Two recent developments that at first glance seem to be quite unrelated illustrate a possible intelligence analysis failure in the West in preparing for any military conflict with North Korea.
First, a South Korean defense official last month said that a drone, most likely from North Korea, took photographs of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system recently installed in the South.
It also took pictures of residential areas, agricultural fields, and other so-called “less-sensitive” locations.
This was shortly followed by a report that North Korea is fitting its 300mm (12-inch) rockets with image-guidance systems to be used during their final moments of flight.
One of the important differences between rockets and missiles is that, at least until now, rockets were unguided beyond point and launch, while missiles had built-in guidance systems.
If Pyongyang has indeed developed a rocket with a reliable guidance system, there is reason for concern.
Since conventional rockets tend to be much smaller than missiles, travel shorter distances and are unguided, they are often fired in salvoes to maximize the chances of hitting the target and doing the greatest amount of damage.
However, if rockets could be guided, the battlefield calculus would change since fewer could then be used against any one target. Fewer required for one target means more targets than before could be hit with the same number of rockets.
Connecting the dots
This is where the North Korean drones come in and the images they took of military installations and populated areas, both of which would be prime targets for Pyongyang during any conflict.
Digitized camera images from the drones would act as computer references for live camera views on rockets equipped with on-board imagery-guidance systems.
It is relatively easy to write a computer program to match the live view with a reference image and then correct course accordingly, and the computing power needed for such a system would be minimal by today’s standards.
Moreover, the weight of such a system would be trivial when compared to the kinetic payload of the North’s 300mm rockets — likely about half a kilogram versus more than 200 kilograms of high explosives.
Finally, the cost of such an imagery-guidance system, when parts are supplied by China or are built in-country, would be insignificant.
Insufficient attention is being paid to North Korea’s use of drones, how they make excellent asymmetrical weapons, and their ability to wreak havoc.
North Korean drones have very small payloads so it’s easy to dismiss them as being ill-suited for delivering kinetic weapons. However, that overlooks an important point.
Dispersing even a small amount — say, five pounds or 2.25 kilograms — of a biological or chemical agent over a densely populated metropolitan area would create devastating panic and overload hospitals.
For those agents to have maximum impact, the optimum positions from which to release them must be determined.
That is likely why, in addition to military installations, locations such as residential neighborhoods and farming areas in South Korea were photographed by Pyongyang’s drones.
It is disturbing to learn that Seoul is only now coming to acknowledge that it needs better technology to detect and intercept these small unmanned aerial vehicles.
It’s an example of how South Korean defense analysts need to introduce more effective tactical planning to counter North Korea’s asymmetrical warfare capabilities.