(ATTN: UPDATES with defense minister's quotes in first six paras; CHANGES attribution throughout)
SEOUL, March 8 (Yonhap) -- South Korea will purchase advanced spy drones and stealth fighter jets and deploy them at an earlier date than initially scheduled as it seeks to bolster deterrence toward North Korea, the defense chief said Tuesday.
The move comes as tensions on the Korean Peninsula remain high following the North's two deadly attacks last year that prompted Seoul to vow to unleash a tougher retaliation if Pyongyang provokes again.
"We will swiftly acquire high-altitude unmanned reconnaissance planes and fighter jets with stealth capability to significantly improve our air power and boost surveillance capability against the enemy," Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told reporters, presenting a set of defense reform packages.
Kim said the North's military attacks -- the March sinking of the Cheonan warship and the November shelling of Yeonpyeong Island -- left "huge shock and scars" on South Korea, but the South must embrace the provocations as an opportunity to enhance its defense readiness.
"Last year, we endured North Korea's grave provocations, like the torpedo attack on the Cheonan and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island," Kim said.
"With the defense reform measures, now is the time to act boldly and wisely to make our military strong enough in the face of pending security threats," Kim said.
Seoul asked Washington last year to sell it U.S.-made RQ-4 Global Hawk spy planes and expects to receive final approval for the planned purchase from the U.S. Defense Department in June, a military source said earlier in the day.
"If the U.S. side responds favorably to our letter by June, we expect to sign a preliminary contract on the purchase of the Global Hawks by the end of this year," a source said on the condition of anonymity.
The South's military had originally planned to introduce the unmanned spy drones by 2015 but decided to speed up the deployment of the world's most advanced reconnaissance planes to strengthen its own intelligence abilities, according to the source.
A budget of 45.2 billion won (US$40.4 million) was earmarked this year to partly pay for the Global Hawks, defense ministry officials said.
Manufactured by U.S. defense contractor Northrop Grumman, the Global Hawk is a staple of U.S. military operations in its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The $45 million plane can fly at altitudes of 20 kilometers for as long as 40 hours, meaning it can conduct reconnaissance missions above North Korea that were impossible with manned aircraft.
At the same time, South Korea will buy 60 stealth fighter jets earlier than scheduled, said a senior official at the defense ministry.
Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter, Boeing's newly designed F-15 Silent Eagle and the Eurofighter Typhoon made by the European consortium, are expected to compete for the order estimated at 10 trillion won.
South Korea has purchased 60 of Boeing's F-15 fighter jets under the first two stages of the fighter modernization program, code-named "F-X," since 2002.
The South's Air Force will acquire stealth fighters throughout the third phase of the F-X project, and the deployment of stealth jets will be made before the original schedule of 2015, according to officials.
The two acquisition programs are among the 73-point defense reform measures drawn up by the South's defense ministry, the defense chief said.
As part of the measures, the ministry decided to allow the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to have the responsibility for managing military personnel of the Army, Navy and Air Force to enhance the interoperability of its armed forces.
In addition, the military will establish a division-sized command responsible for the defense of Yellow Sea border islands near North Korea by June.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been high following two deadly attacks blamed on North Korea last year.
The North's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island near the Yellow Sea border killed two civilians and two marines. It came just eight months after a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors.
The reform measures are also designed to make South Korea's Army-dominated military more efficient and improve its own sea and air defense capabilities, as the South is preparing to retake wartime operational control of its military from the U.S. in 2015.
As a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, the wartime operation of South Korean troops remains under the control of the top U.S. military commander in the country. The transfer was originally scheduled to take place in 2012 but was delayed by three years following the March sinking of the Cheonan warship.
In efforts to streamline the Army, the reform measures called for a gradual reduction of general-level posts. By 2020, the military is required to eliminate the number of general-grade officers by 15 percent, defense ministry officials said.
Currently, there are about 430 generals in the 655,000-strong South Korean military.
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