The Israel-Palestine conflict has provided a sharp lesson on how future battles might be fought the world over. The Korean Peninsula is no exception to this thought experiment.
The short war, before both sides began observing a ceasefire on May 21, has been most visibly characterized by the graphic imagery of Hamas launching a volley of rockets from the Gaza Strip at Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, and Israeli forces using interceptors to destroy many of them in the air. If the incident were to be replicated on the Korean Peninsula, we would most likely see “kill cam” footage of North Korean drones or artillery attacking a wide array of targets ranging from armored fighting vehicles like main battle tanks to unprotected civilian zip codes of metropolitan Seoul — and they would do so with devastating effect.
It is not imagery or a notion widely understood in the West, but conflicts like this have the potential to both escalate into wider regional turmoil and redefine how state actors engage in warfare altogether, not to mention adding fuel to an already fiery and contentious geopolitical tug-of-war.
The use of rockets or armed drones isn’t new, of course. Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) armed with Hellfire missiles were used extensively in Afghanistan and elsewhere. And potential defenders are aware of the threats enemy missiles and rockets continue to pose. Commander of the United States Forces Korea Gen. Robert Abrams said in March that the United States will deploy two “specific” anti-missile defense capabilities in South Korea this year in addition to the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system that is already in place.
What’s different in the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the use of low-cost loitering munition systems, along with rockets, by Hamas. Each rocket or drone costs far less than a crewed platform or a fully reusable UAV. In the future, rapid manufacturing technologies will allow aggressors like Hamas and North Korea to acquire them at an even lower cost and use them in large swarms. That’s a potential game-changer for modern warfare.
This has generated debate on whether expensive and technologically savvy systems, both offensive and defensive, can survive in future battles against masses of cheap suicide drones. Is the tank, which first emerged on the battlefields of Europe in the early 20th century, now approaching the twilight of its military utility?
Seoul is planning to spend more money on boosting its missile defense shield in response to Pyongyang’s evolving missile capability. Under last year’s midterm defense budget plan, the South Korean military had planned to spend about $240 billion, representing an annual defense budget increase of 7 percent over the 2020-2024 period. Out of this, some $85 billion would be invested on arms improvements, marking a 10.3 percent year-on-year increase over the next five years.
For South Korea and its two central missile defense systems of “Kill Chain” and the Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) architecture – the first two of the “K3” suite of capabilities, which seek to protect military assets and minimize South Korean casualties – the likelihood of large numbers of low-cost drones operating over the future battlespace should be a concern for the nation’s defense planners.
Some experts point to the ongoing development of L-SAM and KM-SAM – a locally made long-range surface-to-air missile and domestically manufactured medium-range surface-to-air missile capable of engaging a wide variety of incoming projectiles and targets, respectively – as South Korea’s next big hope.
These big projects are without a doubt important for the future capability of the Republic of Korea Armed Forces, and it would be premature to write off these systems as obsolete. But cheap drones and rockets can’t be ignored either. Decisionmakers need to ensure capability is effective even in the face of rapid technological shifts.
The suicide drone or artillery shower isn’t going to disappear from the battlespace. Given the sophistication of the systems now employed on both side of the recent Israel-Palestine conflict, it’s prudent to consider the capabilities that might be used by a major power or actor in the Indo-Pacific region.
That being said, a critical assessment of the survivability of future combat systems is instrumental to the capability development process.
The rockets launched from Gaza have tested Israel’s Iron Dome, which has proven to be an effective truck-towed, multi-mission defense system capable of intercepting close to 3,000 incoming targets with a success rate of over 90 percent.
The first lesson drawn from this incident from afar is to pursue a fast, resilient, and survivable extremely low altitude air defense capability that is also highly mobile. The system needs to be able to directly support vehicles carrying infantry and protect systems such as self-propelled artillery — but most importantly carry out all these functions while defending itself. The evidence from past conflicts across the globe suggests that drones attack battlefield air defense systems first to gain and maintain control of the low-altitude airspace before attacking ground combat systems.
Relying on traditional ground-based systems such as the Patriot Advanced Capability to counter large numbers of small, cheap lethal projectiles will quickly exhaust these expensive missiles — and there will always be more drones and projectiles on the way. With cheaper drones likely to cost around $100,000 each versus a $50 million armored vehicle, the drone wins the value-for-money contest.
South Korea’s defense improvement plans have the right answer with a focus on strengthening independent capabilities of reconnaissance and surveillance. They also include greater investments to acquire electromagnetic pulse bombs, SM-3 ship-launched surface-to-air missiles, more airlifters, and upgrades of F-15K sensors including anti-jamming systems among a sea of counter-drone and missile systems that rely on electronic warfare technology. These initiatives need to be fast-tracked.
The roles of these weapons and systems should be expanded beyond defense of individual vehicles. Speed and sustained effect are crucial against large swarms of cheap, lethal UAVs.
It’s also important to recognize that unlike South Korea and other liberal democracies, adversaries may have no ethical or legal concerns about using autonomous weapons. They will use these new technologies without moral constraint across a wide range of battlespace domains.
If South Korea has to fight a new kind of war, it will need to be able to attack with its own swarms — or Seoul may end up getting drawn into a battlefield with one hand tied behind its back.