Kim Jong Un’s Tin Can Air Force

North Korea's drones are cheap, small, and poorly made. That's exactly why they're so dangerous.


North Korea’s resistance to change is punchline-worthy. It still operates a command economy, its population remains largely cut off from the Internet, and, with few exceptions, its military relies on old Soviet equipment. So the pictures of North Korean military units operating childish-looking unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) painted with red and orange flames seem ripe for mockery, especially when state-controlled media describe them as “kamikaze drones” ready to attack South Korea. All this makes it hard not to crack a joke. But North Korea’s low-tech drones are, in fact, a military innovation — one that has bested the U.S.-South Korea alliance on several occasions and has the ability to conduct military strikes on South Korea undetected.

Yes, North Korea’s drones are simple and crude, and fly along a preprogrammed route. They’re small, with a length of less than 7 feet and a wingspan of less than 10 feet. They’re low-performance, with top speeds estimated at 75 miles per hour, a maximum flight duration of four hours, payloads of no more than 7 pounds, and an altitude of no more than 20,000 feet. Contrast this with the high-payload, stealth-capable drones the United States is developing now. Even the workhorse Predator MQ-9 can reach speeds up to 300 miles per hour, has flight durations exceeding 14 hours, can carry payloads up to 1,500 pounds, and can operate up to 50,000 feet. And whereas Predators carry high-tech sensor packages for surveillance and precision targeting, the most sophisticated piece of technology found on North Korean drones appears to be nothing more than a commercial-grade camera. But it’s the low-performance qualities of North Korea’s drones that enable them to evade South Korean defenses, which are optimized for more traditional threats from bigger, faster, higher-altitude aircraft.

For much of the last half-century of manned flight, the threat potential of a military aircraft was contingent on getting past an enemy’s air defenses — thus, flying faster and at higher altitudes became two ways of beating air defenses. Modern anti-aircraft radar systems adapted by focusing on detecting aerial systems that flew at these speeds and elevations. But rather than circumventing South Korean radars by flying faster, higher, or more stealthily — all expensive propositions requiring advanced technology — North Korean drones provide an alternative that is operationally effective and cheaper. They’re small enough that radar operators could mistake them for birds and dismiss them — if they can even detect something that small — because they fly at altitudes and speeds so low that modern radars usually ignore them.

Wreckage discoveries over the past 12 months have revealed that North Korea’s drones have successfully penetrated South Korean airspace on at least four occasions. Crashed drones have been found in the South Korean city of Paju; north of Seoul near the North Korean border; on Baengnyeong Island, which South Korea controls but is physically located on the North Korean side of the 38th parallel; and in the northeastern city of Samcheok, which North Korean commandos infiltrated in the 1960s.

For every North Korean surveillance drone discovered in South Korea, how many flew successful missions and returned to military units in North Korea without being detected? The four discovered drones were carrying camera equipment, but these drones could quite easily be configured as a platform for munitions as well — including nuclear or chemical weapons, if they developed larger payload capacities. The small size of drones means they can only carry small payloads, but the potential impact is their collective, not individual, impact. Even if South Korea had radars capable of detecting these small drones, it’s not clear how it would simultaneously target dozens or hundreds of drones if North Korea chose to suddenly send them swarming across the border.

Of course, North Korea isn’t the only country to invest in drones — the last credible statistics found that at least 76 countries had some form of UAV in 2011, and the number has almost certainly increased since then. Neither is it the first to develop an armed drone program; 23 countries have them, including South Korea.

But achieving military effectiveness through innovation is often a matter of imagination and a willingness to take risks, and military innovations don’t require being a first mover or early adopter of a technology. Some of the most significant military innovations — mechanized warfare, aircraft carrier doctrine, and blitzkrieg — have involved simply integrating existing technologies into military organizations and applying them in novel ways.

So it is with North Korea’s low-tech drones. Despite Seoul’s dramatic technological superiority over its northern neighbor, the latter has found a new way to intrude successfully into the former’s territory repeatedly without detection; at least one of the drones recorded images of South Korea’s presidential compound.

Unlike a naval skirmish or artillery attack, using drones exploits a gray space in deterrence. With conventional military forces, attribution — knowing who’s culpable for what and when — is typically straightforward. With drones, however, the underlying technology can obscure attribution because it’s so commonplace.

North Korea’s drones, for example, are either copies of Chinese drones, or originate in China. If there is any ambiguity over who the guilty party is, it’s much harder to deter the undesired action. South Korean officials reasonably deduced that the discovered drone wreckage belonged to North Korea, but North Korea denies sending them, making the contest at issue not a matter of competing interpretations but of competing facts. In South Korea’s contentious domestic politics about North Korea policy, a thin veil of deniability on Pyongyang’s part can paralyze South Korea’s response. (South Korea barely retaliated after North Korea’s March 2010 sinking of its naval ship Cheonan, in part because Pyongyang denied responsibility.)

Although North Korea’s air force is decrepit, it could become a leading innovator in the application of drones on the battlefield. Even though many countries are investing in armed drone research, organizational barriers and military cultural biases favoring piloted aircraft in air forces around the world make it less likely that they will jettison manned aircraft for drones; traditional aircraft represent significant sunk costs, financially and organizationally. But North Korea is different. Its air force is a hollow organizational shell with little capability because of maintenance problems and a high accident rate. Moreover, its budgetary woes and international pariah status make acquiring replacement fighter aircraft unrealistic. These poor conditions make it uniquely open to innovation. The comparatively low cost of drones — for example, around $1 million for a Chinese Predator-quality drone compared to up to $150 million for next-generation fighter aircraft — could drive North Korea toward revitalizing its air force with vehicles costing a fraction of its current Soviet-era infrastructure.

Compared to the South’s million-man army, entrenched nuclear weapons program, and large missile inventory, should North Korean drones be a priority for South Korea? Yes. North Korea has employed drones on simulated battlefields during military drills and displayed them in military parades — events routinely used to showcase military capabilities that serve as political signals. North Korean media have shown the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, observing drone units in combined arms exercises and has declared the military’s intention to release swarms of “super-precision drone planes” against South Korean targets.

Individually, all of these data points might be lost in the noise of the latest North Korean vitriol and bluster. But it’s hard to miss that North Korea is building a drone program. Pyongyang has shown itself capable of infiltrating drones into South Korean airspace. It has clearly expressed that drones are intended to attack South Korea. What remains to be seen is under what circumstances, and whether they’ll be successful. Even crude and childish-looking drones can be very dangerous.

Van Jackson is a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, host of The Un-Diplomatic Podcast, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies in New Zealand.

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