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US to Dispatch Medium-Altitude Drones to South Korea

The U.S. Army plans to deploy medium-altitude drones to South Korea, officials from U.S. Forces Korea announced Monday.

The service, in coordination with the Republic of Korea Armed Forces and the U.S. Air Force, will permanently station a company's worth of MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones at the Kunsan Air Base just south of Seoul.

The unit -- set to be active as early as next year, Stars and Stripes reported -- will be assigned to the 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, and will work to bolster intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in the region.

The Army didn't say how many aircraft would be involved, but the former project manager for unmanned aircraft systems has said the service aims to deploy four Gray Eagles per platoon, for a total of 12 drones per company.

The service eventually wants to purchase 152 MQ-1Cs, but so far has budgeted $5 billion to acquire 34 Gray Eagles, according to Pentagon budget documents.

News of the Gray Eagle deployment to South Korea comes just days after the U.S. moved in parts of the THAAD missile defense system, angering neighboring China. Beijing's Deputy Director of the Foreign Ministry Hua Chunying on Tuesday also responded to permanent drone station, saying now is not the time to "add fuel to the fire," when dealing with an already volatile North Korea, according to UPI.

The medium-altitude, long-endurance Gray Eagle is cousin to the MQ-1 Predator, and is also made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., based in San Diego, California.

The unmanned aerial system can fly for roughly 25 hours at speeds up to 170 miles per hour, and can operate at an altitude of up to 29,000 feet, according to the company. The drone carries 1,075 lbs of internal and external payload -- equipped with four Hellfire missiles -- which also includes electro-optical/infrared sensors with laser designation, synthetic aperture radars and communications relay.

The drone first deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010.

The Defense Department is working to recapitalize the unmanned aerial vehicle despite its previous setbacks. The drone had subsystem malfunctions early on in its tenure, according to Wired magazine.

Recently, General Atomics was awarded a $310 million contract for logistics support on the platform, according to a Defense Department announcement in October. In addition to building more drones for the Army, the company since 2014 has been awarded a dozen contracts varying from the next block of communication upgrades, to ground support engineering systems, to operations and maintenance work.

Last year, Inside Defense reported Congress even approved to reallocate $27.3 million to replace a Gray Eagle lost during Operation Inherent Resolve, the name for the fight against the Islamic State. The money allocated will go toward procuring three new drones, the site reported.

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