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Korea considers competitive bidding for spy drone acquisition

Global Hawk advanced spy drone on display inside a hangar. (Yonhap News)
Global Hawk advanced spy drone on display inside a hangar. (Yonhap News)
With the United States moving toward the sales of Global Hawk advanced spy drones at a higher than expected price, South Korea may adopt competitive bidding to negotiate a better offer for the high-altitude drones along with other potential deals on the table, a senior government official said Wednesday.

Seoul has shown interest in the high-altitude, long-endurance Global Hawk drones to conduct intelligence missions on North Korea, as it is preparing to take over wartime operational control from Washington at the end of 2015.

But the sale, which needs approval from the U.S. Congress, has been pending under a voluntary non-proliferation pact, Missile Technology Control Regime, which limits exporting ballistic missiles and other unmanned delivery.

The hurdle is expected to be cleared as the U.S. Defense Department has proposed selling South Korea four Global Hawk surveillance drones made by Northrop Grumman Corp. in an order valued at $1.2 billion, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

The price is nearly a three-fold jump from the initial price estimated by the defense ministry, and much higher than $875 million offered by the U.S. government in July 2011.

As questions arise over the current plan to buy the drones through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, a senior official said the government is considering competitive bidding to get a better deal.

“(The government) will reconsider how to purchase Global Hawk-level high-altitude spy drones early next year,” the official said, asking for anonymity. “Not only this certain aircraft but also other drones could be included in the procurement program.”

Although the Pentagon has asked the U.S. Congress to permit the sales of the Global Hawk drones, the official said the Seoul government has not confirmed the selection and has considered other high-altitude drones, including the AeroVironment’s Global Observer and Boeing’s Phantom Eye.

Global Hawk drones, akin to Lockheed Martin’s U-2 spy plane, may be optimized to scan large areas for stationary and moving targets by day or night, despite cloud cover.

The latest move is based on a study by the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis released in October 2011 that suggested change in the acquisition program to consider other spy drones, which are still under development, effectively calling for competitive bidding.

In response to growing concerns over the bloated price, the official said the South Korean government will enter into formal negotiations only after the price and other conditions required by the military are deemed appropriate.

The latest move comes after Seoul and Washington agreed in October to extend South Korea’s missile range to 800 kilometers to be capable of striking all of North Korea. Pyongyang’s firing of a long-range rocket earlier this month further deepened security woes in the region as Seoul and Washington believe the launch was a test for the North’s ballistic missile technology,

South Korea’s possible Global Hawk purchase would mark the system’s first sale in the Asia-Pacific region. Sales have already been made to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (Yonhap News)
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