In a farsighted strategic move, the Obama Administration has proposed the sale of four RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude, long endurance unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to South Korea. The Global Hawk is the premier U.S. high-end UAS, in operation with the U.S. Air Force and soon, as the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) system, with the U.S. Navy. Able to operate at altitudes as high as 60,000 feet and able to carry a wide range of payloads including electro-optical, infrared, radar-imaging sensors and electronic eavesdropping devices, a single Global Hawk can observe some 40,000 square miles a day. A squadron of four RQ-4s will permit South Korea to maintain a nearly continuous deployment. North Korea’s recent successful launch of a prototype for an ICBM, which came as a surprise to Western and South Korean intelligence services, underscores the need for better surveillance of that country.
The proposed sale to South Korea would be the third for the Global Hawk and could signal the beginning of a move to provide this critical capability to major allies around the world. The German Air Force acquired a Global Hawk to serve as an electronics intelligence platform in 2009. In 2011, 13 members of NATO agreed to pool their resources to acquire as many as eight Global Hawks as part of the Alliance’s effort to create a robust airborne ground surveillance capability. Contracts have been signed for the first five RQ-4s equipped with the advanced MP-RTIP sensor system. Other countries interested in acquiring the Global Hawk include Japan, Australia, India, Canada and New Zealand.
Sales of the Global Hawk to close friends and allies could be the basis for the creation of a virtual global surveillance network. Operating out of Europe, South Asia and the Western Pacific region, the national fleets of Global Hawks could provide continuous surveillance of the world’s major hotspots, maritime chokepoints and sea lanes. Data sharing among the members of this unofficial alliance would go a long way to enhancing the ability of the community of free and democratic nations to respond to regional threats and even natural disasters.
It is important that Congress allow this and future sales to go forward. A misguided attempt by that venerable institution to prevent foreign sales of U.S. satellite technology resulted in a decline in the domestic satellite industrial base and the rise of foreign competitors. The key to maintaining an advantage in UAS systems and related sensor, communications and power technologies is a robust R&D program, not constraint on sales of current systems to friends and allies.