Korean Air will build loyal wingman drones for South Korea's air force. Image: Facebook

In a quick follow-up to South Korea’s first test flight of its homegrown fighter jet, the country also aims to build its first unmanned loyal wingman drone.

Last week, South Korea named Korean Air the preferred bidder for its loyal wingman drone, which it envisions will work in tandem with manned combat aircraft and operate in autonomous swarms, reports aviation website FlightGlobal.

The report notes that the project envisages the development of stealth unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) squadrons, noting that South Korea’s Agency for Defense Development (ADD) began developing the concept last year and has completed the basic design.  

FlightGlobal also mentions that ADD and Korean Air plan to work on a manned-unmanned teaming system wherein one manned aircraft and three to four stealth UAVs carry out missions simultaneously. The report states that the new stealth UAV can carry out missions on its own, such as surveillance, electronic warfare and kinetic attacks.

The development follows the ADD’s previous stealth UAV program that ran from 2019 to 2021, culminating in a contract between the South Korean government and Korean Air signed in October to develop a stealth UAV to advance South Korea’s stealth technology.

Critical aspects of the project include developing radar-absorbing materials and stealth shaping for future UAV designs.

South Korea’s new stealth UAV may operate alongside its homegrown KF-21 Boramae fighter. Asia Times has previously reported on this possibility, stating that the KF-21 may eventually partner with an indigenously-developed loyal wingman drone, which flies alongside manned aircraft to act as force multipliers and enhance the latter’s capabilities.

The KF-21 Boramae at its roll-out ceremony. Photo: KAI

The use of loyal wingman drones gives a numbers advantage to their operators, acting as mass decoys against air defenses, attack swarms or as a complement to manned aircraft by extending the range of their sensors.

As loyal wingman drones are expendable, they can operate in areas deemed too dangerous for manned aircraft due to dense anti-air defenses. They can also enable long-range standoff attacks, designating ground targets with their onboard sensors.

At the same time, the attacking aircraft launches missiles beyond the range of enemy air defenses while remaining electronically silent to avoid detection.

Such capabilities may be crucial to South Korea’s “decapitation strategy.” Defense analyst Ankit Panda describes it in a 2022 article in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as involving pre-emptive and retaliatory strikes against North Korea to deter or end a conflict by killing its leadership.

Its premise is that since North Korea is undeterred by the prospect of a limited conflict and damage against crucial military and economic targets, the logical course of action would be to threaten North Korea’s leadership.

In such a scenario, loyal wingman drones would be critical in penetrating Pyongyang’s air defenses to get at North Korea’s leadership. These defenses, while old and outdated, are still deadly, as noted in a 2021 article in The National Interest.

The source notes that while North Korea relies on Soviet-era radars and surface-to-air missiles (SAM), an equally-aging Soviet computerized command-and-control system coordinates these air defenses. In addition, it says that North Korea’s air defenses have been steadily upgraded with indigenously-built SAMs and Iranian phased-array radars.

It also mentions that North Korea possesses many license-produced and indigenous man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) and many 23 mm and 57 mm anti-aircraft guns.

These assets make for robust, if not aging, low-level air defense capabilities. The source also mentions North Korea’s capable military-industrial base, which allows it to strengthen its air defense network and replace spent munitions and combat losses.

While primitive, North Korea’s air defense network can still pose a severe threat to US and South Korean warplanes over the Korean Peninsula. Hence, South Korea can use its loyal wingman drones as decoys to force North Korea to reveal the locations of its air defense radars and missile launchers in preparation for suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) missions. 

Loyal wingmen drones can also force North Korea to waste its missile stocks attempting to shoot down these expendable targets. In addition, the drones can also act as target designators for South Korean aircraft flying within South Korean territory, launching air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) at critical North Korean targets and leaders.  

However, Panda notes that South Korea’s decapitation strategy faces serious challenges. He mentions that North Korea has taken substantial steps to improve the survivability of its nuclear arsenal.

Previously, Asia Times reported on North Korea’s efforts to build an undersea-based nuclear deterrent, unveiling a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) this April. This missile will likely be launched from its ballistic missile submarines currently under construction.

A submarine-based nuclear deterrent is considered the ultimate second-strike capability as it is difficult to locate once submerged. Moreover, a submarine missile launch is practically unstoppable due to submarines’ stealth capabilities and the lack of effective defenses against ballistic missiles.

If North Korea sets up an undersea-based nuclear deterrent, it is unclear how South Korea’s loyal wingman drones could detect, track and help neutralize the threat.

Panda also mentions that it is far from assured that South Korea has sufficient intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to hunt down North Korea’s leadership. He notes that a failed decapitation attempt may only escalate the course of a conflict, causing North Korea to retaliate using nuclear and other coercive means.

While loyal wingman drones can undoubtedly contribute to a complete ISR picture, much still depends on South Korea’s ISR capabilities in other domains.

Panda elaborates that without a complete ISR picture showing the exact locations of North Korean top leaders, South Korea’s air and missile strikes aimed at destroying North Korea’s warfighting capabilities may be construed by the latter as a decapitation attempt.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaking on September 2 last year at the third enlarged meeting of the Political Bureau of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP: / KCNA / KNS

This situation can happen if one strike kills a critical North Korean leader whose location was previously unknown. Then, North Korea could see this as a justification to use nuclear weapons in retaliation.

Panda notes that even if North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un is killed, North Korea has an extensive line of succession. Therefore, Kim may have a designated successor that could have nuclear launch authority in case he is taken out.

Although Panda notes that the idea of delegating authority may have negative consequences for Kim’s rule, this delegation of power is possible in a crisis scenario. Given these caveats, South Korea’s loyal wingman drone may end up being of limited value in the larger strategic picture of the mission it was designed to perform.