ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Nations eager to bolster their military drone chops should look to South Korea, where officials recently centralized the discipline’s various functions under a single umbrella, the chief of South Korea’s drone operations command said.

“Before our drone operations command was established, each branch of our armed forces had their own individual drone units,” Maj. Gen. Lee Bo-hyung said during a panel at the UMEX defense conference on Jan. 22 in the United Arab Emirates.

“However, since every branch has their own area of responsibility, when it came to operational and strategic deployments, there were some limits as to how we conducted our missions,” he added.

South Korea officially established the command in September in the wake of North Korea’s intrusion on Dec. 26, 2022, which included the entry of one enemy system into a no-fly zone near the presidential office in Seoul.

The South Korean military at the time earned much criticism for having failed to intercept and shoot down the drones. Following the incident, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol vowed to rapidly boost the country’s drone-related capabilities and readiness.

Bo-hyung said one of the quickest and most effective moves to that end was creating a joint unit that could entirely dedicate itself to specific drone operations, both defensive and offensive.

“Since North Korea is significantly increasing their military capabilities, including nuclear threats, it is important for our Joint Chiefs of Staff to have a reliable, joint unit that can conduct these types of missions,” he said. “We aim to have an operational and strategic balance at the command; we conduct reconnaissance as well as strike, electronic warfare and psychological warfare operations.”

The unit is based in Pocheon, near the inter-Korean border, and falls under the control of the Defense Ministry and the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman. It is the first joint combat unit to be composed of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps personnel, according to a Korea Times report that quoted a previous military statement.

In line with the new command’s doctrine, all missions must now include mobile counter-drone capabilities for detecting and classifying enemy unmanned aircraft. The unit is also tasked with standardizing the education curriculum of the country’s different military branches as well as setting safety standards about the deployment of forces, Bo-hyung said.

“A great number of countries around the world are interested in deploying their drone forces as early as possible, so we suggest that they can look at our case as an example and could create something similar,” Bo-hyung added.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s drone-focused reorganization comes against the backdrop of an increasingly hostile stance by the North. According to the North’s state news agency KCNA, leader Kim Jong Un said the government would boost its nuclear arsenal in 2024 and abandon the objective of reunification with South Korea, instead designating its neighbor as an enemy.

Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.

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