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Asian Arms Race Heats Up


South Korea will purchase 40 F-35A fighter aircraft from Lockheed Martin, the first installment of a large expansion of its air force. The stealth fighters will be delivered beginning in 2018, and twenty more aircraft, possibly Boeing F-15s, are expected to be on the way after 2023.

The F-35 is one of the most sophisticated fighter jets in the world today. It features stealth technology and design, making it very difficult to observe on radar. It is more expensive than the Boeing F-15, which industry analysts expected Seoul to buy instead of the F-35. But given the balance of power in East Asia these days, the South Koreans apparently thought it wise to spend a little more and go with the stealthier fighter instead. “We have changed our [requirements] because the next-generation fighter jets should be able to attack targets after infiltrating into the enemy’s territory secretly, and to cope with North Korea’s realized nuclear and missile threats,” said the South Korean joint chiefs of staff in a statement.

Across Asia, military and political leaders are focusing on beefing up their militaries. South Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, and numerous other countries across the region are buying up or developing new submarines, fighter jets, helicopter transport ships, coast guard cutters, defensive missile systems, and surveillance technology. Japan purchased 42 F-35s in 2011 and China is developing a plane with similar specifications, the Chengdu J-20. In addition, the Chinese have started publicly testing a stealth drone called “Sharp Sword”.

Needless to say this latest jet fighter purchase will further strengthen South Korea’s military ties with the United States. But the real story is the quick pace of militarization in the region itself. We’re not quite yet at the Guns of August, and moreover the parallels with 1914 Europe can and are routinely overstated. But with countries continually raising the military bar on each other like this, the chances for a tragic miscalculation from which leaders won’t be able to back down keep increasing.

[Image: the US Navy variant of the F-35 Fighter, the F-35C, conducts a test flight over the Chesapeake Bay; courtesy Wikimedia]

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