The U.S. is to deploy new attack drones in South Korea that could be used to kill North Korean leaders and launch pinpoint strikes on its missile launch pads.
Twelve Gray Eagle/MQ-1Cs will arrive at an air base in Gunsan, North Jeolla Province in March and April. Their deployment coincides with joint South Korea-U.S. drills that will be staged in early April right after the closing of the Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang.
Construction of a hangar and other support facilities was completed late last month, and support personnel have already arrived.
The Gray Eagle is an improved version of the MQ-1 Predator, the leading U.S. medium-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle, and has both strike and reconnaissance capabilities.
With a 17 m wingspan, it is 8 m long and can fly at a maximum speed of 280 km/h for up to 30 hours. It is capable of non-stop surveillance missions and intelligence gathering in an area of a 400 km radius from an altitude of 7.6 km, which means it can target most parts of North Korea.
It could hit a vehicle carrying North Korean leaders, a missile launch site, or mobile missile launchers with four Hellfire anti-tank missiles or four Viper Strike small guided precision bombs. Each GPS-guided Viper Strike bomb weighs 20 kg and is accurate to within 1 meter so it can destroy even a fast-moving vehicle.
Last year, Beijing objected to the deployment plan, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying saying all sides concerned should "step on the brakes" if they want peace and stability in the region.
Beijing is worried because the Gray Eagle could carry out surveillance of China's Shandong Peninsula, which is about 400 km from Gunsan.