Drone's Incursion: The wreckage of a suspected North Korean UAV is shown on Baengnyeong Island in this handout image from April 2. As a result, South Korea plans to buy radars to detect future threats. (South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images)
SEOUL — In the wake of suspected infiltration by unmanned aircraft presumed to be made in North Korea, Seoul has laid out plans to buy low-altitude radars to help detect enemy drones.
In recent weeks, three crashed UAVs were discovered near the border areas, including on an island just south of the sea border between the two countries.
Painted sky-blue, the planes were less than 2 meters in length and width and were equipped with Japanese Nikon digital cameras to take pictures of key military installations, as well as the presidential office in central Seoul.
Receiving a barrage of criticism for its air security loophole, the South Korean military said it is considering buying Israel’s RPS-42 Tactical Air Surveillance Radar System.
The system is fitted with an active electronically scanned array radar built by RADA Electronic Industries, and it can detect aerial objects within a radius of 30 kilometers. The radar is also known to detect a 2-meter-long object within 10 kilometers.
The South Korean military operates TPS-840K missile control and ground surveillance radars, but these are not known for being able to detect a non-metal object less than 2 meters wide.
“A team of acquisition officials were dispatched to Israel to test the performance of the RPS-42 radar,” Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told the National Assembly on April 9. “We’ll make a final decision based on the test results.”
Lee Yong-geol, director of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), also visited Israel this month to discuss defense cooperation with that country, including a potential buy of the RPS-42 radar system.
“The military has assigned $191 million to buy 10 low-altitude radars and other surveillance equipment this year,” a DAPA spokesman said. “The surveillance systems will be deployed as early as late this year near the presidential office and other front-line military installations.”
The military also is considering modifying UK-made multipurpose radars for UAV detection. Twenty-four Blighter electronic scanning radars, developed by Plextek, are being operated in South Korea.
Blighter is a long-range ground surveillance radar suited to detecting moving vehicles and people.
“Tests for Blighter radars have been underway by front-line units, and the results are quite good,” said Kim Min-seok, spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense.
In the latest test, the radar detected a UAV 10 kilometers away and a helicopter-borne camera 1.5 kilometers away, he said.
The military asked Plextek to modify the radar enough to spot a UAV that is less than 2 meters, Kim said.
On top of the radar, the military is pushing to acquire more thermal observation devices and multipurpose telescopes, according to the official.
A laser weapon system that can destroy an approaching UAV is being considered for integration with the low-altitude radar. A candidate is a system made by Germany’s Rheinmetall Defence.
In bids to bolster the air security in the South, Seoul and Washington plan to define threats of North Korean drones and come up with countermeasures as part of their joint military operational plans.
The military made locally built UAVs public on April 8 amid criticism for failing to counter North Korea’s UAV threats.
One of them is the Remoeye-006, developed by Uconsystem. It is 1.72 meters long, 2.72 meters wide and weighs 6.5 kilograms.
The Remoeye-006 can conduct missions at day and night with infrared cameras and relay data in real time. It can fly up to 12 hours at a maximum speed of 75 kilometers per hour.
South Korea also operates the RQ-101 Songgolmae UAV built by Korea Aerospace Industries. Its camera can swivel around to offer panoramic pictures covering up to 20 kilometers during the day and 10 kilometers at night. It is 5 meters long and 6.2 meters wide and can fly at a maximum speed of 150 kilometers per hour.
South Korea is introducing medium- and high-altitude UAVs in coming years. Last month, the Defense Ministry announced it would buy four Global Hawks from Northrop Grumman for $815 million with the first delivery by 2018.
North Korea is believed to have about 300 reconnaissance drones and about 10 Russian-made Shmel UAVs carrying bombs, according to the Defense Ministry.
Drones called Banghyeon are said to have been remodeled Chinese-made D-4 UAVs. Each drone’s fuselage is estimated to be 3.6 meters long with a wingspan of 4.8 meters. The UAV is believed to fly at a maximum speed of 160 kilometers per hour.
The Shmel is a short-range UAV that the North is believed to have procured in the 1990s. With a range of 60 kilometers, it can fly at a maximum speed of 150 kilometers per hour. ■