By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, April 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korea will resume a once-aborted program to develop mid-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (MUAV) to bolster its monitoring capabilities of North Korea's missile and nuclear programs, a military source said Tuesday.
The state-funded Agency for Defense Development launched the indigenous drone development project in 2006 and made a prototype in May 2010. But the project was put on ice in early 2011 as it overlapped with Seoul's plan to buy high-altitude UAVs.
As calls grew for reviving the 160 billion won (US$139 million) program to enhance South Korea's surveillance of the North's major military facilities, scientists resumed their research and successfully completed exploratory development at the end of last year.
"Following the successful exploratory development of MUAV, full-scale development will start this year," the source said, asking for anonymity.
Under the plan, the Defense Acquisition and Procurement Agency (DAPA) will open a bid for the project next month to accept proposals in the first half of this year with plans to pick a contractor to build a concept plane in October, the source said, noting the military aims to deploy the UAV in 2018.
The medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV is designed to fly at an altitude of up to 10 kilometers and its radar can scan as far as 100 km. The drone, which is capable of lasting up to 24 hours, however, has lower resolution than surveillance aircraft Hawker 800 called RC-800, currently used by the South Korean Air Force.
Separately from the program, Seoul has shown interest in high-altitude, long-endurance "Global Hawk" drones to conduct intelligence missions on North Korea, as the South is preparing to take over wartime operational control from Washington at the end of 2015.
South Korea is currently waiting for the U.S. Congress to give approval for sales of four Northrop Grumman Corp's surveillance drones, estimated at $1.2 billion. The system, akin to Lockheed Martin Corp's U-2 spy plane, can be optimized to scan large areas for stationary and moving targets by day or night despite cloud cover.
Military officials in Seoul say the surveillance network, comprising of instruments of varying capabilities, can put a close tab on the communist North, which conducted its third nuclear test in February and threatened pre-emptive strikes against the South and the U.S.
"If South Korea uses both high-altitude UAVs imported from overseas and indigenously-developed medium-altitude UAVs, it would enhance surveillance capability," a senior Air Force official spoke on the condition of anonymity for the record.
The official said a multi-UAV system will allow South Korea to establish an advanced missile defense system, a so-called "kill chain," which is designed to detect, target, and destroy incoming missiles.
The system involves spy satellites, surveillance drones for monitoring and attack systems including missile, fighter jets and warships.
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