U.S. spy plane Global Hawk
By Jung Sung-ki
The government is considering dropping a plan to purchase high-tech U.S. unmanned spy planes because of budget constraints, an official of the Ministry of National Defense said Thursday.
Seoul has sought to buy four Global Hawks by 2011 as part of efforts to build independent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities for its planned takeover of wartime operational control of its military from the U.S. in 2012. The Global Hawk, priced at $45-60 million, is capable of surveying vast areas with near pinpoint accuracy from as high as 65,000 feet for up to 35 hours.Once introduced, the high-flying surveillance drone is expected to play a key role in monitoring North Korean activities near the border, according to defense experts.
``Acquisition of high-altitude unmanned surveillance planes is included in the Defense Reform 2020 military modernization plan, but no time has been decided on or what types of aircraft will be purchased,'' a ministry spokesman said. ``As the first three-year period to modify details of the military reform plan is up, all arms procurement projects including the acquisition of high-altitude spy aircraft are under review,'' he said.
The Defense Reform 2020 initiated in 2005 calls for equipping the country's armed forces with state-of-the-art weapons systems, while cutting the 690,000 troop level to 500,000, in timed stages.
Seoul's pursuit of the Global Hawk built by Northrop has been stalled as overseas sales of the aircraft are prohibited under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The MTCR is a voluntary association of countries that share the goal of non-proliferation of ballistic missiles and other unmanned delivery systems that could be used for chemical, biological and nuclear attacks.
Reports said the United States is pushing for revising the arms control regime in cooperation with MTCR members, such as Russia, Germany and Britain, to sell the Global Hawk to South Korea, in line with a U.S. plan to upgrade Seoul's U.S. foreign military sales (FMS) status.
``The United States is considering the request and it is moving forward,'' a U.S. military source was quoted by Yonhap News Agency as saying Wednesday. The source added Washington is expected to reach a decision before the year's end.
The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee passed legislation to ease restrictions on military arms sales to South Korea, Wednesday. The committee passed H.R. 5916, which gives South Korea the same FMS status as members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
The move comes weeks after U.S. President George W. Bush pledged in a summit meeting with President Lee Myung-bak that the White House would work with Congress to help upgrade Seoul's FMS status, so that South Korea will be able to have the same access to U.S. military technologies as NATO and other key allies.
Despite its huge arms deals with the United States, South Korea is in the third FMS group, alongside Egypt, the Philippines and Thailand, meaning it is required to spend more money and time buying American weapons systems than NATO member countries and FMS-favored nations.
The bill now heads to the House floor. It should also be approved by the Senate and signed by the President before enactment.
Under H.R. 5916, the Congress has 15 days to review proposed arms sales to South Korea, instead of 50 days.
Seoul, in addition to elevated status, will also benefit from a raised threshold for congressional notification requirements for NATO members and the three other countries.
For instance, the threshold for major defense sales was increased from $25 million to $75 million for defense equipment, and for defense articles and services from $100 million to $200 million.
The Congressional notice for South Korea was also waived for design and construction services sales of $300 million or less.
The legislation allows the U.S. President to exempt Seoul from non-recurring costs if an arms sale is deemed as advancing U.S. government interests in standardization with South Korean armed forces.