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Do Not Trifle With South Korean Artillery

July 27, 2021

The ROK Army’s K55 SPHs during live fire training. Via South Korean media.

There’s a common impression that North Korea’s military wields enormous leverage over its neighbor across the DMZ because of its absolute firepower. This is true to a certain extent and since the 1990s most analysis of the Korean People’s Army’s (KPA) fortifications along the border with South Korea indicate as many as 20,000 artillery pieces at its disposal. However, over the years and with newer insights gleaned from KPA propaganda it turns out the numbers are deceiving. The KPA is stuck with huge quantities of Soviet vintage artillery manufactured in the 1940s and its arsenal seems enormous only from having so many small caliber weapons that inflate the figures.

In fact, among the most common artillery pieces of the KPA is the antiquated ZiS-3 field gun. Originally meant for defeating Nazi armor in World War 2 the ZiS-3 fires a high velocity 76mm round that may no longer be effective against second and third generation tanks. The ZiS-3 is also reliant on a transporter and in the absence of such its crew is stuck having to prepare and pull the gun on its carriage by themselves. Of course, it’s obvious how impractical this is in combat and it now makes sense why the KPA are introducing new dedicated anti-tank vehicles armed with missiles. The same problems with aging weapons is found in North Korea’s air defenses. When Kim Jong Un came to power in 2012 Soviet vintage 100mm, 57mm, 37mm, and 14.5mm anti-aircraft guns remained in service along with legacy Soviet SAMs (SA-2/S-75, SA-3/S-125, SA-5/S-200) until more advanced replacements that began to appear from 2018 onward.

The problem of having to maintain antiquated weapons isn’t as dire south of the DMZ. While it’s true the ROK Army keep a fair share of US-supplied armaments dating to World War 2 (105mm howitzers and 107mm mortars, for example) a far greater proportion are even more capable than those in service with NATO militaries. This is exemplified by the K9 Thunder, which is reputed to be one of the world’s best self-propelled artillery pieces, whose combat record is on track to be compelling and varied. Licensed assembly of K9 Thunders have been transferred to India and Turkey. Limited exports keep growing, with Estonia, Finland, Norway, and Poland among its operators in Europe. The K9 is vying in tenders for the ground forces of Australia and the UK.

The KH179 is an upgraded variant of the US Army’s M114 howitzer. Via South Korean media.

The ROK Army have an estimated 1,200 K9 Thunders in service together with 1,040 M109A2/K55’s. The KPA’s share of self-propelled howitzers are inadequate by comparison. The majority of them are tracked gun carriages for artillery in calibers such as 100mm (anti-tank gun), 122mm, 130mm, and 152mm. The apogee of this vehicular class was the Koksan that combined an enormous 170mm gun mounted on a repurposed tank chassis. The Koksan was exported in limited numbers to Iran and the United Arab Emirates. By the 1990s the KPA was more forthcoming about its newer self-propelled artillery armed with 122mm and 152mm howitzers but these were manufactured on a smaller scale. On paper the KPA has up to 5,000 self-propelled artillery pieces but when this figure is scrutinized it turns out many are just transporters for short and medium-range weapons–like mounting small rocket launchers on trucks and APCs. It’s not surprising the KPA added a new self-propelled howitzer to its inventory with an updated layout.

At this point the ROK armed forces look better prepared for offensive operations than their long-term rivals. Aside from 2,240 self-propelled howitzers with a 155mm caliber (exact figures for 175mm, 203mm, and self-propelled mortars are elusive) the ROK Army keeps 3,500 towed howitzers and 6,000 mortars in service. The total number of these direct and indirect fire weapons rises considerably when recoilless rifles and rocket launchers are factored in. It should suffice to point out ROK Army does train its soldiers with 90mm and 105mm recoilless rifles. These were originally passed on by the US military but are now manufactured in South Korea. Rocket artillery is part of the equation too and the ROK Army have the very impressive Chunmoo with its adaptable munitions types.

The KH179 in particular dampens any assumptions that the ROK Army is outranged along the DMZ. The KH179 is a 155mm howitzer based on the US Army’s old M114 155mm howitzers that were designed in World War 2. The KH179 is able to fire various types of locally made 155mm munitions and is available for export; Indonesia and Myanmar have purchased KH179’s in small batches. Iran’s state-owned DIO mysteriously reverse engineered it for the IRGC’s artillery units. The ROK Army trains its KH179 batteries alongside older M101 105mm howitzers and their South Korean sibling, the KH178. It remains to be seen if the ROK Army will ever draw up plans for an armored truck howitzer for the KH179. With South Korea’s annual defense budget still climbing each year, innovation is constant, and a new remote controlled 120mm mortar is in the works.

If North Korea has a single advantage in ground warfare at the moment, it’s the KPA’s new generation of accurized rocket artillery, but South Korea’s military-industrial sector has the technology for making the same. The south’s problem isn’t quality, but quantity.

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