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South Korea dithers over Apaches

SEOUL, Aug. 7 (UPI) -- South Korea is reconsidering a purchase of 36 refurbished and upgraded Apache helicopters from the U.S. military for its own army, according to a Korean newspaper.

The purchase would help fill the gap created in March when one of the two U.S. Forces in Korea Apache battalions was sent away for rotational deployment to Afghanistan, the Korea Times newspaper reported.

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It comes as U.S. forces in South Korea might pull out their own battalion of Apache Longbow attack helicopters by 2012, according to the newspaper.

The withdrawal would happen when operational control of South Korean troops during wartime is transferred from the U.S. military to South Korea, according to a report in the Korea Times that quoted an unnamed "American industry official."

The USFK have 24 of the all-weather, day-night attack AH-64D helicopters. Armaments include a 30mm M230 Chain Gun, AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and Hydra 70 laser-guided rockets.

A big issue for the South Korean military when buying refurbished Apaches is whether their country's tactical data link systems would operate in the older four-blade, twin-engined Apaches, a source in South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Administration told journalists recently. Also, the U.S. military is pushing for South Korea to take enough spare parts for 30 years, something of which the South Koreans are wary.

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South Korea operates around 700 helicopters but most are outdated, according to analysts.

DAPA is also looking to replace the Army's aging Hughes 500MD TOW and Bell AH-1S Cobra craft by 2012 and has turned to the country's only aircraft manufacturer, Korea Aerospace Industries. It unveiled the first prototype of the Korean-built Surion helicopter on July 31.

The craft was built with technical help from Eurocopter, formed in 1992 with the merger of Daimler-Benz Aerospace AG and the helicopter divisions of French Aerospatiale. Eurocopter is a wholly owned subsidiary of EADS and has nearly 10,000 helicopters in service with customers in 140 countries, it claims.

KAI has said that the Surion, a $1.3 billion development project launched in 2006, could be further developed into a more advanced attack or gunship version, but foreign technological assistance would be needed.

Around 245 have been ordered by the South Korean military and the 1 billion pound project is said to be on schedule to start replacing the Bells and Hughes crafts.

Around 60 percent of the aircraft's parts, including the rotor blades and health and usage monitoring systems, are locally made. Eurocopter has provided gearboxes, rotor mast and autopilot as well as provided technical assistance.

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Surions, which carry 11 troops, will be used for troop assault, search and rescue, tactical lift and medical evacuation. A commercial version is also planned but not definite.

The attack Apaches were originally built by Hughes Helicopters and first flown in 1975. McDonnell Douglas bought Hughes in the 1980s and was itself bought by Boeing in 1997. The first Apache Longbow was in use by the U.S. Army in 1997.

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