Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) is seeking to equip its Light Armed Helicopter with kamikaze drones. Video shows a group of helicopters launching the drones over a town and then hovering at a distance as the drones seek out, provide surveillance and then attack targets. This is the latest in a trajectory of evolution of loitering munitions, which are sometimes called kamikaze drones. South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration have said that KAI is working on this “manned-unmanned teaming” capability. Moreover, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) has a new Memorandum of Understanding with KAI for the project.
The concept of manned-unmanned teaming or MUM-T is the game changing technology that militaries all over the world are now looking at. Drones have been around for decades. Israel pioneered using drones against Syrian air defense in the 1980s and the U.S. even launched decoy drones over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1991 war. Later drones became a key to counter insurgency operations, enabling the use of unmanned aerial systems over hostile airspace or on clandestine missions.
However, the idea of pairing drones and manned vehicles has always been a challenge because of concerns of how to make sure they don’t run into each other and leverage the capabilities of each platform. The Korean concept is different than some of the other manned-unmanned teaming concepted. It envisions light helicopters having a canister-launched UAV. Details emerged on March 1 and it appears that tests will be carried out over the next several years.
KAI is working with Israel Aerospace Industries on the project. According to IAI they have signed a Memorandum of Understandings (MOU) for collaboration “in which the companies will offer the Republic of Korea (ROK) military forces with unmanned Loitering Munitions systems. As part of the MOU, KAI and IAI are aiming to expand their long cooperation to market the loitering munitions to ROK Army requirements.”
KAI’s President and CEO, Hyun-ho Ahn praised the importance of the partnership between IAI and KAI, in a statement. This work goes back several decades as Israel has expanded its cooperation in Asia. Israel has also expanded drone sales in Asia with major sales by Elbit Systems and also recent sales by IAI of loitering munitions. IAI’s President and CEO, Boaz Levy said that “the MOU’s singed today is another milestone in our growing collaboration with KAI. IAI has long relations with the ROK and the local industries and we are happy to join KAI, one of Korea’s leading companies to explore future opportunities. Combining IAI’s proven capabilities in loitering munitions and KAI’s technologies and products to create an opportunity for an improved solution to the future battlefield.”
Loitering munitions gained more attention after their successful use by Azerbaijan against Armenian fighters in the conflict in 2020. Azerbaijan has purchased Israeli drones from IAI, Elbit Systems and Aeronautics in the past. Although not all the details about Azerbaijan’s use of the Israeli drones is known, a music video showcasing Azerbaijan’s armed forces showed IAI Harop drones back in 2018.
KAI is known as one of Korea’s leaders in aerospace. It makes the KT-1 Basic Trainer, the T-50 Advanced jet trainer and FA-50 Light Combat Aircraft as well as developing the RQ-101 drone and KFX experimental advanced fighter. The partnership with IAI has brought together the best in aerospace from both countries. Collaborating on adding a canister-launched drone, like the IAI Green Dragon, to the helicopters, makes sense for both companies.
Loitering munitions are rapidly expanding their uses. Israel is a leader in these munitions, from the Orbiter 1K of Aeronautics to the IAI Harop and Green Dragan, and Elbit’s Skystriker. UVision in Israel also makes a line of kamikaze drones. Each of these drones have different applications, ranges and warhead sizes. For instance, the IAI Harop or Harpy can be used to suppress air defenses. Some drones can be used against enemy personnel or against vehicles. Israel’s use of automatic targeting algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) are rapidly making drones more effective and lethal. For instance, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems makes the Spike Firefly which is a drone, but which is also part of the Spike missile family. It can hover over and search for a target before being utilized.
Drones are also getting better at mapping the indoor of facilities and even targeting enemies inside houses. These capabilities all give advanced militaries the ability to do more with less. That means using drones, rather than special forces, to enter a village or town or house and strike at enemies without risking the lives of soldiers and also using the best AI to prevent misidentification of civilians. Israel’s precision warfare has already illustrates how useful this is through airstrikes that cause few, if any, casualties but do the most damage to enemy weapon systems. Israel doesn’t reveal how or if it uses drones in these strikes.
Other countries are working on loitering munitions as well. Iran is making the Samad-3 loitering munition that has a range of some 1,500km. Iran has used these types of drones in attacks on Saudi Arabia in September 2019. The Iranian-backed Houthis use kamikaze drones. Australia is also working with Boeing’s loyal wingman program to team drones with manned aircraft. This concept foresees having an aircraft with a drone that operates as a kind of wingman. The drones can fly independently and swarm, according to these concepts. They could be armed as well. In fact, the future may eventually have large drones, like the loyal wingman, launching other drones, such as the canister-launched loitering munitions.
Teaming these systems has been a challenge for years. It has the same challenges as using drones in civilian airspace. Israel worked on honing manned and unmanned systems back in 2015. With more drones operating in more environments and being attached to manned vehicles, countries will need to expand their air defenses rapidly to deal with the emerging threat. Armenian learned this in the war in 2020 as its air defense and armed units were picked apart by Azerbaijan’s drones.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen Publishing) and Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future (Forthcoming, Bombardier Books). Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.