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South Korea Wants To Export Battle Tanks

March 22, 2022
Via South Korean media.

Some of the world’s best combat vehicles are assembled in South Korea and are now being shopped around for potential end users. This is the current status of the Hyundai Rotem K2, whose domestic variant is in service with the ROK Army alongside the older K1/K1A1/K1E1 tanks, as it travels beyond Asia. Earlier this year the K2 performed a live fire demonstration in Norway where it was inspected and evaluated. The Norwegian ground force does have an ongoing competition for a new third-generation main battle tank (MBT) that pits Germany’s KMW and South Korea’s Hyundai Rotem with the hopes of fielding the winner by 2025. To its credit, the K2 has superb characteristics.

The K2 is often billed as one of the most sophisticated battle tanks in service today. Hyundai Rotem even used its expertise and knowledge base for the K2 to help develop the Altay battle tank for Turkey, albeit with mixed results due to consistent supply chain problems. (The manufacturer of the Altay is still working on an agreement with a foreign supplier to provide the tank’s drivetrain, without which the Altay remains a complete hull with a large caliber weapon system.) But for all its winning qualities the K2 has its drawbacks; the ROK Army’s procurement of the vehicle was delayed owing to budget issues and only a few hundred are in service. Meanwhile, North Korea has attempted to close the gap with its own new and perplexing battle tanks.

The uncertainties of tank procurement in the last 20 years left the K2 without an enthusiastic end user anywhere outside South Korea although there have been many inquiries. By comparison, Hyundai Rotem’s rival Hanwha Defense enjoyed a strong decade of foreign sales for its K9 self-propelled howitzer. Throughout the 2010s the armies of Estonia, Finland, Norway, and Poland embraced it. Production was transferred to India and Turkey where either variants entered service with their respective ground forces. In 2021 Hanwha Defense was chosen as the supplier for Australia’s future artillery system, establishing the K9’s long-term presence in the continent. This year Hanwha Defense announced it won another lucrative contract worth $1.7 billion to upgrade the Egyptian Army’s artillery inventory, populated at the moment with US-made M109 self-propelled howitzers, with dozens of K9 howitzers and their supporting vehicles such as the K10 supplier and K11 command post/fire direction system.

Via South Korean media.

Hyundai Rotem isn’t giving up, however, and is pushing the K2 throughout Europe and the Middle East. During last year’s MSPO arms show in Poland a tabletop model of the K2 was displayed but months later, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine underway, the US approved a sale for 250 M1A2 SEPv3 battle tanks to Poland worth $6 billion. This effectively killed whatever prospects the K2 had in central and eastern Europe now that the US has shown willingness to expand the Abrams’ footprint among NATO allies. But another market Hyundai Rotem could find success in is the Middle East. There have been unconfirmed reports that Egypt is also in line to receive K2 battle tanks that complement the K9 howitzers it just ordered. The Gulf state of Oman is looking for new battle tanks to augment its aging fleet of Challenger 2’s and M60A3 Pattons the K2 is the top choice.

Among the advantages the K2 enjoys over third-generation NATO tanks from Europe is an autoloader that’s bustle-mounted–meaning the compartment at the back of the turret–for quickly delivering rounds into the main gun’s breech. (A characteristic it shares with the French-made Leclerc MBT.) There are armor upgrades and passive protection systems, as well as an optional “hard kill” detection system, available to enhance its survivability in combat. A secondary armament consisting of a remote weapon station with a heavy machine gun is available too. Some of the features described above were seen on a K2 on static display at the Seoul ADEX 2021 arms show last year where the tank was even painted in a color scheme best described as desert tan. (See photo above.)

Despite the odds, the K2 enjoys potential success as an exportable military product since Hyundai Rotem is willing to offer end users localized assembly and, should the need arise, a redesign of the vehicle’s layout. But the risks are always there; manufacturers from Germany and US have too much clout with militaries in the Western alliance system, thereby giving the Leopard 2A7 and the M1A2 serious advantages when in competition against the K2. There’s also the looming shadow of China’s Norinco and its impressive catalog. Simply put, Norinco and other Chinese state-owned manufacturers are better at exporting land systems for militaries that have no access to NATO weapon systems.


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