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The Coming drone wars on the Korean Peninsula and beyond


The Coming drone wars on the Korean Peninsula and beyond

Following the publication of the information concerning the new DPRK Saetbyul drones, which turned out to be nearly Global Hawk-type drones and Reaper-type drones, part of the audience asked the author to expound on this topic: what is the combat potential of DPRK UAVs in general? How is this going to be dealt with by South Korea? How will the widespread use of drones affect the revolution in military affairs?

Let’s recall the timeline of events. On December 26, 2022, five North Korean small reconnaissance drones invaded South Korean airspace, and the South responded by sending its drones into North Korean airspace. As the drones could not be stopped and one of them breached the no-fly zone near the Yongsan Presidential Office, the South Korean media avidly debated the situation.

The invasion startled authorities by exposing the inadequacies of Seoul’s air defenses and small drone detection systems. Meanwhile, the drones might theoretically carry lethal weaponry aimed at vital locations in the South.

The United Nations Command on the Korean Peninsula ended its investigation of the incident on January 25, 2023: both the North and the South were formally found guilty of violating the 1953 Ceasefire Agreement by using drones to cross the boundary between both Koreas. The ruling highlighted that adhering to the provisions of the armistice is “necessary” to prevent the likelihood of both accidental and intentional occurrences, as well as to keep the Korean Peninsula at peace.

The South Korean military emphasized that Seoul’s actions were merely an exercise of its right to self-defense, which is not a violation of the ceasefire agreement, while General Paul LaCamera, Commander, UN Command; Commander, United States-Republic of Korea Combined Forces Command, was reluctant to publicly announce the findings of the investigation. However, the North spoke in a similar manner about “self-defense measures.”

In late January, the South Korean Minister of National Defense briefed to parliament the reasons why the South’s air defense system was unable to eliminate North Korea’s drones, which likewise silently retreated. According to the findings of the investigation, the main reasons were a lack of experience and practice in repelling such provocations from North Korea (DPRK).

It turned out that when one of the unmanned aerial vehicles crossed the inter-Korean border, personnel from the First Army Corps were the first to notice it, but they failed to recognize it as an emergency scenario that would have activated crucial systems for rapid information sharing among pertinent military units. The wrong decision was made because it was challenging to distinguish what appeared to be a small flying object appearing on the radar and mysteriously disappearing from it. It is technically challenging to find a tiny drone among these radar traces.

The operational drone countermeasures system subsequently established operational limits based on the flying characteristics and speeds of the adversary drones. A lack of proper preparation for drone penetration, inadequacies in information exchange amongst the participating military units, and a lack of efficient detection and interception tools were further contributing factors.

Finally, due to concerns over the North’s weapons of mass destruction, the threat posed by small North Korean drones has faded.

To address these drawbacks, the plan is to increase annual air defense drills from two to four times per year, modify their program to use drones the size of North Korean unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), conduct training exercises to integrate and control all available forces, and transition to a system of early drone detection, deterrence, and mid-air defeat.

Furthermore, the military stated that, despite entering the no-fly zone surrounding the presidential office, the North Korean drone would not have been able to clearly video the area due to its cruising height and camera quality.

In June 2023, the South Korean government passed a document that will establish a military’s new drone operations command within the country’s armed forces by September. The new structure will address both defensive and offensive challenges. These include surveillance and reconnaissance, strike operations on North Korean territory (including kamikaze drones), psychological warfare, EW, and an effective and exhaustive response to a possible incursion of North Korean aircraft into South Korean airspace to prevent a repeat of the December 2022 incident.

According to the plan, the envisioned drone operations command will be tasked with a wide range of missions, which drones of various types are expected to accomplish. Surveillance, reconnaissance, strike operations, electronic warfare, and psychological warfare are all functions of the command, including conceptualizing the further development and use of drones for military purposes.

On June 20, 2023, ROK Prime Minister Han Duck-soo called on the Defense Ministry and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to “make every effort to ensure the new drone command can be launched without a hitch so that it can carry out perfect operations early.”

On the same day, June 20, 2023, ROK media reported that the South Korean military had adopted an aggressive policy toward North Korean drones, stating that the penetration of one North Korean drone would prompt them to “send 10 or more drones to Pyongyang and have them fly over key targets there if North Korea sent one drone into Seoul’s skies.”

To do this, they plan to purchase 100 small drones that can cover all of North Korea for reconnaissance operations. The small drones will be equipped with advanced systems, including a GPS device, an inertial guidance system that will allow the mission to continue if the control signal is lost from the ground, and a program designed to burn the data storage if it crashes in North Korea.

In addition, the ROK military already has a sufficient number of long-range reconnaissance UAVs equipped with solar panels as a power source and plans to intensify work on stealth drones made using stealth technologies during 2023.

The Korean Defense Development Agency announced its intention to tender for a 48 billion 550 million won (about $37 million) project for an integrated drone defense system on July 6, 2023. The defense system will identify small unmanned aerial vehicles and employ a soft kill approach to incapacitate them with electromagnetic radiation.

There are two methods for eliminating enemy drones: the gentle kill system and the hard kill system. Soft kill system refers to jamming suppression by providing certain signals to interfere with an enemy drone’s ability to receive and transmit signals. A hard kill system involves physically incapacitating a drone by shooting it down.

Western experts who do not comprehend the DPRK’s technical level, of course, did not miss the opportunity to accuse the North of duplicating or simply stealing something, if it is not mockups at all. In fact, even successfully replicating something, not in a single copy but at the level of a model in active service with the army, necessitates an entirely new degree of engineering and technical foundation. The former is in charge of successful localization, while the latter is in charge of mass production. As a result, researchers from the 38north site state unequivocally that “even if less capable than their US counterparts, the two new types of UAV would provide North Korea with worthwhile new capabilities compared to its previous drones if sufficient numbers are produced and deployed.”

Furthermore, the DPRK has long been aware of US combat and reconnaissance drones. The Global Hawk has been in the DPRK’s weapons museum, which houses, among other things, the “probable enemy’s” key weaponry, since at least 2016, (the author saw it on a trip to the nation). As a result, one should not conclude that North Korean generals are preparing for a past battle based on their supposedly archaic clothing. This is especially true during the reign of Kim Jong-un, who, according to his Western biographers, enjoyed aircraft modeling and technical construction as a child and then obtained a military-technical school with a focus on artillery intelligence. According to Anna Fifield, and not only that, his diploma at a military university was written on “Computer Modeling for Refining Tactical Maps Using the Global Navigation System (GPS).” According to military experts among the reviewer’s acquaintances, this is a particularly intriguing and modern issue for the mid-2000s, and the problems of image recognition on satellite maps, 3D modeling, and so on are still extremely essential today. This means Kim knows the significance of so-called “Boyd Cycles” in modern combat, in which success is achieved by being able to notice the opponent before he detects you and hit him in less time thanks to optimized chains of command.

Early in July 2023, even before Saetbyul was made public, news broke out that the DPRK was planning to turn obsolete An-2 (“kukuruznik”) airplanes produced in the Soviet Union into attack drones of the “kamikaze drone” class. If the reports of testing are accurate, Pyongyang may have a “cheap and cheerful” alternative given that the plane has low radar visibility, can fly at a low altitude rather discreetly, and has a cargo capacity of up to 1,500 pounds. The North Korean Air Force also has roughly 300 of these types of aircraft, which might be a severe threat to Seoul. Moreover, reports of similar “redesigns” of old Soviet MiG-15 fighters have surfaced.

The DPRK is thought to now have 1,000 UAVs in total of various types, including about 100 kamikaze drones. According to ROK intelligence, North Korea aims to construct drones of various types and functions for each KPA military unit.
In the future, Pyongyang is believed to be seeking to develop and use combined strike systems based on the Su-25 and MiG-19, combining missile weapons and UAVs.

On Aug. 6, 2023, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Kim Jong-un “led the on-site affairs of a factory producing engines for strategic cruise missiles and attack drones.”

In order to counter the threat from North Korean drones, the ROK plans to arm various systems – anti-aircraft weapon systems of powerful electromagnetic radiation, mobile laser units, and EW complexes. Additionally, it is anticipated to enhance the K-30 Biho self-propelled anti-aircraft gun and make greater use of artificial intelligence tools.

The National Counterterrorism Committee, headed by Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, made the decision on July 31, 2023, to increase security at important locations by installing anti-drone equipment that may halt drone flights and thwart attacks.

On August 4, 2023, the state arms procurement agency said that in the first half of 2024, the South Korean armed forces will deploy a trial multi-layer drone countermeasures system as part of a program to rapidly introduce advanced technology, which will be designed to neutralize small unmanned aerial vehicles by jamming their signals or physically disabling them with lasers or nets.

In 2024, the Army and Navy will undertake a trial deployment of the system, during which the military will assess its military utility before considering further deployments.

Now let’s talk about more general issues: the actions taken by the South Korean military leadership represent a number of crucial trends involving the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in contemporary combat, which I’d like to go into more detail about.

Boris Yulin and I started talking about “the future of droids” in the early 2000s, which included not only UAVs but also more basic and affordable models of the “shooter on a chassis” category, operated by a human or by simple programs of the “shoot anything that moves and is larger than a certain size” category.

Our idea was that because the first-world population is dwindling, one tendency could be the “automation of warfare,” in which machines begin to take over the role of line soldiers. When compared to other weaponry, the conditional droid is very cheap. The typical “shooter on a chassis” potentially costs the same as a not-so-expensive automobile, which is pennies by major war standards. Most crucially, it permits technologically advanced countries to pit their industrial potential against an opposing country’s human potential. Figuratively speaking, you could swap two droids for one enemy fighter in a droid conveyor belt setting and end up winning because you’d run out of enemy soldiers sooner. Additionally, if we are thinking about a droid that is controlled by an operator, the loss of a droid actually helps the operator’s “upgrade” since they are able to learn from their mistakes. A person with a handicap can also operate a drone (in addition, the author is now aware of efforts to develop programs where persons with disabilities will be trained as drone operators, including those who acquired a disability during special military operation).

Since then, nearly 20 years have passed, and the idea has evolved a little. Firstly, it turned out that making a flying drone is not much more difficult than a “running” drone, after which the place of droids in our concept was taken by drones.

Second, the expansion of technological capabilities enables the drone to be used as a weapon outside of the TOP 10 countries. Even the success of Turkey’s and Iran’s attack drones and the zeal with which even tiny nations have rushed to build their own drone models serve as evidence of this today.

The simplest kamikaze combat drones, which ISIS is said to have employed with success, are actually “the child of an airplane modeling class,” to which they affixed enough C-4 compositions to let them fly to the desired location and explode. Another invention attributed to them is the use of quadrocopters to launch grenades against targets like trucks or even the hatches of tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Third, the drone proves to be an effective asymmetric reaction because it is much less expensive than both the weaponry it can destroy and the weaponry needed to shoot it down (shooting Patriot missiles at Geraniums in a Special Military Operation scenario).

Fourth. By aiming a kamikaze drone “into the right window” of a government building or assaulting a crowd during a large gathering, drones can also be used to carry out terrorist attacks.

There are different ideas about the future of drones. On the one hand, the author has run into the idea of a “swarm of bees,” where small-sized drones are designed to kill 1-2 people, causing an effect similar to a grenade explosion, but they fly in marketable quantities, furthering the concept of a cheap drone undermining the demographic potential of the enemy. Standard gear and/or attempts to blend with the landscape are significantly less effective defenses against such things.

In contrast, we observe heavy strike drones that can engage a target at a distance of several hundred kilometers and occupy the same market space as short-range missiles. Attempts are also being made to outfit ships and aircraft with both disposable and reusable drones, or “drone carriers,” which are being fitted to helicopter and aircraft carriers, which are once again made for mass drone launches.

As a result, you can reach a system where the live fighters are essentially a command post that is fortified and covered by EW. From there, operators attempt to control combat and reconnaissance drones while also controlling defense droids like automatic turrets in an effort to reduce their own human casualties.

However, it is evident that the “shield and spear race” on drones is far from done (albeit the spear is now dominating). Electronic suppression measures remove the most basic drone versions, whereas actual attack drones have survivability and navigation systems that allow them to continue their mission even if the operator’s signal is lost. And a low-flying, slow drone with a wingspan of 2+ meters turns out to be a weapon that modern air defenses are no longer intended to counter. Radar misses it, missiles aiming at the heat source miss it or are aimed only “after” due to the location of the engines, and current fighters’ onboard autocannons cannot be used to shoot at it because of their own fast speed. It is no coincidence that the South decided to send a low-flying training aircraft into the skies during the North Korean drone strike in order to take out the drones more easily.

At the same time, drones are a potentially bigger problem for modern Western countries, which are used to existing in the NATO doctrine, because it is assumed that the concept of air defense “from below” is replaced by ensuring air supremacy by their own aviation, while the conventional DPRK, which, on the contrary, tried to saturate its air defense forces, including those designed to counterattack aircraft and helicopters within sight, has a slightly better chance against drones.

In light of this, we stated that while drones “may displace nuclear weapons from the top of God’s weapon,” a defeat factor like an electromagnetic pulse is proving to be a severe method of drone destruction across a wide area.

It is also anticipated that “anti-drone defense” technologies will advance, ranging from artillery systems that can “shoot buckshot” or anti-rotor mines to soft-destruction weapons that damage drones using lasers or even nets. The evolution of this one might theoretically lead to a personal anti-drone weapon or even something resembling an under-barrel grenade launcher.

The integration of drones into the army organization below the command level is a further intriguing subject. Every modern unit should, in theory, have a drone operator to do reconnaissance and a “man with a gun” to shoot down equivalent enemy drones. And similar to mortars, the infantry also have attack drones of varied capability.
It will be fascinating to see if staffing gets strained as a result.

This is by no means a complete list of the highlights of the drone’s influence on the revolution in military affairs, but we will soon witness many of them in action. In the meantime, it is nice that the importance of this factor is well understood both in the North and in the South.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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