The government could abandon a plan to buy U.S.-made long-range, high-altitude reconnaissance drones because their price is way higher than the budget.
The government and military have aggressively pushed to buy the Glabal Hawk since 2005 to build up South Korea’s own reconnaissance capabilities in preparation for the handover of full operational control of South Korean troops from the U.S. in December 2015.
But the U.S. wants about W940 billion (US$1=W1,170), a senior government official said on Sunday. “We can’t afford to buy the drones unless it drastically cuts the price,” he added.
The U.S. nearly doubled the price it first quoted. Military authorities earmarked W186.9 billion for the project in 2007, anticipating that it would be possible to buy four Global Hawks for about W200 billion. But the U.S. in September 2009 quoted W486.2 billion and then doubled the price to about W940 billion in July this year.
The U.S. says the drastic hike was due in large part to lower demand in the wake of defense budget cuts. But military officers suspect Washington probably quoted an inflated price because it knows how urgently South Korea needs reconnaissance drones. “Will the public and the National Assembly accept it if we buy the reconnaissance drones by spending far more than we can afford, no matter how important the bilateral alliance is and how essential the Global Hawks are for our preparations to take over the full operational control?” a military source asked.
If the Global Hawk plan founders, there will inevitably be a loophole in the military’s own reconnaissance capabilities after the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command is dissolved in December 2015, making the country vulnerable in terms of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance over North Korea.
The military wanted to buy the Global Hawks to patch that weakness. The drone can stay in the air for 36 hours, much longer than the U.S. Forces Korea’s U-2 reconnaissance aircraft or South Korea’s Geumgang aerial video reconnaissance planes.
Moreover, the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft is highly likely to be decommissioned after 2012. Even though a Global Hawk squadron which was deployed on Guam last year takes off to reconnoiter Northeast Asia, there could still be blind spots because it does not fly over the Korean Peninsula around the clock.
In a questionnaire for the audit of the Defense Ministry, Grand National Party lawmaker Kim Jang-soo of the National Assembly Defense Committee said, “We now need to choose between two models — the Global Hawk and the Global Observer,” another U.S.-made reconnaissance drone, which is cheaper.
The military is also considering a homegrown medium-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle (MUAV) as a potential alternative, given that development of the Global Observer is not yet complete. The MUAV could be used for reconnaissance over the North if it is improved, despite its shorter flight distance and lower reconnaissance capability.