By Andrea Shalal and Joyce Lee
WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea said on Thursday it will not send its F-35 fleet to Japan for heavy airframe maintenance, one of the two Asian hubs chosen by the United States to service the Lockheed Martin Corp stealth fighter.
Instead, it is likely to fly the jets to Australia for maintenance, about eight times further away than Japan and well beyond their operating range. The three nations, all key U.S. allies, are the only countries in the region to have ordered the F-35s.
The F-35 program has been lauded as an example of the United States and its allies working together to bolster inter-operability, but in Asia the maintenance plan is bringing traditional rivalry between Seoul and Tokyo to the fore.
The three-star air force general who runs the F-35 program for the United States, Chris Bogdan, told reporters on Wednesday that Japan would handle heavy maintenance for the jets in the northern Pacific from early 2018, with Australia to handle maintenance in the southern Pacific.
"There will never be a case where our fighter jets will be taken to Japan for maintenance," said an official at South Korea's arms procurement agency, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration.
"South Korea has the right to decide where to conduct maintenance for its F-35 jets, and it will decide whenever the need arises."
The plan at the moment is for the 40 F-35s to be acquired by South Korea to be serviced in Australia, an Australian defense ministry source told Reuters on condition he wasn't identified.
South Korea will receive the first of the stealth planes in 2018.
A source familiar with the F-35 program said South Korea could, at a later stage, negotiate with Washington on the possibility of handling the heavy maintenance of its own F-35 jets.
Such a deal would require a significant investment by Seoul, including specialized equipment used to test the jets' stealth.
However, barring unforeseen circumstances, the new jets would not require much heavy maintenance until five years after their delivery, said the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly. Heavy maintenance involves repairs that get into the structure of the airplanes.
“At the moment the regional hub in Japan will deal with the 42 Japanese F-35s, we will discuss with the Pentagon what others will be handled in Japan,” Katsuyuki Komatsu,, the Deputy Director of the Aircraft Division at Japan’s Ministry of Defense said at a briefing in Tokyo.
That discussion, he said would cover the F-35s to be operated by South Korea and those to be flown by the U.S. from bases in North East Asia.
Bogdan said the F-35 program office would re-examine the maintenance assignments every two to three years, providing opportunities for other countries with F-35s to benefit from a market valued at billions of dollars in coming years.
The $399 billion weapons program, has already produced 120 jets with the U.S. and foreign militaries gearing up to start operating the jets around the world in coming years.
In Japan, the airframe maintenance decision benefits Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which is already slated to run the final assembly and checkout plant being built in Japan at a cost of 63.9 billion yen.
Future engine work in Japan would be done by IHI Corp, which is already building engine components for Japan's F-35 jets, according to a source familiar with the program.
In Australia, the airframe maintenance work could be done by Britain's BAE Systems, although the Australian government could opt to compete the work, the source said.
"Australian defense industry stands to win well in excess of $1.5 billion in JSF-related production and support work over the life of the program," Australian Defense Minister David Johnston said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Timothy Kelly in Tokyo and Matt Siegel in Sydney.; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)