The New Eyes in East Asia's Skies
Image Credit: U.S. Department of Defense (Flickr)

The New Eyes in East Asia's Skies


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.

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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.

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