Skip to content

South Korea Is Working On Its Biggest Arms Deal Ever

November 28, 2022
Via Hanwha Defense.

On September 19 one of South Korea’s largest chaebols–the prestigious conglomerates that dominate the national economy–staged an elaborate review in their factory campus outside Seoul to impress a delegation from Poland. The occasion was meant to kick off a huge arms deal signed in July for several hundred K9 Thunder self-propelled howitzers manufactured by Hanwha Defense and are constantly being shopped abroad. Current operators of the K9 in Europe are Estonia, Finland, and Norway while it’s assembled under license in India and Turkiye. Since May this year Warsaw has acted on its plans for building what could be Europe’s largest ground force as a response to Russia’s war on Ukraine.

What pushed Warsaw and Seoul into a $12.4 billion extravaganza (this is an estimate) are their complementary needs; the former must protect its territory while the latter is desperate for market share in the West. Another factor are the constraints on European and US “defense production” capacity leaving Poland to embrace an alternative supplier and South Korea’s manufacturers became the likeliest choice.

So far the arms deal is a multi-faceted program of such scale that South Korea is poised to reap immense rewards. The organizations and manufacturers involved are the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA)–a government agency that oversees the national arms trade–and then Hanwha Defense, Hyundai Rotem, and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) while other companies might win contracts too. In July Poland’s defense ministry signed a “framework contract” with Hanwha Defense and Hyundai Rotem for 648 K9 self-propelled howitzers and 980 K2 Black Panther main battle tanks. Outside this order further discussions took place on acquiring Hanwha’s K21 Redback infantry fighting vehicle and the K239 Chunmoo rocket artillery system. The latter is an 8×8 truck mounting a dual pod launcher that can be armed with different types of battlefield rockets and even ballistic missiles.

The K2 Black Panther in particular deserves a short description. It’s often praised as the most sophisticated Asian battle tank ever made and this claim does have merit. Its armament is identical to contemporary NATO MBTs but it employs an autoloader for its 120mm main gun, leaving it with a crew of three. Because of its production cost only a few hundred K2’s are operated by the ROK Army but Hyundai never stopped offering the tank for export. A modular protective suite of armor layers and detectors are now available and Hyundai is willing to build long-term partnerships for its end users by transferring the assembly process. Why Poland chose the K2 for its army rather than a NATO equivalent was no doubt influenced by the dismal state of tank production in Europe.

The event on September 19 at Hanwha’s armored vehicle’s factory was used as a handover ceremony for 24 K9 howitzers that will be shipped immediately to Poland. Weeks later Hyundai Rotem stepped up and sent 10 K2 MBTs to Poland. These initial gifts are supposed to expedite the challenging delivery timeline, which begins in 2023, for all the combat vehicles Poland is ordering for its army. In August the Poland’s defense ministry clarified it was receiving 212 K9’s and 180 K2 battle tanks between 2023 and 2026. This opened the possibility of launching localized assembly for the K9 howitzer as the “K9PL” variant as well as the K2 MBT to fulfill the original order. The same may apply to the K21 Redback the army is now testing. This specific vehicle competed in Australia against the German-made KF41 Lynx. It was then pitched to the ROK Army and then around arms shows. A problem with the K21 Redback is its direct competition with Poland’s own 25-year effort at a tracked IFV that resulted in at least two prototypes.

The sale of Chunmoo rocket artillery to Poland is just as ambitious since the acquisition has now evolved. A separate contract signed on October 10 for 288 Chunmoos specified that these are integrated with the Polish-made Topaz fire control system. Instead of delivering the complete vehicles and their ordnance to the army a Polish automaker JELCZ will adapt the Chunmoo’s dual pod launcher on an indigenous four axle or 8×8 transport. The same is intended for the Lockheed Martin HIMARS whose unique single pod launcher for 227mm munitions is adapted for a different vehicle. Earlier this year Poland’s defense ministry announced its intention to order as many as 500 HIMARS after it ordered 20 of the same in 2019. The scale of this arms deal with the US is meant to give Poland’s army overmatch in long-range fires versus the Russians.

KAI is another winner in Poland’s quest for a powerful deterrent against Russia. A total of 48 FA-50, the light fighter aircraft with a modest payload, were ordered via a contract signed on September 16 with deliveries commencing from 2023 onward. The twin-seat single engine fighters were chosen because of the Polish air force’s experience with the US-made F-16. After the 48 FA-50’s are delivered another 36 are on order for a total of 84 fighters. The KAI FA-50 is a minor success with the Philippine Air Force (PAF) having chosen it to revive an almost depleted fleet–the same FA-50’s performed well in the close air support role during the battle of Marawi in 2017. The FA-50’s predecessor the T-50 trainer jet has been exported to Iraq and Thailand.

There are still a few unknowns about South Korea’s lucrative commitment to strengthening Poland’s military. The LIG Nex1 M-SAM/M-SAM II air defense system, among other military products, is rumored to be part of Warsaw’s acquisitions but details are scarce. The advantage of the M-SAM/M-SAM II is buying it doesn’t involve the same diplomatic hurdles as its European and US-made rivals. This year, for example, Poland went out of its way to avoid ordering weapons from Germany because of disagreements with Berlin. If South Korea’s manufacturers tough it out and overcome the inevitable roadblocks and uncertainties that can affect this elaborate arms deal they stand to reap an epic windfall and secure their corner of the NATO market. Both achievements are historic in scope.

To recap the above board arms deals South Korean manufacturers are closing with Poland so far: 649 K9/K9PL self-propelled howitzers; 980 K2 MBTs; 288 K239 Chunmoos on JELCZ trucks; 48 (+36) FA-50 light fighter aircraft.

Comments are closed.