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 programme the “StarWars project”.

The drone-zapping laser weapons the South Korean military has developed with Hanwha Aerospace are effective and cheap, with 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 as 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.

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 U.S. 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.