The Air Force's plan to withdraw some of its fully serviceable trainer jets from use has been called into question. Critics say the ``early decommissioning'' of the 17-year-old U.K.-built Hawk Mk67 trainer, known locally as the T-59, will be a waste of taxpayers' money.
The Air Force bought 20 Hawk trainer aircraft between 1992 and 1993 to replace its aging T-33 trainers. Currently, the service operates 16 T-59s at an airbase in Yecheon, North Gyeongsang Province. It wants to decommission the fleet in 2012.
With consistent maintenance and overhauls, aircraft experts say, the trainers will be able to fly problem-free for at least 10 more years, given the aircraft's normal lifespan of 30 years. The per-unit price is $18 million.
The plan is in stark contrast to the service's continued operation of F-4 and F-5 fighter jets introduced about 40 years ago.
A senior Air Force official told The Korea Times the decision was made last October as part of plans to inaugurate a ``tactical air control command'' by 2012 when South Korea takes over wartime operational control of its forces from the U.S. military.
The service subsequently drew up an ``Air Force tactical aircraft management plan,'' he said. Under the plan, the Air Force will replace all T-59s with KA-1 forward air control planes by 2012, after building more KA-1s, due to difficulties obtaining spare parts for the former _ namely integrated logistics support (ILS) problems. The KA-1 is an armed variant of the KT-1 Woongbi basic trainer developed by Korea Aerospace Industries and the state-funded Agency for Defense Development.
But defense experts and some Air Force officials rebut the claim.
``India, South Africa and some other countries are still producing Hawk trainer jets under licensing agreements, so South Korea could obtain needed spare parts quite easily and operate the aircraft for about 20 more years,'' an analyst at a state-funded defense research institute said, requesting to remain anonymous.
The researcher also cited the solid maintenance and overhaul centers in Yecheon and an airbase in Seosan, South Chungcheong Province, which have given the T-59s an operational rate of around 80 percent.
Hawk Mk-67/T-59 in Korea (photo : Flickr-Jerry Gunner)
``I've been told that the Air Force may offer T-59s for free to some Southeast Asian nations, including Indonesia, for future arms deals with the countries concerned,'' he noted. ``It seems quite unreasonable, however, because those nations could, otherwise, be potential customers for South Korean-made trainer jets.''
A retired Air Force general recommended that the Air Force use T-59s as light attack jets after equipping them with required weapons systems. Then the T-59 fleet should be relocated to Wonju, some 140 kilometers east of Seoul in the region of Gangwon Province, for air-to-ground/forward air control missions, he said. Forward air control aircraft conduct operations on the frontline mainly to monitor and detect enemy movements in the event of war.
``If T-59s are relocated to Wonju, they could be projected to the country's western region faster and more effectively to deter aggression by North Korean special forces by sea,'' he said. ``Once fitted with night vision equipment, they would be also able to carry out nighttime missions.''
The T-59 has a bigger weapons carrying capacity than the KA-1, and it's much faster than the turboprop plane, he added.
The Hawk trainer jet, which can carry about two tons of weapons systems, is known to be capable of conducting F16-level missions at low-altitudes, including close air support and counter-air-defense. Its armament includes a 30mm anti-tank cannon, AIM-9M Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, Mk87 free-fall bombs and rocket pods. In comparison, the KA-1 can carry only 14 ground attack rockets.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of National Defense unveiled plans to move a fleet of 12 KA-1 aircraft based in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, to Wonju, in line with the government's plan to build a high-rise amusement park near the Seongnam area.
It is also designed to help fill the operational gap from the recent pullout of a U.S. Apache attack helicopter battalion from the Korean Peninsula.
The KA-1's main mission is to help prevent North Korean special forces with some 150 air-cushion landing craft from infiltrating Incheon and other western regions in the South by sea.