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What Happened To North Korean Combat Drones?

January 10, 2022
Via North Korean media.

Considering how far its technological reach has advanced in the span of a decade there seems to be little progress in harnessing unmanned systems. The available evidence of the North Korean military’s drone capabilities shows it does possess a sizable collection–and at least one jet-powered model for ground attack–but these are confined to surveillance. During military parades in 2018, 2020, and 2021 there was no evidence of new combat drones being put in service, although small quadcopters were flown to capture parade footage, and the “Self Defense” exhibition in October last year featured no drones.

In fact, a comprehensive assessment from the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) titled North Korea Military Power: A Growing Regional and Global Threat that was released in late 2021 offered little in the way of serious discussion about how this particular adversary was developing drones. In a section about air power and air defenses the authors observed questionable pilot training and a very large assortment of ground-based anti-aircraft weaponry. When it came to drones, however, the authors noted there were probable efforts to assemble “larger UAVs for a variety of military missions.”

North Korea’s military have lost at least two low altitude models with small propeller engines in South Korea. Although there are persistent reports that an active program will lead to more advanced drones the results are elusive and their importance is far lower than assumed. When examining the North Korean military’s success at precision guided munitions and surface-to-surface missiles it’s perplexing how these innovations haven’t led to more drones. This is beside the fact North Korea still has access to foreign suppliers such as China and technical assistance from Iran and Syria–all countries that have stood by their impoverished ally for decades.

There are at least four models of combat drones North Korea is able to manufacture at this point. Remarkably, the success of its few jet-powered medium altitude drones bodes well for future development. South Korea’s military are justified to be worried about a new generation of loitering munitions if these are deployed anywhere near the DMZ. North Korea’s military-industrial sector has mastered guidance systems of all sizes and there are enough choices for transports if loitering munitions similar to the Israeli-made Harop are ever introduced. Equipped with a small warhead, a radio data link of 350 to 400 kilometers, and a propeller engine, the resulting weapon is a severe threat to the South Korean military’s bases and installations.

Another potential drone model is a medium altitude twin-boom or single tail aircraft, its layout depending on its role, that features prolonged mission endurance and a flight ceiling as high as 25,000 feet. These characteristics aren’t difficult to achieve if all the critical subsystems–the data link, the camera pod, the fuel tanks, and the engine–are sourced from China and bought through commercial partners. The assembly of the airframe and fuselage is easy enough; North Korea’s aerospace industry has decades of experience maintaining and overhauling aircraft. Likewise, North Korea’s military-industrial sector faces no barriers in preparing the munitions this drone will carry for airstrikes.

A troubling possibility is whether North Korea’s war planners envision a future conflict where jet-powered stealthy combat drones have a decisive role. As mentioned, a jet-powered medium altitude drone is already in service. If a new model is drawn up taking inspiration from China’s flying wing designs, or even the Russian S-70 Okhotnik, there’s a chance its assembly and deployment against South Korea will close the air power gap somewhat. The only hurdle for North Korea’s attempts at advanced jet-powered combat drones are the engine types needed. But there’s little evidence to suggest a lack of suitable engines are hampering the armed forces’ ongoing modernization.

The advent of North Korean loitering munitions, a potential twin-boom model, a single tail model, and a semi-stealthy model are troubling outcomes for everyone involved with enforcing peace in the Korean peninsula. The conventional military strength at Kim Jong Un’s disposal shouldn’t grow to such a point it emboldens his regime.

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