Tuesday, August 4, 2009

IAF mulls purchase of South Korean fighter jets

By Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz Correspondent

A delegation of three Israeli Air Force officers will leave for South Korea this week to examine the T-50 Golden Eagle, a candidate to replace the IAF's veteran Skyhawk jets. This is the first time in 40 years that Israel is considering purchasing a fighter jet not made locally or in the United States. The IAF seeks to purchase 20 to 30 light attack jets to be used by pilot school cadets in advanced stages of combat pilot training. The T-50 is produced by Korean Airspace, in partnership with American company Lockheed-Martin. It took its maiden flight in 2002 and is used in the South Korean air force as a light attack jet and for training purposes. The IAF has been taking interest in the jet since as early as 2003, and the positive impressions gathered over the years have led to the unusual step of sending an official delegation to examine a non-American fighter aircraft. Other candidates for purchase include the T-45, an American model of the British Hawk training aircraft, and the M-346, produced by the Italian firm Alenia Aermacchi. At the moment the T-50 appears to be in the lead, as its performance matches closely that of the IAF destroyers, especially the F-16s.
The Skyhawk, set to be replaced by the new purchase, first arrived to Israel in 1968, marking the beginning of the American era for IAF, which used mostly French jets at the time. The Skyhawk served in bombing and close air support. Today several dozens Skyhawks still serve in the 102 squadron ("Flying Tiger"), and in the pilot training school. Last year an expose in The Marker revealed a series of flaws in the maintenance of the jets, which led to the temporary grounding of the entire contingent. Sources in the IAF said recently they have overcome those issues, but admitted that using such an old airplane was "disconcerting.


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