Image of USS carrier sailors taxiing an F-35 Lightning II (Source: US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Derek Kelley / Wikimedia Commons)

South Korea's Defense Boost Benefits Texas and Virginia

Asia Korea

Texas’ and Virginia’s heavy military industries stand to benefit as South Korea seeks a major defense boost, eyeing an expansion in its fifth-generation fighter fleet with the United States’ green light on a $5.06 billion F-35 deal.

The US State Department has given its formal approval for the sale of an additional 25 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to South Korea, bringing the deal's estimated value to $5.06 billion. The proposed package includes 25 F-35A aircrafts, 26 Pratt & Whitney F135-PW-100 engines, and various supplementary equipment. The equipment, including the F-35A aircraft, is known to have remarkable electronic warfare capability and the most advanced avionics suite of any other fighter jets (An expected commercial offset is linked to the deal, though specifics remain undisclosed).

According to a notice from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), the Biden administration emphasized the importance of this transaction, stating it "enhances South Korea's ability to counter present and emerging threats. This provides a robust defense mechanism to deter regional hostility and ensures seamless coordination with US military forces."

It's crucial to clarify that this announcement doesn't confirm a finalized sale. Such Foreign Military Sales (FMS) declarations, after receiving approval from the executive branch, undergo congressional review. Assuming Congress doesn't oppose, the deal's finalized quantities and financial details might undergo alterations during industry negotiations. Nonetheless, this deal with South Korea is expected to provide significant economic benefits for relevant states without a doubt.

Positive Impacts on Texas and Virginia

In a strategic move to bolster its defenses and counter North Korean provocations, South Korea’s plans to purchase F-35 fighter jets draw significant attention from defense circles and economic sectors in the US. Texas and Virginia, known for their robustness of the military industry, are set to witness a surge in economic activities. These lucrative defense contracts stemming from South Korea's purchase will inject capital, promote job creation, and spur further innovation in these states.

Texas boasts a rich legacy in the aerospace, aviation, and defense sectors, spanning over 110 years of significant achievements in powered flight and space exploration. Housing one of the largest aerospace workforces and producing nearly 10,000 aerospace-related degrees annually, Texas stands as a global hub for aerospace and aviation activities. The state is home to major aerospace manufacturers, and defense contractors, such as the NASA Space Center Houston, 15 active military installations, including the headquarters of the US Army’s Future Command in Austin, and Boeing, SpaceX, and Lockheed Martin. With over $1.9 billion invested in aerospace-related research and development (R&D) since 2015, Texas continues to spearhead innovations and advancements in the industry.

With this industry, Texas is the one of the many states that concentrates significantly on producing F-35s, contributing heavily to the state’s economy. The F-35 jet stands as the Defense Department's most significant acquisition program budget-wise, and it represented $12.2 billion from both procurement and research, development, testing, and evaluation (RDT&E) allocations in 2020. If this multi-billion-dollar contract with South Korea is approved, these aviation equipment, manufacturing, and R&D industries are bound to boom, creating more jobs for the Lone Star State.

Virginia’s defense industry tells a similar story. Virginia is known for its highly concentrated military industries in the state, along with government ministries related to national defense. For instance, Virginia is home to the Pentagon and Headquarters of the Air Combat Command, along with other major military industries that are also located in Texas. Considering that defense contracts had contributed 19% of the total statewide economic impact as of 2022, the recent F-35 contract with the South Korean government is likely to increase Virginia’s economic output, facilitating job creation and raising state revenues.

National Implications: Bilateral Military Cooperation of ROK-US Alliance

Such prospective deals underline the growing defense and strategic cooperation between the two nations. At the national level, this collaboration underscores the significance of the Korea-US military partnership. A fortified South Korea, equipped with advanced American defense systems, stands as a bulwark against North Korean threats, emphasizing the alliance's strength. For example, F-35s and the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) are all part of Seoul’s major missile defense plan. The South Korean government has announced its “Three-Axis System,” comprised of Kill-Chain (Preemptive Strike), Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD), and Korean Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR). F-35s play a major role in striking North Korean missile silos and critical military infrastructures as part of a massive retaliation, while THAAD is responsible for detecting and intercepting North Korean missiles at the terminal phase.

For the United States, the deepening military ties with South Korea reaffirm its commitment to ensuring stability in the Indo-Pacific region. It signals credibility as a major ally to South Korea based on the recent agreement of deepening security cooperation signed at the US-ROK bilateral summit. The acquisition of state-of-the-art defense equipment by South Korea not only boosts the American defense industry but also fortifies the US defense strategy, positioning a well-equipped ally in a region marked by dynamic geopolitical shifts. Bolstering South Korean conventional forces not only can deter North Korea, but also can work as a deterrence to China since the US missile defense system is installed in nearby South Korea.

In conclusion, South Korea's proactive defense initiatives not only strengthen its own security framework but also have broad-reaching implications for US defense industries and the overarching strategy in the Indo-Pacific. This symbiotic relationship underscores the vitality of the Korea-US military alliance in contemporary geopolitics.

SeungHwan (Shane) Kim is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a graduate student at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, where he is focusing on security and statecraft in the Indo-Pacific region.