South Korea's army is preparing a special unit that would use drone swarms in combat, and it is expected to become operational next year and could target the North's missile, nuclear and other military activities.
Experts say the small weaponized drones could potentially fly into North Korea to attack rocket launchers, radar installations or communications infrastructure. They also believe the drone swarms could be effective in targeting ground forces and convoys of vehicles, among other things.
"Drones are capable of doing some amount of surveillance and attacks against very soft targets," said Dean Cheng, a defense expert and senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank "There's a pretty reasonable chance they can escape detection."
According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, the country's army envisions what it calls a "dronebot" force that would utilize drone and robot technology. Besides armed drones, the unmanned aircraft also could be used in reconnaissance and surveillance missions.
"We will launch a dronebot combat unit next year and use it as a 'game changer' in warfare," a South Korean army official told Yonhap.
Also, the news agency said the special dronebot unit could use the weapons "against such core North Korean targets as nuclear and missile sites. In case of a contingency, swarms of dronebots will be mobilized to launch attacks."
Drone swarms of hundreds of small unmanned aircraft can potentially overwhelm forces on the ground and would also be difficult to entirely shoot down but could be vulnerable to enemy jamming. The drones likely would be able to communicate with each other and have flights preprogrammed and rely on satellite guidance, although they could carry sensors that would allow them to recognize specific features on the ground or moving targets.
At the same time, North Korea also has been developing its own drone weapons. A North Korean defector claimed earlier this year that Pyongyang may have hundreds of attack drones capable of unleashing biological and chemical weapons.
Analysts say the drone swarms by South Korea could be used to target a leadership convoy or limousine, including one carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The swarms also could utilize "kamikaze" style, meaning the weapon self-destructs when hitting targets.
Indeed, there were rumblings in September that South Korea was forming a "decapitation unit" to target the hermit regime's leadership, according to The New York Times. The report followed the North's sixth nuclear test.
"You could use them for assassination strikes or you could use them for preventative strikes," said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, a U.S think tank.
Added Kazianis, "If you build them cheap enough and build enough of them you almost have a situation like it's the 'Terminator' — basically having drones and robotic weapon systems. So this is why the United States and countries like South Korea, who have the money and the R&D capabilities, are investing in them."
Still, the dronebots probably wouldn't have weapons as powerful as large unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the U.S.-made Predator or Reaper. That said, they could conduct surveillance and then disable the North's ballistic missiles on transporter-launcher vehicles or take out rocket or artillery batteries.
"North Korea is believed to have hundreds if not more well-defended artillery units," said John Schaus, a defense expert and fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Schaus said the North's military has artillery placements that are sometimes dug into mountains so they can retreat back for protection. However, with a swarm of drones the South Koreans could identify those units as they come out and strike them.
"What we're hearing about is still notional," said Cheng. "We don't have any evidence they've created it yet. But we've seen what drones can do."
For one, the U.S. has been conducting research and development on drone swarms for many years. One project the Pentagon is planning to test is "aircraft carriers in the sky" that would launch and retrieve swarms of drones using a transport aircraft.
Experts say the drone swarms also would be more difficult to detect than most combat aircraft.
For many years, drones from North Korea have penetrated South Korean airspace and conducted surveillance on sensitive government and military facilities.
In 2014, a drone believed to be from the North was found in the Seoul area and believed to have flown over the so-called Blue House, or the president's official residence. Also, a North Korean drone was recovered earlier this year near the border after it had reportedly taken photographs more than 100 miles away of the U.S.-supplied THAAD missile defense system.