Northrop’s Sale of Global Hawk Spy Drones to South Korea Stalls

The sale of as many as four Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) Global Hawk drones to help improve South Korea’s reconnaissance capability may have stalled.

The delay, combined with a potential reduction in U-2 surveillance flights over and near North Korea, might degrade U.S. and South Korea ability to monitor events in the communist regime, lawmakers said in a report accompanying the $662 billion defense policy bill for fiscal 2012.

They didn’t elaborate on the reasons behind the delay. The report said only that the possible sale “appears to have stalled” and that House and Senate defense committee lawmakers “intend to assess whether the risk of a gap in intelligence collection in Korea is significant and to examine alternative capabilities.”

North Korean’s leadership is undergoing a leadership transition after Kim Jong Il died Dec. 17 of a heart attack brought on by mental and physical strain, the official Korean Central News Agency said. His son, Kim Jong Un, is the designated successor.

South Korea was planning to buy at least one Global Hawk “to be able to have intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance type assets to look into North Korea,” General Walter Sharp, then-commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, told the House Armed Services Committee in April.

Spy Plane Retirement

The foreign sale of Global Hawk drones would offset program reductions that the Pentagon made this year. Eleven of the planned 55 drones in the Pentagon program were cut because the estimated cost per aircraft this year has increased to $113.9 million from $90.8 million.

The Global Hawk disclosure came in language prohibiting retirement of Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT)’s manned U-2 spy plane, which is less expensive to operate but doesn’t have the same endurance or ability to make longer flights.

Lawmakers directed the Air Force to delay the spy plane’s retirement until the Pentagon certifies Global Hawk operations and support costs.

The lawmakers said prematurely retiring the U-2 in the face of a stalled Global Hawk sale might result in an intelligence gap over North Korea.

The lawmakers also said they were concerned with a pending plan by U.S. Pacific Command that would result in fewer U.S.- controlled Global Hawks near Korea and more flying in other parts of Asia.

This move might mean “substantially reducing collection on the peninsula,” lawmakers said.

Global Hawk Commitment

Pentagon Korea affairs spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale said Defense Department officials “as a matter of policy decline to comment on potential arms sales until they have been formally notified to Congress.”

Randy Belote, a spokesman for Falls Church, Virginia-based Northrop Grumman, said in an e-mail statement that, though no formal letter of agreement has been signed with South Korea, a potential Global Hawk program for as many as four aircraft is progressing.

“We continue to work with the U.S. Air Force and have not been notified of any changes,” he wrote. “We believe the Korea and U.S. governments remain committed to the Global Hawk program.”

The unmanned Global Hawk is able to fly as high as 60,000 feet and is equipped with sensors and cameras that can take infrared and electro-optical images as well as detailed synthetic aperture radar-based pictures. It is designed for flights as long as 35 hours, according to the company.

Retaining the U-2 aircraft, which flies as high as 70,000 feet, may be necessary because the Global Hawk’s picture-taking sensors “have substantially less range” than on the older spy plane, lawmakers wrote.

A South Korean sale would be the second foreign sale of the Global Hawk, with Germany the first.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tony Capaccio in Washington at acapaccio@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.