SEOUL, March 31 (Reuters) - South Korea on Monday kicked off the process to buy four in-flight refuelling tanker aircraft, in a deal seen to be worth around 1.4 trillion won ($1.31 billion), with planemakers Boeing and Airbus expected to compete, sources said.
The purchase is part of South Korea's attempts to bolster its air defence in the face of rising tension in Northeast Asia over the maritime interests of neighbours such as Japan and China, as well as against an unpredictable North Korea.
The purchase will be made through a competitive bid process and bids will be accepted by June 30, arms purchase agency the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) said in a statement.
Boeing Co is expected to bid with a model that is based on a Boeing 767-level aircraft such as the KC-46 Pegasus, while Airbus Group NV is expected to enter its A330 multi-role tanker transport, two industry sources told Reuters.
Other firms could also decide to compete with commercial aircraft overhauled as tankers, the sources said.
DAPA will hold a closed briefing on April 8 to explain its requirement to interested companies. South Korea seeks to close a deal by the end of this year, a source with direct knowledge of its requirements said.
South Korea expects the purchase will boost its fighter jets' airborne operation time by more than an hour, the source added.
All the sources declined to be identified, citing the confidentiality of the procurement process. ($1=1,069.30 Korean won) (Reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)