US President Barack Obama’s administration formally proposed a controversial sale of advanced spy drones to help South Korea bear more of its defense from any attack by heavily armed North Korea.
Seoul has requested a possible US$1.2 billion sale of four Northrop Grumman Corp RQ-4 “Global Hawk” remotely piloted aircraft with enhanced surveillance capabilities, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency said in a statement dated on Monday and distributed on Tuesday.
South Korea needs such systems to assume top responsibility for intelligence-gathering from the US-led Combined Forces Command as scheduled in 2015, the agency said in releasing a notice to US lawmakers.
“The proposed sale of the RQ-4 will maintain adequate intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and will ensure the alliance is able to monitor and deter regional threats in 2015 and beyond,” the notice said.
The US has agreed with Seoul to turn over the wartime command of Korean troops later this decade. Current arrangements grew from the US role in the 1950 to 1953 Korean War.
Seoul has shown interest in the high-altitude, long-endurance Global Hawk platform for at least four years. The system, akin to Lockheed Martin Corp’s U-2 spy plane, may be optimized to scan large areas for stationary and moving targets by day or night and despite cloud cover.
It transmits imagery and other data from 18,300m at near real-time speed, using electro-optical, infrared and radar-imaging sensors built by Raytheon Co.
The possible sale has been held up by discussions involving price, aircraft configuration and a go-slow on release of such technology subject to a voluntary 34-nation arms control pact.
The Department of Defense began informally consulting Congress on the possible Global Hawk sale in the summer last year, only to withdraw it pending further work on the make-up of the proposed export to Seoul amid lawmakers’ arms-control concerns. The formal notification to Congress came less than two weeks after a North Korean space launch of a satellite atop a multi-stage rocket, a first for Pyongyang, widely seen as advancing its ballistic missile program.
In October 2008, then-US secretary of defense Robert Gates told reporters that the US was “very sympathetic” to South Korea’s interest in Global Hawk. However, he cited issues that had to be overcome because of the so-called Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The pact, established in 1987, has been credited with slowing the spread of ballistic missiles and other unmanned delivery systems that potentially could be used for chemical, biological and nuclear attacks.
Pact members, including the US, agree to curb their exports of systems capable of carrying a 500kg payload at least 300km. The Global Hawk falls under a strong presumption against export under MTCR guidelines. The notification to Congress did not mention that a US government waiver for such an export would be required.
Arms-control advocates fear that this could fuel instability and stir regional arms-race dynamics as well as provide diplomatic cover for an expansion of such exports by Russia, China and others. The Obama administration agreed earlier this year to let South Korea, a treaty ally, stretch the range of its ballistic missile systems to cover all of North Korea, going beyond the voluntary pact’s 300km. The congressional notification is required by US law and does not mean that a deal has been concluded.
South Korea’s possible Global Hawk purchase would mark the system’s first sale in the Asia-Pacific region. It has already been sold to the NATO.