First Look at North Korea’s Massive New Surveillance Drone: An Important Force Multiplier and Landmark Industry Achievement

The North Korean state run Korean Central News Agency has released the first footage of an unnamed new class of drone, which is one of the largest in the world and by far the largest ever deployed by the country. The aircraft was shown in a video released on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, which is celebrated in the country as a victory day against an attempted U.S.-led invasion, and was filmed both in flight and at an airfield. The aircraft resembles the U.S. Navy’s MQ-4C Triton high endurance surveillance drone which has played an increasingly central role supporting the expansion of the American military presence in the Pacific, as well as the U.S. Air Force’s RQ-4A Global Hawk which was famously shot down near Iran in June 2019. These are among the most high end drone designs in the American arsenal. The Korean aircraft also more loosely resembles the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s WZ-7 Soaring Dragon drone, albeit without the unique joined wing design. The American and Chinese drones were developed for very long range aerial reconnaissance, and provision of targeting data for a range of missile designs, with the unnamed Korean aircraft expected to fulfil a similar role. Developing its own drone which appears to be in the same class is one of the most significant landmark achievements by North Korea’s defence sector which have placed it in a very high league despite its relatively limited budget, following its notable success becoming the third country to field hypersonic glide vehicles.

The new Korean surveillance drone could serve as a key force multiplier for the country’s fast expanding arsenals of precision strike assets, with its unveiling coming as North Korea has also invested in improving its satellite surveillance capabilities. There is  a possibility that North Korea received support from China or Iran in developing the drone, with Iran fielding the Fotros and Saegheh long range surveillance drones among others and reported to have recovered parts of the American RQ-4A for study after shooting it down in 2019. A bust of the new Korean drone, alongside a number of new pieces of military hardware, was shown at an exhibition where Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu met with North Korean leader Chairman Kim Jong Un on July 27. Russia notable lacks comparable drones in its own inventory, and for lighter unmanned aircraft has turned to Iran to provide for the requirements of its armed forces. It has been speculated that North Korea could provide a range of important military assets to Russia, with a number of its assets such as rocket artillery systems having significant performance advantages over their Russian equivalents. A number of sources have reported that Russian forces are already using North Korean artillery rounds in their ongoing war effort in Ukraine. The unveiling of new drone models may well open up new opportunities for export, with Russia having no drones in service from a comparable class.