US deploys drones in South Korea capable of striking North Korean targets
The deployment of drones, which will be assigned to the 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, is part of a broader plan to reinforce each Army division with one Gray Eagle company, US Forces Korea (USFK) said in a statement:
"The US Army, after coordination with the Republic of Korea Armed Forces and the US Air Force, has begun the process to permanently station a Gray Eagle Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) company at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea."
“The [unmanned aerial system] adds significant intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability to US Forces Korea and our [South Korean] partners,” spokesman Christopher Bush said in a statement.
He did not specify when the drones will arrive in South Korea.
Earlier on Monday, an unnamed South Korean military official told Yonhap news agency that “the US Army has begun the process to dispatch a squadron, which will operate the Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft, to a US unit in Kunsan (274 kilometers south of Seoul).”
The source did not provide exact details, but noted that the reinforcement of the US air base at Gunsan, home to the Air Force’s 8th Fighter Wing, is being discussed
The official noted that the Gray Eagle system could obliterate Pyongyang’s critical military infrastructure north of the demarcation line between the two Koreas, including North Korea’s operational command, if all-out war was to break out on the Peninsula.
The drone, developed by General Atomics, can be armed with four AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles or four GPS-aided GBU-44/B Viper Strike glide bombs, which can be used for precision strikes. It can operate for approximately 36 hours at altitudes up to 7,600 meters with a range of 400 kilometers.
According to the Washington Post, the drone has already flown combat missions in Iraq as part of the US-led coalition’s campaign against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL). One Gray Eagle was lost in action in Iraq last year, and another three crashed in Afghanistan.
The news of a possible new drone deployment comes amid spiraling tensions on the Korean peninsula, with the latest flare-up coming last week, when large-scale US-South Korean military exercises called Foal Eagle kicked off, which are to run through the end of April. Last year, 300,000 South Korean and 15,000 US troops participated.
The North sees the massive war games as a military provocation and, last Monday, an angry Pyongyang test-fired four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan in answer.
A day later, the US military began assembling a THAAD missile defense system in South Korea to counter the threat of possible attacks coming from the North. This deployment is controversial, having already been condemned by both Russia and China, and it may be put on hold or contested, as the leading candidates to replace impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye are split on the issue.
However, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said the THAAD deployment has already been agreed upon by both nations, maintaining that the system will come online regardless of political developments in Seoul. “Leaders change over time, that’s not new,” Davis told a news conference on Friday, as cited by Reuters.
On Friday, the South Korean Air Force said that fifty aircraft, including F-15K and FA-50 fighter jets, were participating in a week-long exercise called Soaring Eagle, which is “designed to hone the Air Force’s capabilities to shoot down enemy missiles and strike its core military facilities,” according to Yonhap.
Aside from the military build-up in the region, there are other indications that both sides are intensively preparing for worst-case scenarios.
It emerged in February that the South Korean military is training a clandestine task force to assassinate North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, at one of his numerous residences, and also to kill his key military and political aides. A similar unit tasked with storming South Korea’s presidential palace in Seoul, exists in the North as well.