SOUTH KOREA is considering buying up to 12 Tornado fighter aircraft in a deal worth up to pounds 360m to British Aerospace and its partners in the three-nation jet programme.
This would be a plum export order for the Tornado, produced jointly by Britain, Germany and Italy under the Panavia programme, but it would also increase concern over the rapid arms build-up in east Asia - one of the world's most sensitive areas.
The variant of the Tornado the South Koreans are interested in is the ECR or electronic combat and reconnaissance version, designed for electronic warfare missions such as knocking out enemy radar.
South Korea has historically relied upon the US for most of its military hardware. But South Korea's defence minister, Kwon Yong-Hae, said yesterday that it was considering buying arms from other countries because of the US reluctance to transfer technology.
BAe manufactures the front and rear fuselage of the Tornado, the Germans the middle fuselage and Italy the wings but there are final assembly lines in all three countries.
If the deal goes ahead, the most logical location for final assembly would be Germany since it has already built a squadron of Tornado ECRs for the Luftwaffe.
But BAe's Warton military aircraft plant in Lancashire, which employs 11,500, could be an alternative since the Tornado production line there has recently been re-started to begin work on an order for an extra 48 Tornados from Saudi Arabia.
The South Koreans are already customers of BAe and are taking delivery of an order for about 24 Hawk trainer aircraft. Their interest in the Tornado is thought to date back about three years.
But there would undoubtedly be concern if South Korea strengthened its military capacity by buying Tornados. Talks are still going on to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programme amid fears it may already have the capability to make a bomb. Tension in the region has been further heightened by China's rapid arms build-up, which has encouraged neighbouring countries to respond in kind.
Over the weekend the Korea Herald quoted Kwon as saying: 'We have, to this point, been too dependent on the US for imports. It is true that US- made weapons are necessary for Korea-US combined operations. But I think diversifying the source of imports is inevitable unless current import terms, including price, are redressed.'
BAe declined to comment.
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