Last month, Seoul issued an ordinance establishing a drone operation command by this September. The ordinance follows the revelation last December that South Korea’s military failed to destroy North Korean unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that intruded national airspace. Seoul seeks to develop capabilities to detect and destroy adversarial drones while creating its own UAVs capable of surveillance and strike operations. Seoul’s efforts to seek these capabilities should be welcomed. North Korean drones pose a significant military and psychological threat, and drones are now an essential part of modern warfare. However, Seoul has yet to clearly indicate what it seeks to achieve by developing drone and counter-drone capabilities and establishing the drone operation command. Also, Seoul has so far focused on developing technologies and weapons but not operational concepts to utilize these capabilities and serve South Korea’s policy objectives. Seoul should answer these questions to ensure its means match its ends before establishing the new drone command.
On December 26, 2022, five North Korean drones crossed into South Korean airspace and flew there for five hours. One drone penetrated the no-fly zone that protects the presidential office in Seoul. South Korea’s military failed to detect the drones at first. Upon detection, the military scrambled fighter jets and attack helicopters, which fired a combined 100 rounds but failed to shoot down any of the drones. The only aerial vehicle that crashed was one of South Korea’s attack aircraft. This incident revealed the vulnerability of South Korea’s air defense system and its military’s low readiness for drone incursions. Other incidents abound. North Korean drones took aerial photographs of the presidential office in 2014 and a critical military installation in 2017 before crashing.
To be fair, countering drones is hard. Drones are difficult to detect, track and intercept because they are slow, small, and fly at low altitudes. Traditional radar systems have difficulty recognizing such objects. Even when they do, radar cannot automatically distinguish drones from other objects of similar sizes, such as birds. Technical challenges aside, however, another contributing factor to the mishaps was South Korean commanders’ lack of clear rules of engagement as well as the fragmented air defense system between the services.
South Korea’s low level of readiness vis-à-vis North Korea’s drones is concerning in light of North Korea’s growing UAV capabilities. The most immediate threat North Korean drones pose is their intelligence collection on South Korean forces and facilities. North Korea cannot afford the expensive surveillance assets and reconnaissance aircraft South Korea uses, so it has developed surveillance drones to compensate for this weakness. Surveillance drones can also enhance North Korea’s military operations during wartime. At a minimum, North Korean drones regularly penetrating South Korean airspace will wreak psychological havoc on South Korean civilians and military personnel.
Additionally, North Korea has acquired combat UAVs, including a modified American target drone (MQM-107D). Pyongyang boasted these new combat and surveillance drones during last month’s ‘Victory Day’ parade. Reportedly, recent satellite imagery of a North Korean air force base detected a new type similar to Chinese killer drones, which can carry air-to-surface missiles, GPS-guided bombs, and anti-tank missiles. Obviously, UAVs carrying cluster bombs or weapons of mass destruction can inflict substantial damage. If sent in swarms, drones can deal a debilitating blow even to sophisticated weaponry. As technology evolves and drones become more integrated into the armed forces, drones will likely assume even more battlefield roles than we can foresee today.
Seoul has stepped up its efforts to enhance its drone and counter-drone capabilities to counter North Korea's growing drone threats. It plans to spend $441 million over the next five years to build systems capable of detecting, disabling, and destroying drones, including an airborne laser weapon and a signal jammer. South Korea is also acquiring long-distance surveillance and combat drones equipped with stealth technology to evade North Korean radar systems. The new drone operation command will oversee the planning and execution of missions for surveillance and reconnaissance, psychological and electronic warfare, and counter-drone maneuvers.
While South Korea’s efforts should be welcomed, it is questionable whether they are adequate. South Korea’s announced policy has focused on means (technology and weapons), largely disregarding ends (operational concepts and doctrines). Technologies and weapons by themselves do not guarantee victories on the battlefield. For instance, although Russia appeared to have an advantage in technology and weaponry at the outset of the Ukraine invasion, they could not press their advantage due to poor strategy and command and control. In contrast, Ukraine’s ability to cobble together a hodgepodge of technologies and capabilities in a coherent manner greatly enhanced its warfighting capabilities. Considering these examples, South Korea’s lack of a clear drone strategy and operational concepts is a significant problem. How will it use drone and counter-drone capabilities to meet its strategic objectives?
To begin with, South Korea’s objectives for its drone command are unclear. South Korean officials mentioned deterring North Korea’s drone incursions as a goal but have not announced whether South Korea’s deterrence mechanism will be one by denial or by punishment. Denying North Korea’s ability to carry out successful drone missions will be difficult. South Korea can limit damage incurred by drones with its new counter-drone capabilities. Still, it likely cannot detect and destroy the majority of North Korean drones crossing into the South due to radar’s technical limitations described above. As of last October, Ukraine shot down a significant number of Russian drones, but those it missed still had a debilitating impact on Ukraine’s electrical grid. Further, even if enemy drones are disabled or captured, their presence alone is still likely to inflict psychological costs on the South Korean public. Finally, convincing North Korea of the futility of sending drones into the South is inherently tricky since drones are relatively inexpensive.
What about deterring North Korea from sending drones by promising unacceptable punishment? President Yoon Suk Yeol has vowed to provide an “overwhelming response” to any North Korean provocation by sending ten drones for every North Korean drone that intrudes on South Korean airspace. But what real cost will this action inflict on the North? Will South Korea be willing to strike North Korean targets with its drones even at the risk of military escalation? The North will not consider such a threat of a disproportionate response credible. Without a clear deterrence mechanism, South Korea’s plan seems like a tit-for-tat exchange without strategic merit.
For deterrence to work, Seoul should craft strategies aimed at the North’s pressure points. For example, South Korea could signal it will retaliate to drone incursions by sending its own drones to surveil North Korean nuclear and missile sites and enable surgical strikes, such as the “bloody nose” option contemplated by former U.S. president Donald Trump. Seoul could also signal that it will use drones to detect the locations of North Korea’s leadership and facilitate a potential “decapitation” strategy, eliminating the North’s ruling caste. The leadership is North Korea’s center of gravity, and Pyongyang has shown sensitivity by attempting to garner intelligence related to the South’s decapitation strategy several times. Alternatively, South Korea could send its drones to disseminate anti-Pyongyang fliers to target the North’s worries about information campaigns. Punishing North Korea does not have to involve drones at all. The key is discovering what would convince Pyongyang it will regret sending drones into South Korea.
Another goal of the new drone operation command should be the integration of drones into the South Korean armed forces to enhance warfighting capabilities. As recent conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan and between Russia and Ukraine illustrate, drones can play a decisive role in armed conflicts. Drones’ ability to provide real-time, high-resolution imagery helps military leaders gather critical intelligence about adversary movements and fortifications, identify and strike enemy targets accurately, and adapt quickly to constantly changing combat situations, all while minimizing the risks to human personnel. South Korea should develop ways to utilize drones as a force multiplier that amplifies existing military capabilities in a limited war scenario that falls below the nuclear threshold. Seoul should also devise ways to use drones in other regional conflicts and for capacity-building with regional partners. Lastly, South Korea should work with the United States to ensure that integrating drones into military operations does not downgrade the interoperability of joint forces.
As North Korea’s drone capabilities increase, the South Korean military must enhance its capability to counter North Korea’s drone threats. As drone technology evolves and drones increasingly become an essential tool of the armed forces, Seoul must also find ways to utilize drones effectively in conjunction with other weapons systems on the battlefield. South Korea’s decision to establish a drone operation command is a step in the right direction. However, as it stands, South Korea’s strategy lacks clear objectives. Deciding on these should be the first step.
Additionally, Seoul seems singularly focused on developing technology and weapons rather than operational concepts and doctrines. It is one thing to build technology and acquire weaponry and quite another to utilize them purposively. South Korea must develop effective strategies to counter North Korea’s drone threats before establishing its new drone operation command this September.