squadrons.
The four pilots and four weapons systems officers graduated Sept. 9 from training in St. Louis, where they learned the differences between the F-15E Strike Eagle and the F-15K. The eight South Korean airmen started their training in June 2004 with six months of language classes at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
From there, the crew went to Johnson Air Force Base for eight months of transition and instructor training before heading to St. Louis for the final three weeks of training.
"While the basic structure of the F-15K is the same as the F-15E, the air crews trained with F-15K's modernized systems and advanced capabilities," said Wilson. "The aircraft the ROKAF (Republic of Korea Air Force) is receiving are the most modern and capable multi-role fighters in infrared search-and-track system to detect targets."
The F-15K can carry more than 23,000 pounds of bombs, rockets and missiles, and is capable of flying at two and a half times the speed of sound.
Earlier this week, the first two South Korean F-15Ks spent 36 hours in the islands after flying 8 1/2 hours nonstop from St. Louis. The two fighters left Hickam on Tuesday accompanied by two KC-135 jet Stratotankers from the Hawaii Air National Guard.
The Hawaii Air National Guard estimated that there would be three in-flight refueling missions for the F-15s during the 7 1/2-hour flight to Guam. After an overnight stay in Guam, it would be another 4 1/2 hours and two more in-flight refueling missions before the mission ended at the Seoul Airport in Gyeonggi Province on Thursday.
The F-15Ks will be presented to the South Koreans at the finale of the Seoul air show, which runs Oct. 18-23. Three F-15E Strike Eagles from the U.S. Air Force 90th Fighter Squadron stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska will participate.