The New Eyes in East Asia’s Skies

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The New Eyes in East Asia’s Skies

With heightened tensions between the major players of East Asia, UAV development and purchases could offer nations in the region increased military capabilities.

South Korea finally seems to be getting its hands on the reconnaissance drones it thinks it needs to keep an eye on its noisy neighbor to the north.

The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced in late December that Seoul is pushing ahead with its purchase of four Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawks, only 11 months after South Korean officials rejected the high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on cost grounds.

The DSCA notification, which does not mean a sale is assured but does mean that the U.S. government has given it the green light, notes that the South Korean government requested the UAVs and that the four Global Hawks will be fitted with Raytheon's Enhanced Integrated Sensor Suite (EISS), which features an electro-optical/infrared sensor turret and a synthetic aperture radar.

The Global Hawk is in U.S. and German service (the latter under the Eurohawk name) and is one of the largest UAVs in operation. Basically an unmanned U-2, it operates from 15,240 meters to 19,810 meters (50,000 feet to 65,000 feet) and has a loiter time on station of 24+ hours. The U.S. Air Force used it to monitor the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant after the March 2011 tsunami and earthquake, while the Japanese government is also believed to have “borrowed” Global Hawks to monitor areas of the East China Sea close to Okinawa Prefecture. (Japan is also interested in buying the UAV, with reports out of Tokyo saying that two to three could be inducted by FY 2015)

If the South Korea sale goes ahead, it will be notable for a number of reasons. First, it reverses a cancellation announced in January by the head of South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Agency (DAPA). DAPA Commissioner Noh Dae-lae said the proposed $899 million cost of the four UAVs plus associated systems was prohibitive. Cost is apparently no longer an issue as the DSCA notification estimates the new deal to be worth $1.2 billion.

Sources in South Korea have told local media that this price is merely the starting point for negotiations, although how compelling an argument this is depends largely on how urgently Seoul needs the Global Hawks.

This point brings us to 2015 and the handover of operational wartime command (OPCON) of South Korean forces from U.S. Forces Korea control to that of the South Korean military. The OPCON transfer was already delayed from its original April 2012 deadline after Pyongyang's 2009 nuclear test and the March 2010 sinking of the Republic of Korea Navy corvette Cheonan. Some retired officials remain concerned that Seoul isn't ready to run its own affairs if a conflict breaks out.

With that in mind, the Global Hawk purchase can be seen as the latest sign that Seoul is beefing up its own capabilities so that it could act in tandem with the U.S. rather than in a subservient role. One notable change to potential South Korean capabilities in 2012 was the deal to allow Seoul to develop longer range cruise missiles – a deal that the U.S. agreed to by relaxing South Korean obligations under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MCTR). That deal also relaxes South Korean obligations relating to both the indigenous development and purchase of UAVs such as the Global Hawk, which is classified under Category 1 of the MTCR.

The revised agreement allows Seoul to develop and field UAVs with an unlimited payload weight if the range is less than 300 km, while UAVs with a range of over 300 km will be restricted to a payload of no more than 2,500 kg. Analysis by IHS Jane's  suggests that the latter restriction will have no effect on South Korea's purchase of the RQ-4B Global Hawk, which in U.S. service is limited to a maximum payload weight of 1,363 kg: well below the 2,500 kg limit imposed on South Korea by the revised agreement.

With Japan's Global Hawk purchase apparently imminent and at least three U.S. Air Force RQ-4s stationed at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, the skies of northeast Asia are about to become busy with the latest in U.S. unmanned Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) technology. The intended targets of this technology – North Korea and China – are unlikely to welcome the attention, although in China's case, last November's Zhuhai Airshow made it clear that Beijing's no slouch when it comes to unmanned aerial technology, either.

James Hardy is Asia-Pacific Editor of IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.