November 11, 2013
Although South Korea has been seeking Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawks for eight years, the unmanned surveillance aircraft is now becoming all the more crucial to its strategy of dealing with the threat from Pyongyang. North Korean attacks on the south in 2010, combined with the mounting nuclear danger, have led Seoul to seek an ability to stop strikes before they are launched. The Global Hawk is now seen as a primary sensor for cueing a preemptive attack.
Four RQ-4 Block 30s should be delivered to South Korea in 2017-19; the dates are uncertain. A contract from the U.S. government is likely in 2014, following an intergovernmental agreement by the end of this year, say Northrop Grumman officials, although the South Korean defense ministry expects the intergovernmental contract in the first half of next year. Under the Foreign Military Sales process, which is compulsory for the RQ-4, the U.S. government will supply the aircraft.
South Korea expects to pay 900 billion won ($850 million) for the acquisition program. The defense ministry says it expects to “adopt” the Global Hawk in 2017; Northrop Grumman forecasts deliveries in 2018-19.
The aircraft will be delivered with equipment for imaging but not signals intelligence, though weight and space is available for the latter should South Korea want it and the U.S. agree to supply it. As supplied, the system matches the U.S. Air Force's imaging-only Block 30 Global Hawks. “There is no dumbing down,” Drew Flood, Northrop Grumman's international program manager for the system, said at the Seoul International Defense & Aerospace Exhibition late last month.
South Korea has sought Global Hawks since 2005 and formally asked the U.S. in 2009 to supply them. They will fill a requirement called HUAV while South Korea separately works on a medium-altitude unmanned surveillance aircraft, the MUAV. One obstacle to the supply of Global Hawks has been the Missile Technology Control Regime, but the U.S. government has decided that the informal international understanding, limiting the export of long-range missiles and unmanned aircraft, does not apply to the Global Hawk.
The UAV's synthetic aperture radar is of particular value to South Korea because the peninsula's mountain mists obscure military activity from visual sensors. South Korea's recently announced Kill Chain policy (or capability objective) evidently envisages detecting North Korean preparations for a missile launch and rapidly knocking out the weapon before it can be fired. South Korea does not seem to have said explicitly that it would act preemptively, but it must be inferred to give meaning to recent remarks by President Park Geun-hye—that she will make North Korea realize that nuclear weapons are useless.
Kill Chain was developed in response to two North Korean attacks on South Korea in 2010: the torpedoing of a warship and, more relevant to radar surveillance aircraft, the artillery bombardment of an island. The recklessness and aggression underscores fears of North Korea's nuclear capability.