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South Korea and US to Develop Unmanned Helicopter Gunship

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Asia Defense

South Korea and US to Develop Unmanned Helicopter Gunship

Boeing and Korean Air signed a memorandum of agreement in late September.

South Korea and US to Develop Unmanned Helicopter Gunship
Credit: Boeing

U.S. defense contractor Boeing and South Korean aircraft manufacturer Korean Air Aerospace Division (KAL-ASD) signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) on September 21 to jointly develop an unnamed variant of the U.S.-made MD500 light attack helicopter for the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army and the international market, according to a September 22 Korean Air press release.

Boeing will provide technical support, including for flight control, and both companies will also market exports of the MD500. “Korean Air successfully remodeled the ROK Air Force’s retired MD500 helicopters to unmanned helicopters from 2014 to May 2016,” the press release notes. “Based on this success, Korean Air has launched a new project that will run until 2017 to remodel MD500 helicopters into unmanned armed helicopters.”

As I reported previously (See: “South Korea Unveils Unmanned Combat Helicopter”), the unmanned MD500 light helicopter gunship, dubbed KUS-VH, is the result of extensive technology cooperation between Boeing and Korean Air as a part of the U.S. defense contractor’s offset obligation following South Korea’s decision to acquire 36 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters in 2013.

The MD500 would be an ideal addition to the ROK Army’s new fleet of AH-64E Apache gunships and could serve as a reconnaissance unnamed aerial vehicle (UAV) guiding the heavily armored attack helicopters. “Equipped with a so-called manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) capability, the AH-64E Apaches’ slated to be delivered to South Korea will already come equipped to control the sensors and weapon systems of UAVs,” I explained elsewhere.

However, the unmanned helicopter will also be armed. “The new MD500 armed unmanned helicopter will not only be able to perform day and night reconnaissance and surveillance missions but will also be able to conduct a short-distance precision strike, a feature which will maximize the helicopter’s usage at the front line when an immediate response is required,” the press release notes.

During the 2015 Seoul International Aerospace & Defense Exhibition, a full-sized mockup of the unmanned MD500 variant was armed with two Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and a pod of 2.75 inch-diameter rockets.

As I reported previously:

In 2013, Boeing and KAL-ASD signed a memorandum of understanding to convert the South Korean military’s fleet of MD500 light attack helicopters into unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In December 2012, Boeing offered a first flight demonstration of an unmanned MD500 at the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) flight school in Nonsan.

The ROK Army currently possesses a MD500 fleet of 175 light-attack helicopters—130 scout and 45 light-attack aircraft. It plans to retire the aircraft within a decade. However, Boeing and Korean Air have proposed to convert some of the MD500 into UAVs. Until now, the South Korean government has not made an official decision. Boeing and Korean Air are currently working on two MD500 prototypes.