CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — Three South Korean companies have started mass producing a medium-altitude reconnaissance drone for the country’s Air Force.

The government’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration announced the work Jan. 25 amid efforts to bolster surveillance of North Korea.

The government inked the procurement deal Dec. 21 with prime contractor Korean Air Aerospace Division, plus subsystem partners LIG Nex1 and Hanwha Systems. According to DAPA, the 471.7 billion won (U.S. $353.6 million) contract will see Korean Air “sequentially deliver” an undisclosed quantity of unmanned aircraft to the South Korean Air Force. Delivery is expected to continue into 2028.

Korean Air refers to this aircraft as the KUS-FS, whereas DAPA calls it a medium-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle.

According to specifications released by the original equipment manufacturer, the platform has a 25-meter (82-foot) wingspan and length of 13 meters (43 feet). A Korean Air engineer told Defense News at the Seoul ADEX trade show in October that the aircraft’s endurance exceeds 30 hours. A Hanwha Aerospace-made 1,200-horsepower turboprop engine offers a cruise speed of approximately 190 knots (219 mph).

Equipped with satellite communications technology as well as Ku-band and ultra-high frequency-band line-of-sight data links, operators can control the drone from either a fixed-site ground control station or a trailer-mounted, 40-foot container for greater mobility.

The aircraft includes a LIG Nex1 X-band synthetic aperture radar, and can perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; electronic warfare; signals intelligence missions; and communications relay in midair.

Four underwing hardpoints are visible on the prototype, indicating the unarmed drone may evolve into a combat-capable UAV.

DAPA said in a news release that the platform is South Korea’s first domestically developed strategic UAV. “It is expected that the Korean military’s independent surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities will advance dramatically in the future,” the agency stated, given the drone can perform real-time monitoring of neighboring North Korea.

Work on this project began 16 years ago under the aegis of the Agency for Defense Development. The UAV’s maiden flight occurred in 2012, with a Korean Air official telling Defense News that it has since undergone “hundreds of test flights.” Testing was supposed to wrap up in 2019, but the schedule was delayed several years to ensure the drone’s reliablility before it entered service, the representative explained.

Development concluded in March 2022, at which time it was determined to be suitable for operations. Governmental approval to proceed with production was subsequently granted last August.

“We expect that the mass production project for the MUAV will improve our military’s surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, and contribute to the increase in defense industry exports in the future,” Kim Tae-gon, director of DAPA’s advanced technology division, said in the agency’s release.

Indeed, the drone’s export potential is important to the government, although DAPA suggested other national agencies will eventually operate modified variants, specifically the Korea Forest Service for monitoring fires and the Korea Coast Guard. However, an industry source told Defense News that such agencies do not have enough money to buy and operate such sophisticated systems.

Gordon Arthur is an Asia correspondent for Defense News. After a 20-year stint working in Hong Kong, he now resides in New Zealand. He has attended military exercises and defense exhibitions in about 20 countries around the Asia-Pacific region.

More In Unmanned