North Korea shows off a pair of UAVs that copy US aircraft

North Korea released images of leader Kim Jong-un inspecting two UAV models similar in appearance to the US RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper.

North Korea’s central television station, KCTV, on January 15, published images of leader Kim Jong-un inspecting the air force base that operates the country’s most modern unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The filming time was not disclosed, but Mr. Kim’s outfit showed that the visit seemed to take place in the summer and fall.

North Korean state media said the two aircraft appearing in the picture include the strategic reconnaissance UAV Saetbyol-4 (Sao Mai-4) and the multi-purpose attack UAV Saetbyol-9 (Sao Mai-9). Western experts say they are almost exact copies of the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper lines developed by the US.

North Korea launched these two UAV models in July 2023 and showed images of them flying over the capital, Pyongyang, showing that both are operational aircraft and not static models for display. They are displayed below ground. However, the technical specifications of Saetbyol-4 and Saetbyol-9 have not been revealed.

“The shape and size show that the Saetbyol-4 is designed to operate at high altitudes and long distances. The US version of the RQ-4A can operate continuously for more than 30 hours, performing reconnaissance and reconnaissance missions. , equipped with image and signal intelligence sensors and moving target markings,” commented US military expert Tyler Rogoway.

Meanwhile, satellite images show that the Saetbyol-9 has a wingspan of 19.8 m, slightly less than the 20.1 m wingspan of the MQ-9 Reaper. It once appeared at an exhibition in Pyongyang with 6 weapon pylons under the wings, accompanied by surface-to-surface missiles shaped like the American AGM-114 Hellfire series.

Some experts are impressed with North Korea’s copying ability but remain skeptical about the true capabilities of Saetbyol-4 and Saetbyol-9. Pyongyang does not yet possess a dense satellite network, making it impossible for UAVs to operate too far from their base if they want to maintain high-speed data transmission and real-time control capabilities.

Mr. Kim Jong-un (right) next to UAV Saetbyol-9 in photo released on January 15.  Photo: KCTV

Mr. Kim Jong-un (right) next to UAV Saetbyol-9 in a photo released on January 15. Photo: KCTV

“The high-tech sensors of the RQ-4 and MQ-9 series remain out of Pyongyang’s reach, even if they have a spy network abroad. That could force North Korea to equip the devices with much inferior features to copied UAVs. The complex composite structure inside the aircraft and engine is also a significant obstacle, which can significantly limit the flight range and operating ceiling of these UAVs.”, Rogoway stated his opinion.

It is unclear how North Korea developed UAV models that resemble American aircraft. Iran has successfully copied a series of US UAVs, including the RQ-170 Sentinel stealth reconnaissance aircraft, as well as shot down an RQ-4N “BAMS-D” and recovered the body for research in 2019.

“The birth of the two aircraft can be considered an impressive achievement for the North Korean aviation industry, marking a major leap forward in the country’s drone capabilities,” Rogoway said.