Seoul taps Korean Air to build stealth drones that could neutralise Pyongyang’s air defence
- Korean Air will develop a ‘manned-unmanned teaming system’ in which one manned aircraft is backed by three to four stealth UAVs in joint missions
- UAV squadron will also be able to perform its own missions including surveillance, electronic interference tactics and precise strikes
The Korean Agency for Defence Development (ADD) selected Korean Air earlier this month as the preferred bidder over Korea Aerospace Industries, developer of the indigenous KF-21, for its “stealth unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) squadron development project”, Korean Air said last week.
“ADD began developing the UAV squadron in November last year and has completed the basic design. The agency plans to work on the detailed design with Korean Air,” the company said.
Korean Air will develop a “manned-unmanned teaming system” in which one manned aircraft is backed by three to four stealth UAVs in jointly carrying out various missions including air combat, air-to-ground attacks and surveillance.
“The squadron of UAVs will not only support and escort a manned aircraft, but will also be able to perform its own missions including surveillance, electronic interference tactics and precise strikes,” it said.
The announcement comes as the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine makes it clear that drones are becoming an integral part of war machines, with thousands of military UAVs used in the conflict by both sides to hit targets or to direct artillery fire onto them.
“But it’s another matter to develop highly-sophisticated manned-unmanned teaming systems that will employ top-of-the- line artificial intelligence and extremely complicated software that will take a lot of time and effort,” he told This Week in Asia. “It’s anyone’s guess when South Korea can develop such a system.”
Another defence analyst, Lee Il-woo at the Korea Defence Network, said the concept of “loyal wingman” aircraft – unmanned vehicles accompanying manned aircraft into combat missions – had gained traction globally.
This includes the US Air Force’s Skyborg programme that envisages expendable unmanned aircraft assisting manned fighters.
Unmanned aircraft such as the Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie and Boeing Australia MQ-28 Ghost Bat had been developed in accordance with this concept, Lee said.
The merits of drones included negligible maintenance costs and the exemption of years of pilot training necessary for manned aircraft, he said.
“They can carry out combat missions in the front while manned vehicles can stay back safely from hostile firing. This could drastically increase the air force’s operational range,” Lee said.
“But I think it will take at least 10 years for South Korea to combine its KF-21 (manned fighters) with workable UAVs for a manned-unmanned teaming system”.
The US could integrate its stealth F-35s with UAVs in a few years’ time, he said.
South Korea currently has 40 F-35A fighter jets and will buy 20 more from the US as part of its F-X project focused on acquiring foreign stealth fighter jets from 2023 to 2028.
However, both Lee and Shin raised questions over suggestions that stealth UAVs could be used to “decapitate” North Korea’s leadership.
South Korea’s conservative government has made no secret that it would consider pre-emptive strikes against the North’s missiles and possibly its senior leadership if an imminent attack is detected.
“UAVs are too small to carry bunker busting bombs while one F-35 can carry two 900kg bombs to destroy concrete bunkers,” Lee said, adding stealth fighters did not need to be accompanied by slow drones for striking targets behind enemy lines.