By Michael Hernandez
WASHINGTON (AA) - The U.S. military announced Monday it has started the process to deploy an offensive-capable drone to its air base on the west coast of South Korea.
U.S. Forces Korea said in a statement it will deploy a company of Gray Eagle drones to Kunsan Air Base, which is already home to the Air Force's 8th Fighter Wing.
"The stationing of this company, which will be assigned to the 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, directly supports the U.S. Army’s strategic plan to add one Gray Eagle company to each division in the Army," the command said.
"The UAS adds significant intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability to U.S. Forces Korea and our ROK partners," it added, referring to an unmanned aerial system.
Cmdr. Gary Ross told Anadolu Agency the Gray Eagle drone will be deployed early next year along with a supporting team to operate the vehicle.
The Gray Eagle system can stay airborne for up to 24 hours and is capable of carrying up to four Hellfire missiles, according to the Army.
The announcement comes amidst heightened tension on the peninsula.
The U.S. last week sent the initial components of a controversial missile defense system to South Korea, angering China in the process.
China’s Foreign Ministry repeated its threat to take necessary steps in response to the move, having reportedly already ordered travel agencies to stop selling packages to South Korea this month among a series of unofficial economic sanctions.
With nearly 30,000 American troops based in the South, THAAD is not the first deployment of U.S. hardware to the peninsula, but Beijing is concerned about the system’s potential spying capability.
Seoul and Washington maintain the battery is aimed at countering North Korea, as the reclusive state continues to develop nuclear weapons -- including with a quadruple ballistic missile test Monday that resulted in the missiles landing in the Sea of Japan.
In addition to China’s disapproval, South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party denounced the deployment as rushed and unilateral.
*Anadolu Agency correspondent in Washington Kasim Ileri contributed to this report