Does South Korea Really Need the F-35?

Photo: Staff Sgt. Alexander Cook , USAF.

In a recent article a retired Republic of Korea Army [ROKA] Lieutenant General talked about how important the F-35 is to the security of his country. General Chun In-bum said: “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 [ROKAF] operates forty F-35s and is planning to acquire twenty more to supplement its capabilities.”

But he is concerned that political issues will make the F-35 even more expensive than it already is and it is the most expensive fighter plane in history. He continued: “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.”

Now at this point, I would like to challenge the general’s assumption that the F-35 is even  necessary for a country like South Korea in the first place, even with the upgraded original F-135 engine instead of a totally new one. Like so many military leaders, General Chun seems to be under the impression that only a fifth generation fighter can defend South Korea from North Korea. As a resident of South Korea for many years, I don’t see it that way. With all due respect, Chun is not a fighter pilot, he was an Army officer, and perhaps he has been swayed by the ROKAF generals that see the F-35 is indispensable. I would politely remind the general that North Korea’s air force doesn’t have fifth generation fighters, and is not likely to acquire them because of the emphasis on nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. In fact, North Korean air power is pitiful.

In a 2018 article in Business Insider, based on a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies [IISS], Alex Lockie argues that: “North Korea has a massive air force that outnumbers the South Korean and US jets it’s meant to counter mostly with Russian-made fighters and bombers, but in reality the force is basically a joke.” In terms of combat aircraft, the North Koreans only have a few dozen Mig-29s, and the rest of its fighters are “MiG-23 fighters, and its roughly 30 Su-25 ground-attack aircraft. ‘The remaining aircraft are older, and less capable MiG-15s, MiG-17/J-5s, MiG-19/J-6s, MiG-21/J-7 fighters and Il-28/H-5 light bombers,’ the report [from IISS] says.” Furthermore, the training of North Korean pilots is quite poor, says the IISS. “Because North Korea relies on China for almost all of its jet fuel, and that item has long been under sanction, it has to preserve the precious little fuel it does have. This means less flight time for pilots and less time training in the real world, and it almost certainly precludes realistic training against adversarial jets.”

This strongly suggests that the F-35 is not needed either by the ROKAF or the USAF in Korea. They already have a great air-to-air fighter in the F-16, which is operated by both air forces, and unlike the F-35, it is a combat-proven aircraft and significantly less expensive. The South Koreans are updating their F-16s to the F-16V version, which will make it even more capable. The USAF is also upgrading its youngest F-16s, which are more than a match for anything the North Korean Air Force can throw at them. USAF F-16 pilots need more flying hours, that is true, but are still far superior to North Korean pilots. As a resident of South Korea for many years, I sleep better at night knowing the ROKAF and USAF F-16s have the watch. The F-35 is simply not necessary here, and hopefully other countries will realize that too.


Chun In-Bum, “U.S. Allies Need A Stable F-35 Program From The Biden Administration” The National Interest, February 18, 2023.

Sebastien Roblin, “The Air Force Admits The F-35 Fighter Jets Cost Too Much. So It Wants To Spend Even More” NBC News website, March 7, 2021.

Alex Lockie, “North Korea Has A Massive Air Force: Here’s Why It’s Basically A Joke” Business Insider, June 21, 2018.

David Donald, “USAF Unveils $6.3bn Upgrade F-16 Fighter Upgrade Program” AINonline website, March 2, 2022.

Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters and Korea’s first Star Trek professor.