By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON/SEOUL, Dec. 24 (Yonhap) -- The Pentagon has formally informed Congress of a plan to sell four Global Hawk surveillance drones to South Korea, a related agency said Monday.
The deal under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, if sealed, would be worth up to US$1.2 billion (1.28 trillion won), according to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) affiliated with the Department of Defense.
It includes four RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawk remotely-piloted aircrafts equipped with the Enhanced Integrated Sensor Suites (EISS), associated equipment, parts, training and logistical support, added the DSCA.
Such a notification to Congress is mandatory for FMS sales. Congress is expected to approve the plan, a diplomatic source said.
"The Republic of Korea (South Korea) needs this intelligence and surveillance capability to assume primary responsibility for intelligence gathering from the U.S.-led Combined Forces Command in 2015," the agency said in a press release.
It was referring to Seoul's move to take over wartime operational control of its troops from Washington.
The South Korean military has long sought to introduce the high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles made by Northrop Grumman based in Virginia.
The Global Hawk drone carries a cloud-penetrating radar, a high-resolution electro-optical digital camera and an infrared sensor, enabling it to detect 30-centimeter-long objects while flying 20 kilometers high.
The U.S. was apparently reluctant to sell it to South Korea, but Washington has changed its position amid defense budget cuts. The U.S. military has scaled back the purchases of Global Hawks, ratcheting up the need for exports.
Critics question the capability of the Block 30 Global Hawk for its price, saying the Block 30 version isn't as capable as Lockheed Martin's older, manned U-2 spy plane.
The U.S. Air Force hopes to buy the more advanced Block 40 vehicles to replace the Block 20s and Block 30s in its inventory, saying it wants to buy 15 of the drones over the next three years.
Related to the program, a Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) source said once U.S. lawmakers approve the deal, Washington will send a letter of intent that will kick off official negotiations. Talks are expected to start early next year, with Seoul interested in bringing down prices that have jumped roughly threefold from when the plan was first conceived in 2009. At first the price for the four drones stood at 450 billion won, but this rose to 940 billion won in July 2011, before it was marked up once again.
He said without going into details that if the price ends up being not what Seoul has anticipated, talks may drag on for some time. He said that the price forwarded by the DSCA to lawmakers is different from the "actual" price.
Originally Seoul wanted to deploy the high altitude drones by 2015 and had even considered purchasing similar unmanned long endurance reconnaissance platforms such as Boeing's Phantom Eye and AeroVironment Inc.'s Global Observer.
Besides the high price, Seoul will have to look into claims that the Global Hawk has flaws that may not have been fully worked out.
In tests conducted in late 2010, problems were found in the drone's fuselage, navigational system, integrated sensor processing systems, engine nozzles and the landing gear.
The builder said most of the bugs have been corrected but Seoul has maintained that it wants to directly check to make certain that there are no more problems.
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