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South Korea picks Airbus for US$1.3b air-tanker deal

[SEOUL] South Korea chose Airbus Group SE for a 1.5 trillion-won (S$1.81 billion) contract to supply air-refuelling tankers, in the government's latest move to bolster air defenses against North Korea.

The A-330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport built by the Airbus Defence & Space beat Boeing Co's KC-46 and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd's Multi Mission Tanker Transport in terms of performance and price, South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Administration said Tuesday in a statement.

The European-made tankers "will not conflict with South Korea's joint operations with US military, because they will provide support in the rear," DAPA spokesman Kim Si Cheol said. South Korea hosts 28,500 US troops and in 2013 placed an 8.3 trillion-won order for Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35s.

South Korea plans to buy four air tankers by 2019, Kim said. A euro that has weakened against the dollar since the bid was announced last year has contributed to South Korea choosing Airbus, Baek Youn Hyeong, a DAPA official handling aircraft programs, said in a briefing.

Air tankers allow fighter jets to fly with more ammunition because they eliminate the need to carry large fuel tanks. A South Korean fighter jet's operating hours and range will increase by 50 percent with the support of an air tanker, South Korea's Defense Ministry said on its website.

Longer flying time also increases surveillance of North Korea's front-line artillery that moves in and out of underground tunnels in range of the South Korean capital, it said. Acquisition of air tankers would also help South Korea bolster its defense of islets disputed with Japan, it said.

South Korea faces North Korea over one of the world's most heavily armed borders, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce. In 2010, North Korea bombarded a South Korean island near the front line, killing four people. That incident has led South Korean military officials to vow air strikes should another front-line provocation take place.

Airbus had previously sold 46 MRTT aircraft to six countries, including Australia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Singapore and France, according to its website. Based on the Airbus A330-200 airliner, the tanker can carry up to 111 metric tons of fuel.