The U.S. has announced that it will permanently deploy attack drones to South Korea to help counter the growing threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs — including to U.S. military bases in Japan.
“The U.S. Army, after coordination with the Republic of Korea Armed Forces and the U.S. Air Force, has begun the process to permanently station a Gray Eagle Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) company at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea,” U.S. Forces Korea said in a statement Monday.
“The UAS adds significant intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability to U.S. Forces Korea and our ROK partners,” it added.
The announcement came just over a week after the North test-fired what experts said were likely four extended-range (ER) Scud missiles, with North Korean state media issuing an overt claim that the drill was a rehearsal for striking U.S. military bases in Japan.
Analysts said the drill — which came amid ongoing annual joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise — was intended to simulate a nuclear strike on U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
U.S. Forces Korea did not provide a timeline for the permanent drone deployment when asked for comment.
The Gray Eagle is a remotely controlled attack drone made by U.S.-based General Atomics. A derivative of the Predator drone, it can stay in the air for up to 25 hours straight and can operate in altitudes of up to 29,000 feet, according the company’s website. The craft can carry multiple payloads aloft, including up to four Hellfire missiles.
Last week, the U.S. sent the first pieces of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea. The U.S.-made missile defense system is designed to mitigate the threat of North Korean missiles.
U.S. State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said Monday that both moves were responses to “credible” threats to the security of the U.S. and its Asian allies.
“This is … an ongoing effort to defend the Republic of Korea and U.S. interests in order to maintain regional security, stability and economic prosperity for the region,” Toner said. “In addition to THAAD, these … are defensive measures that are a response to what we — and by ‘we’ I mean South Korea, the United States and, certainly, Japan — view as a real and credible threat to our security.”
Beyond reconnaissance missions, experts said the drone system could also be used to carry out so-called decapitation strikes on the North Korean leadership in the event of a crisis.
“The system can conduct both ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and strike missions,” said Daniel Pinkston, an East Asia expert at Troy University in Seoul.
“The situation on the peninsula presents a great demand for timely and accurate ISR data. The Gray Eagle will contribute to that mission. Also, if the situation requires it, this system can provide a prompt strike capability.”
Pinkston said that such a capability would be applicable in a number of situations when a quick reaction is needed, including for strikes on mobile missile launchers and command centers in the event of an impending attack by Pyongyang.
“North Korea’s development of solid-fuel ballistic missiles means (it) will be able to execute ballistic missile strikes in a matter of minutes,” Pinkston said. “The Gray Eagle could strike missile TELs (transporter erector launchers) and/or command centers if a missile attack were imminent.”
As for the timing of the announcement, Pinkston said this was likely a bid to both reassure nervous allies and reinforce the United States’ commitment to extended deterrence.
“As everyone recalls from the ‘Dr. Strangelove’ film, a doomsday machine is useless unless people know you have it.”
The U.S. has about 28,500 service members stationed in the South, which remains technically at war with the North after the 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.