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South Korea: Fuel shortage cutting into air training

The defense ministry said yesterday that it was short of fuel for the military's aircraft and naval ships as budget constraints continue to bite.

The ministry said that it has reduced flight training hours for its pilots; for example, fighter pilots have seen their annual flight time reduced from the mandated 160 hours to 145 hours. Air Force officers said it cost about 2.8 million won ($2,400) to fuel a one-hour flight of an F-4 Phantom jet fighter.

The ministry said that before the financial crisis of 1997-98, the ministry had a budget sufficient to supply the equivalent of 5.86 million barrels of oil for fuel. By last year, that budget for fuel had shrunk to allow the purchase of only 4.99 million barrels, about a 15-percent reduction.

The need to upgrade Korea's military systems is equally pressing, ministry officials said, and they were not able to move budgeted funds away from those purchases to supply more fuel.

The ministry has coped by reducing flight hours and the amount of ammunition made available for live fire exercises. That ammunition supply has been reduced by about 12 percent since 1997, officials said.

Because of the increase in fuel prices recently, the ministry said, there appears to be no quick end to the shortages. It said it would try to cope with the shortages by relying more on flight simulators for pilot training.

But a ministry official said nothing could replace actual cockpit time to keep airmen's skills honed.

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