South Korean defense sector enlisting robotics to bolster capability, exports

South Korean defense sector enlisting robotics to bolster capability, exports

Felix Kim

Automation will play an ever-increasing role in South Korea’s defense sector, with enhanced technologies strengthening the nation’s defense capability and positioning it as a leading defense industry exporter, according to government officials.

Building robots to perform tasks currently done by people will also benefit a country with a declining population and labor pool, particularly among young men eligible for military service, analysts say.

“The [South] Korean government already expects a decrease of the total troop number from 590,000 in 2018 to 500,000 in 2022; reducing almost 100,000 troops in just four years,” Dr. Kim Jae Yeop of the Pacific Rim Institute for Strategic Studies told FORUM. “Furthermore, based on the trend of low birth rate, a number of studies forecast that [South] Korea may be forced to reduce its troops to 400,000 or even less by the early 2030s.”

With its ranks shrinking, the nation’s military is pursuing “development of unmanned and robotics systems as an alternative,” Kim said.

Budget increases for drones and ambitious plans for employing robots in military kitchens were among the topics raised by South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook and Moon Sung-wook, minister of trade, industry and energy, at the eighth Defense Industry Development Council meeting in August 2021, according to a Ministry of National Defense (MND) news release.

The MND will spend more than U.S. $32 million to buy drones for military use in 2022, more than six times the 2021 amount, Suh announced. It also agreed to increase the budget for fast-trial acquisition from about U.S. $26 million in 2021 to nearly U.S. $53 million in 2022 to bring drone technology to market sooner. (Pictured: A Republic of Korea service member watches a drone demonstration during the DX Korea 2020 defense expo in South Korea.)

Suh said a road map for medium- and long-term commercial drone requirements is being prepared, including plans for civilian drone use in various fields and a plan to present information to private sector manufacturers. This follows the successful use of drones for military functions such as transportation and surveillance, as well as combat experiments, he said.

Also at the council meeting, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy called for applying the “robot utilization standard process model” to military catering within a year in collaboration with the MND and its Defense Acquisition Program Administration. Under the plan, robots would perform tasks such as frying, stir frying, soup preparation and high-temperature cooking and serve the meals to troops at the Army Training Center.

If the program is successful, the MND hopes to expand its use to field kitchens to further automate the military catering supply chain and reduce human labor.

Robots also will soon have an expanded role in defense vehicle manufacturing, officials said at the council meeting. That will bolster the industry’s development and lead to “increased exports,” Moon said.

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.