U.S. Drones Too Expensive for Korea

Seoul is about to enter talks with Washington to buy coveted U.S.-made high-altitude surveillance drones, the so-called Global Hawks. Korea has been trying to buy them since 2005 but the U.S. Congress blocked their sale abroad.

On Monday, the U.S. Defense Department notified Congress of its plan to sell four Global Hawks to Korea, but the price is more than twice what Korea is willing to pay.

Korea is the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to get the nod from the Pentagon. Australia and Japan have also expressed an interest, but no decision has made yet.

The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency is asking W1.3 trillion (US$1=W1,074) for the deal, which includes four RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawks, parts, training and logistical support, but Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Administration has earmarked a mere W480 billion.

In 2009, Washington quoted Seoul W486.2 billion, last year W942.2 billion, and in October this year W800 billion. The U.S. says the sudden surge in price covers increased remodeling costs for sale to Korea, performance and technology improvement, and additional development costs.

But Korea remains optimistic. "In many cases, the price the U.S. DSCA notifies Congress of is the uppermost limit, far higher than the offer price," a DAPA official said Tuesday. "But if the U.S. proposes a much higher price than our budget in negotiations early next year, we may not be able to buy the Global Hawks."

Even if some kind of deal can be agreed, the drones would not be delivered before 2016.

Seoul has sought to buy the surveillance drones since the Roh Moo-hyun administration to prepare for the transfer of full operational control of South Korean troops to Seoul. But Washington was reluctant to sell them, citing Missile Technology Control Regime regulations banning exports of Global Hawk-class unmanned aircraft that can be used for missile development.

The U.S. administration later changed its mind but Congress blocked the deal.

The latest decision to sell them to Seoul may be linked to an agreement in October allowing Korea to increase the payload of unmanned aircraft.

With an operational radius of some 3,000 km, the Global Hawk can cover most neighboring countries and all of entire North Korea. It can identify a 30 cm-size object from about 200 km away at an altitude of 20 km using the high-resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) imagery system. It is capable of up to 36-hour surveillance flights.

englishnews@chosun.com / Dec. 26, 2012 11:01 KST