In world first, South Korea to deploy ‘StarWars’ drone-targeting laser system

As Israel is still developing its Iron Beam, Seoul unveils new cheap weapons that shoot down aerial threats by zapping them with beam of light to burn engines or other parts

South Korean army soldiers patrol along the barbed-wire fence in Paju, near the border with North Korea, June 27, 2024. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)
South Korean army soldiers patrol along the barbed-wire fence in Paju, near the border with North Korea, June 27, 2024. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

SEOUL — South Korea will deploy laser weapons to shoot down North Korean drones this year, becoming the world’s first country to deploy and operate such weapons in the military, the country’s arms procurement agency said on Thursday.

South Korea has called its laser program the “StarWars project.”

The drone-zapping laser weapons the South Korean military has developed with Hanwha Aerospace are effective and cheap, at 2,000 won ($1.45) per shot, but quiet and invisible, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) said in a statement.

“Our country is becoming the first country in the world to deploy and operate laser weapons, and our military’s response capabilities on North Korea’s drone provocation will be further strengthened,” DAPA said, calling those weapons a game changer in the future battlefield.

The laser weapons shoot down flying drones by burning down engines or other electric equipment in drones with beams of light for 10 to 20 seconds, a DAPA spokesperson explained at a briefing.

Five North Korean drones crossed into South Korea, which is technically still at war with Pyongyang, in December, prompting Seoul to scramble fighter jets and attack helicopters and try to shoot them down, in the first such intrusion since 2017.

Fighting in the 1950-1953 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, and a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas.

File: A suspected North Korean drone is viewed at the Defense Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, on June 21, 2017 (Lee Jung-hoon/Yonhap via AP, File)

North and South Korea have both violated the armistice that governs their shared border by sending drones into each other’s airspace, the United States has said.

Countries including South Korea, China and the United Kingdom are racing to develop and deploy laser weapons, also known as directed energy weapons, according to a US nonprofit think tank RAND Corporation.

There’s substantial interest in those weapons to help counter the proliferation of unmanned systems, as well as targeting missiles in flight or satellites in orbit, the think tank has said.

Israel is also developing its own Iron Beam air defense laser system, as drones have increasingly become a threat posed by terror group Hezbollah and others. In April 2022, the Defense Ministry announced that the laser system had shot down drones, rockets, mortars and anti-tank missiles in a first series of tests.

The ministry’s research and development department initially planned to deploy the anti-missile system by 2024, with the military having pushed for an earlier deployment. Then-prime minister Naftali Bennett announced in February 2022 that Israel would deploy the system within the year.

However, it has still not been put into service.

The ‘Iron Beam’ laser-based air defense system is seen intercepting a target over southern Israel, March 2022. (Defense Ministry)

In December 2022, US defense contractor Lockheed Martin signed an agreement with the Israeli Rafael weapons manufacturer to join the development of Iron Beam.

Lockheed Martin said at the time the cooperation would be geared toward developing, testing and manufacturing a variant of the Iron Beam system for the American market, as well as others.

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