A simple, inflatable unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) recently made its debut at the 2014 Tianjin International UAV and Model Exposition August 29-31 in Tianjin, China. Called the SF-1 by its creator, Chinese engineer Zhang Bingyan, it shows serious potential as a system which could be of interest to North Korea.
The SF-1 UAV has a speed of approximately 20 kilometers per hour and a flight range of 100 kilometers, as well as service ceiling (maximum altitude) of 4,000 meters, and is capable of carrying a payload – such as reconnaissance equipment – weighing up to 25 kilograms. The SF-1 is relatively cheap, at a cost of $30,000-$50,000 per unit, and, with the exception of the engine and some metal structural elements, the UAV is composed of only an inflatable composite skin.
The UAV body is highly pliable, capable of being packed in a suitcase for easy deployment. Zhang, who previously worked for the Chinese Commission of Science and Technology and Industry for National Defense, said the material used would make the craft more durable in the event of a hard landing. It also features a flight computer, which allows the UAV to fly along pre-programmed routes.
While there are no current indications that North Korea has or intends to purchase the SF-1, its low cost, ease of deployability, durability relative to drones of similar capabilities, the regime’s recent interest in developing UAVs and its apparent willingness to acquire privately made Chinese UAVs or incorporate them in its designs, suggest that the SF-1 may lend itself to future use by the DPRK.
If acquired or copied by North Korea, the aircraft could be employed in a low-level aerial reconnaissance role, presumably along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas. The ability to conduct aerial reconnaissance is absolutely vital to any military. Aerial assets provide knowledge regarding battlefield terrain, enemy positions, troop deployments and training. Aerial photographs are able to reveal details unavailable to those on the ground, and this perspective has been coveted by battlefield commanders for as long as aircraft have been used in war.
…there has been significant concern among intelligence and military officials in South Korea that North Korea will increasingly utilize UAVs to supplement their military intelligence
While it is known that North Korea possesses significant assets dedicated to ground-based reconnaissance, it is believed that their aerial reconnaissance has been lacking, due largely to the cost-burden of operating conventional aircraft. As such, and in light of the discovery of several crashed, apparently North Korean, drones over the last year, there has been significant concern among intelligence and military officials in South Korea that North Korea will increasingly utilize UAVs to supplement their military intelligence.
It should be noted that although Chinese UAVs such as the SF-1 have clear military applications, many of them, including the SF-1, are produced and marketed by private companies. While China does have a sanctions regime prohibiting the export of certain dual-use products (products capable of fulfilling both civilian and military roles), most of these are focused on potential missile and WMD components. Coupled with North Korea’s apparent skill at skirting international sanctions, it is entirely reasonable to assume that they could acquire this system.
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