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Old Patton Tanks Help Defend South Korea

March 26, 2022
An M48A5 Patton undergoing maintenance at an ROK Army depot. Via South Korean media.

A lot of older US-made equipment and weaponry are kept serviceable by some Asian militaries to an astonishing degree. Perhaps none are as diligent and fastidious as the ROK Army, whose arsenal still boasts some aging “platforms” for when things get out of hand, and strict maintenance schedules are kept for their tank fleet’s eldest members: the M48 Pattons. If the numbers are accurate there are an estimated 1,200 tanks supplied by the US that remain in South Korea. In the 1990s they numbered between 800 to 850 M48A3/A5 tanks in service while some 400 of the lighter M47’s were retired. Today maybe half the M48A5’s are kept around for occasional live fire exercises.

While it’s true the ROK Army’s size and inventory are smaller than its rival across the DMZ it more than compensates with better engineered and better performing vehicles. When it comes to tanks there are less than 300 of the newer K2 battle tanks in service together with 1,501 K1/K1A1/K1E1 battle tanks whose production started in the late 1980s. By comparison, North Korea’s ground forces may appear to enjoy numerical superiority with as many as 4,000 to 4,500 tanks until the details beneath these numbers are examined; the KPA’s tank fleet includes Soviet vintage T-34 and T-55 medium tanks along with a variety of turretless “assault guns.” When only the KPA’s T-62 medium tanks and locally assembled Chonma Ho and Pokpung Ho MBTs are acknowledged the once yawning gap with the ROK Army disappears.

But North Korea’s heavy industries maintain active production lines for tanks and new models are being introduced each decade, albeit with questionable features. Even if it’s assumed the KPA are receiving fresh batches of the intriguing “M-2020” on a scheduled basis–with, for example, 40 tanks completed per annum–the total numbers are miniscule and don’t alter the firepower balance across the DMZ. South Korea launched its indigenous main battle tank (MBT) program in the 1970s to wean itself off reliance on the US. The effort proved successful, if time-consuming, and the production of the Type 88/K1 started in 1985. The original variant was based on a US design provided by Chrysler, whose armored vehicle plant had assembled a prototype for the competition that resulted in the M1 Abrams, and met current NATO standards such as a 105mm main gun and an engine and drivetrain supplied by German manufacturers. By 1987, however, the K1 was updated to the K1A1 standard that had a 120mm main gun, among other improvements. The total production for the K1/K1A1 stands at a low 1,019 models delivered by Hyundai Rotem to a higher total of 1,501. The K1-series is far from obsolete and is getting a new variants called the K1E1.

By the late 1990s Hyundai Rotem developed a brand new MBT it designated the K2 Black Panther whose production was carried out in small batches from 2010 onward. Fewer K2 tanks have been ordered for the ROK Army compared with the K1/K1A1 and this does put the ground forces’ effectiveness at risk when the North Korean KPA is fielding non-line-of-sight munitions and other types of precision weapons on its armored vehicles. Although the K1 was never offered for export the K2 Black Panther and its related technologies were shared with international partners such as Turkey. (Almost 20 years since the Altay MBT has yet to enter service.) South Korea’s government is committed to helping its top manufacturers export military technology abroad for national prestige, as a matter of industrial policy and revenues. To these ends, the K2 is competing in at least one known European MBT tender and fresh contracts are under discussion for two Middle Eastern countries.

The necessity of exporting K2’s may serve another less apparent purpose: the ROK Army’s MBT requirements are far below Hyundai Rotem’s production capacity. It’s a serious drawback given how South Korea’s military is orienting its future acquisitions towards aerospace and long-range tactical missiles for deterrence purposes that coincides with a serious naval shipbuilding timetable. If this is the case, the defense ministry’s reluctance to lobby for additional K2 MBTs means the ROK Army does have a future for its aging M48A5’s with at least 500 kept in working condition. So the decades-old Pattons are able to participate in the kind of exercises that simulate combat versus a full-scale conventional attack from the north. The ROK Army’s reliance on conscripts means it finds a lot of mid-20th century weapon systems supplied by the US to be indispensable. Many different arms and equipment with service lives exceeding 50 years are almost irreplaceable at this point; the M113 APC and its locally made variant the K200, for example, are fielded in a total reaching 2,500 units. For a military lavished with a budget reaching almost $50 billion a year towed howitzers from World War 2 and recoilless rifles mounted on jeeps are just some of the antiques South Korea’s troops are drilled to operate.

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