South Korea has embarked on a comprehensive drone development program in response to emerging threats from North Korea, fueling a heated and potentially destabilizing tit-for-tat drone race on the Korean Peninsula.
Last month, Janes reported that South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) had announced the production of a Medium-Altitude Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (MUAV) that is expected to enhance the military’s critical reconnaissance capabilities while also helping to boost national weaponry exports.
The Janes report says that production was launched at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) in Busan and was attended by representatives from DAPA, the Agency for Defense Development (ADD), the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) and South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
The report says that the plan is to deliver the MUAVs sequentially to the ROKAF, with the ADD signing a contract with the Korean Air Aerospace Division (KAL-ASD), LIG Nex1, and Hanwha Systems on December 21, 2023, to initiate production. The project’s total cost is US$352.4 million, according to the Jane’s report.
The Korean Times noted last month that the MUAV can fly at 10-12 kilometers and capture high-resolution images from distances beyond 100 kilometers. According to the Korean Times, the MUAV’s dimensions are 13 meters long and 3 meters high, with a wingspan of 25 meters.
Beyond the MUAV, Yonhap reported last month that South Korea plans to develop an unmanned rotary-wing reconnaissance drone by 2028 to enhance surveillance against North Korean threats. According to Yonhap, DAPA signed a contract worth US$107.1 million with Hanwha Systems to develop the rotary-wing aircraft by December 2028.
Yonhap notes that the drone is designed to be deployed from warships and Republic of Korea Marine Corps (ROKMC) units in northwestern islands near the border with North Korea for surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Aside from those plans, South Korea has also developed stealthy drones to penetrate heavily defended North Korean airspace.
In September 2023, The Warzone reported that South Korea’s military parade in Seoul showcased a stealthy flying wing drone, which could offer a less detectable means of conducting surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
The Warzone report notes that the drone could also be capable of launching electronic warfare attacks or kinetic strikes or even hitting targets directly as a kamikaze drone/loitering munition. In addition to building domestic drones, South Korea has partnered with the US to construct advanced reconnaissance drones.
In November 2023, Asia Times reported that South Korea and US defense contractor Boeing are partnering to develop high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). DAPA hopes Boeing’s collaboration, including on design and UAV technology, will enable South Korean companies to produce advanced drones.
South Korea has also established a drone command to integrate previously disjointed drone units, potentially limiting operational flexibility.
In September 2023, the Korean Times reported that South Korea had established a new drone operations command to strengthen its defense against North Korea’s drone infiltration last year. The Korean Times mentions that the joint unit based at Pocheon is composed of the army, navy, air force, and Marine Corps and aims to deter North Korea’s drone provocations and asymmetric threats.
These developments have been made largely in response to North Korean drone infiltrations. In December 2022, five North Korean drones penetrated South Korean airspace for five hours, with one of them reaching northern Seoul before disappearing from South Korea’s military radar screens and returning to North Korea. The infiltration was so unexpected that South Korea had to scramble everything from fighter jets to attack helicopters and propeller-driven planes.
North Korea’s December 2022 drone infiltrations exposed severe deficiencies in South Korea’s defenses. In a January 2023 article for 38 North, Sukjoon Yoon mentions that South Korea’s Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) architecture cannot be easily adapted to counter small drones in terms of sensors and interceptors because they were designed to intercept larger drones, aircraft and ballistic missiles.
Yoon says that North Korea has recently acquired a new UAV similar to China’s CASC Rainbow CH-4 and the US MQ-9 Reaper, both of which could be used for attack purposes. He estimates that North Korea might have more than 500 drones copied from Chinese and Russian designs.
Furthermore, in a January 2023 International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) article, John Dempsey notes that the North Korean drones used in the December 2022 infiltration match two commercially available drones in China, namely the Trancomm SKY-09 and Chinese-designed UV10.
Dempsey mentions that their dual-use nature puts them below a UN arms embargo on North Korea, with none of their components except a Canadian autopilot on one of the drones being subject to export controls.
Defense News noted in January 2023 that after North Korea’s drone infiltration the previous month, South Korean officials allocated $440 million for counter-drone efforts, including the development of laser weapons and a jamming system for small drones.
However, Asia Times noted last month that laser weapons have yet to live up to their promise of being an effective anti-drone weapon with negligible cost per shot, as repeated development delays, technology maturity issues, beam quality control problems, need for specialized facilities to maintain sensitive components, and lack of industrial base have prevented their practical use beyond experimental purposes.
Jamming may be less effective against drones with inertial guidance, as such systems can allow drones to maintain course or return to a pre-programmed point even if their command signals are lost.
The Korean JoongAng Daily reported in June 2023 that an anonymous South Korean military official said South Korea is determined to send ten or more drones to overfly targets in North Korea for every drone the latter sends over its airspace. Such an approach may signify a more aggressive South Korean drone doctrine in response to North Korean provocations.
As such, drone incursions over the Korean Peninsula are highly likely to become a regular occurrence, further spiking tensions and raising the risk of a drone-driven North-South clash.