Airbus Defence and Space has just confirmed a deal with South Korea to supply helicopters and in-flight refuelling tankers.
Airbus beat rivals Boeing and Israel Aerospace Industries for the $1.2 billion contract that will see the European aerospace giant supply the multirole tanker transport. This just after Airbus had agreed a $1.4 billion license deal for Korea Aerospace Industries to build Airbus Helicopter’s H155. Its speed, manoeuvrability and compatibility with military hardware, like night vision, make it the ideal multi-role helicopter for civilian and military needs.
Airbus H155 - Image courtesy of Airbus Helictopers
A source within the Defence Acquisition Program Administration based in Seoul commented that the A330 MRTT performed better than its rivals in a number of ways but its fuel capacity and ability to be refitted for troop transport or medi-evac were the winning features.
The victory is significant for European defence contractors as South Korea has always been very much the trading partner of the US until now. Politically it’s also a clear message to Pyongyang and Beijing that Seoul’s allies are not limited to just the US. The timing couldn’t have been better as South Korean troops were forced to fire warning shots on 12th July at North Korean soldiers attempting to infiltrate the demilitarised zone that separates the two countries.
Whilst it isn’t the first time North Korean soldiers have been spotted moving through the DMZ this year, it is the first time the South has been forced to open fire, forcing the North Koreans to withdraw.
The spokesman also commented that with the addition of the A330 MRTTs to the South Korean air force their fighter jets could make it all the way to Pyongyang in ‘the event of an emergency’. It goes without saying the MRTTs fully laden with troops could also make it that far too should the ‘emergency’ require it.
Airbus A330 MRTT refuelling two F/A-18 Hornets - Image courtesy of Airbus Defence & Space
As the MRTT is based on the commercial A330-200 plane it is easy and cost efficient to maintain. The sentiment is echoed by a number of governments including the UK as a reliable and cost effective refuelling solution. Other countries employing the A330 MRTT include Australia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, France and the UAE.
Officials within the South Korean Air Force commented that price was only twenty percent of the decision making process as the A330 MRTT sits in the middle range of Boeing's KC-46 price bracket costing $200-212 million compared to the KC-46 Pegasus' $189 million and $250 million price tag. However Airbus’ offering can travel over 2,000 kilometres further than the Boeing plane and hold 245,000 pounds of fuel compared to 212,299 pounds.
However specification wasn’t the only motivator and defence contractors shouldn’t perceive the flood gates to have opened just yet as a big factor was Airbus’ ability to deliver twelve months sooner than Boeing but still twelve months after South Korea’s preferred delivery date. There will be a lot of pressure on Defence and Space both internally and externally to deliver the goods on time to give European defence the credibility it needs to start dealing with its far flung ally.
Sources inside the South Korean government commented that South Korea are interested in tech-transfer agreements like the deal struck with Airbus Helicopter and this is something that the US are reluctant to do so are hopeful their European allies can accommodate.
Indeed it seems Seoul is being quite open about the fact that the South Korean-US relationship is weakening in part due to complacency of US contractors by adopting a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude coupled with their refusal to allow purchasing nations of the options of tech-transfer or internal logistical services. The latter nearly ended the US-UK F-35 deal until Lockheed Martin eventually agreed to allow UK engineers to be trained in the maintenance of the aircraft.
With most European defence technology now compatible with US hardware and vice versa the argument for exclusivity becomes increasingly thin. With components like universal missile mounts in active development it weakens further as in the near future aircraft can be armed with any missile without modification or an additional hardpoint.
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