South Korea to create ‘drone-bot combat unit’ to swarm North

South Korea will create a weaponised drone unit to swarm North Korea in the event of a conflict as Seoul seeks to bolster its military capabilities against its nuclear-armed neighbour.

Operated by the army, the unit will primarily engage in reconnaissance missions to survey developments at the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile sites, but could in future be used to launch swarm attacks, according to people familiar with the matter.

The establishment of the army unit follows calls from western officials and analysts for South Korea to improve its advanced surveillance technology.

It also comes amid growing concerns that the rapid advancement of Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic weapons programmes has effectively changed the balance of power in the region.

On Tuesday, William Perry, a US defence secretary in the Clinton administration, told a forum it would be “preferable” for South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear force — an option that the US has been historically reluctant to support.

Instead, Seoul is pursuing the establishment of the drone unit that is likely to be modelled on the one created by Israel in 2010.

“South Korea’s army plans to create a drone-bot combat unit in 2018 and set up a professional combat team to operate it,” an official at the Ministry of Defence confirmed.

Drones have featured in conflicts worldwide for more than a decade. However, new developments in artificial intelligence mean drones will increasingly be able to communicate movements with each other, effectively forming swarms.

“South Korea has reached a level of consensus on swarm technology, but adoption will take a while,” said a person familiar with the military developments. “The army is facing [political] pressure to reduce its forces, so it has to come up with new ideas.” 

The technology is already being pursued in China, where some believe the country should adopt an “asymmetric” drone strategy rather than attempt to close the gap in traditional capabilities with the US.

Experts say such technology could have lethal and non-lethal capabilities. In the case of the latter, a swarm of thousands of cheaply made but connected drones could prevent area access by clustering around and blocking ships or aircraft.

“Some of us in the field proposed the Republic of Korea military should take advantage of this superiority against North Korea,” said Bong Young-shik, an expert on North Korean military developments at Yonsei University. 

“Although it is unlikely, if the South Korean military wants, these drones can carry bombs as the nation is no longer bound by payload limits,” he added, referring to a decision by the Trump administration earlier this year to lift limits on South Korean munitions.

On Wednesday, Seoul said it would increase its annual military budget by 7 per cent next year — its biggest jump since 2009 — as a result of the “grim security reality”.

Mr Moon is overseeing a reform of the nation’s armed forces that is focusing on reducing troop numbers and improving technology.

In June, North Korea launched a drone into the south to survey the deployment of the US-operated Terminal High Altitude Area Defence missile shield, better known as Thaad.