South Korea is launching a strong entry into the NATO military industry. The ground-breaking arms agreement Seoul has ever made with Poland for tanks, howitzers, and light combat aircraft might total more than $15 billion. The agreement between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Poland will be keenly watched by other Central European nations, which see South Korea as a possible ally in their own military modernization initiatives, especially in light of Russia’s aggressive territory grab this year. Recent weapons purchases between South Korea and Poland show the country’s potential in the global market for military equipment, and they may open up further prospects, notably in Eastern Europe.

The military danger from North Korea, South Korea’s adversary, has existed for decades. Now, the nation that is home to Samsung Electronics which is the largest manufacturer of smartphones in the world and many other world leading companies, is exerting its technical and military-industrial might on the global weapons market, with its firms securing high-profile agreements. Comprehensive change has occurred since the 1950s, when South Korea was devastated by the Korean War. It has transformed from a primarily agricultural civilization and one of the poorest nations in the world in 1960 to an industrial and technical force with what the World Bank described as the greatest economy on the planet.

South Korea sold $7 billion worth of weapons last year, a record amount for the nation, and this year’s sales are anticipated to be much higher. Military equipment exports are influenced by both pull and push influences. The government and defense industry of the East Asian country are eager to boost exports of military hardware in order to generate income that can be invested in the creation of more sophisticated weapons and solidify their place as one of the top arms producers in the world. Foreign governments also view South Korean military hardware as technologically cutting edge, dependable, and not nearly as expensive as those produced by other countries like the US. A US-built F-35, which costs at least $77 million for a base model, is substantially more expensive than an FA-50 fighter, which is estimated to cost approximately $30 million. South Korean military hardware is thought to be a suitable option for middle-ranked nations, who are frequently needed to make a trade-off between cost and effectiveness. Although it is not the most cutting-edge product available, it is reasonably priced and of high quality.

The Philippines, Iraq, Indonesia, Thailand, Turkey, Senegal, and Peru are among the countries that have purchased South Korean aircraft, both fixed-wing and helicopters, while Argentina, Malaysia, Colombia, and India have shown interest in specific models. Tankers were built for the armed forces of Britain and Norway, while South Korean dockyards developed warships and submarines that later served in the navy of Thailand, the Philippines, and New Zealand.

With sales to countries including India, Australia, Egypt, and Norway, the K9 Thunder is South Korea’s best-selling military ground vehicle. Other nations, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Romania, and Great Britain, are apparently interested in purchasing the weaponry. The Turkish Altay tank is based on the K2 tank, which has also been sold to Oman. Australia is testing a K21 infantry fighting vehicle variant and plans to purchase no less than 450 of them to replace its outdated armored personnel carriers. The fast expansion of South Korean weaponry exports contributed to the creation of the phrase “K-Defense.”

The defense industry in South Korea is booming, propelled not just by the need to address Pyongyang’s increasing military threats but also by Seoul’s desire to make the nation one of the top exporters of defense equipment globally. Recent statements by President Yoon Suk-yeol, who announced his aim to make his nation one of the world’s top four weapons exporters, showed how committed the government is to aid the industry’s growth. That may sound like a difficult objective for South Korea, which is now the eighth largest defense exporter in the world, but recent deals have shown the nation’s development as more countries look to South Korea to address their pressing defense demands.

One of the crucial pillars of Seoul’s strategy is the continuing promotion of the newest military hardware and innovations created in South Korea, such as sophisticated air, land, unmanned, and missile defense systems. The amount of threat presented by the government in Pyongyang, which not only keeps expanding its arsenal of missiles but also just enacted a legislation enshrining the right to conduct pre-emptive nuclear attacks to protect itself, is the major justification for South Korea’s robust military sector. Due to the fact that this danger is both constant and serious, South Korea is highly motivated to increase its defense self-reliance.

This assistance comes from all levels of government and spans a variety of initiatives, such as an active outward offset policy and initiatives to promote and boost exports in the military sector. The Defense Industry Development Act and the Defense Science and Technology Innovation Promotion Act, both of which went into effect in 2021 and were introduced by Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, to achieve what South Korea calls an export-oriented defense industry, provide support for this.

Poland and South Korea

In July, a new player entered the European armaments market, shaking things up. Poland established a partnership with Hyundai Rotem as Germany’s Krauss-Maffei Wegmann was pushing tank improvements to the nation’s European allies.

Deputy Prime Minister Mariusz Baszczak gave his approval on July 27 to the weapons deals with South Korea for the acquisition of weaponry for the Polish Army. One of the most significant and recent Polish defense orders are for K2 tanks, K9 howitzers, and FA-50 aircraft.

On the one hand, Poland is replacing some of the military hardware provided to Ukraine by buying it from South Korea. However, the decision made in Warsaw is more widely seen as being an element of the updated Plan of Technical Modernization of the Polish Armed Forces for 2021–2035, which was earlier approved in October 2019. The successful collaboration between Polish and South Korean industries in the construction of Krab self-propelled howitzers, for which 120 K9 chassis have been licensed-produced in Poland since 2014, contributed to the South Korean offer’s selection. Thanks to a strategic cooperation agreement signed in 2013, South Korea is already the largest Asian investor in Poland. The decision was interesting because it was just the second such weaponry purchase by a NATO member from a non-aligned source. Turkey made a very hotly debated purchase of an air defense system from Russia in 2017.

Poland announced that it will purchase 1,000 K2 Black Panther tanks from Hyundai Rotem, the company’s defense division. The K2 is renowned for its potent 120 mm smoothbore guns, autoloading mechanisms, self-protection against missiles, and a 1,500-horsepower engine viewed as a great complement for its weight of 55 tons with a top speed of 70 kph. Hyundai Rotem also permits clients to make custom enhancements. The order is broken down into two stages: the first will purchase 180 tanks, and delivery will start this year; the second stage contains around 800 tanks that meet the K2PL standard, and in 2026, Polish manufacturers will begin producing K2PL tanks. Additionally, the first stage tanks will be polonized and brought up to K2PL standards. The transaction serves as an example of how South Korean defense firms are growing in Europe, where military expenditure has increased as a result of Russia’s aggression of Ukraine.

Although the unit cost Poland would pay for the K2 has not been made public, several media outlets quoted anonymous sources who estimated it to be 13 million euros ($13 million), as opposed to 19 million euros for the most recent Leopard 2 from Krauss-Maffei Wegmann. The KF51 Panther, manufactured by the German company Rheinmetall and intended to be Europe’s response to Russia’s newest T-14 Armata, was similarly reported in the media to cost 15 million euros per unit.

The proposal to Poland came at a good moment since Warsaw was looking for alternatives after handing Ukraine 250 tanks from the Soviet era. The Leopard 2, the cornerstone of Poland’s and other European NATO tank forces, has been examined by the Poles. However, it is suspected that the Eastern European nation was deterred by the lengthy wait period. Warsaw signed a contract in April to purchase 250 M1A2 Abrams tanks from the United States, but the number of tanks included in the agreement with South Korea was significantly higher.

In July, Poland inked the order that also included 672 Hanwha Defense self-propelled K9 Thunder howitzers and 48 FA-50 light combat planes developed by KAI and Lockheed Martin. The first phase of supplies, including the delivery of 48 howitzers, would start this year, as the Deputy Prime Minister noted. Beginning in 2024, further 600 howitzer deliveries will be made; starting in 2026, Polish factories will manufacture the howitzers. K9 will be outfitted with Polish communication equipment from the start and connected to the integrated Topaz combat management system. The K9 Thunders’ primary weapon is a 155 mm cannon with a 52 caliber barrel that, depending on the ammunition, allows for accurate fire at ranges up to 40 kilometers. K9 armor shields the operator from small-arms and artillery splinters. A 1000 HP diesel engine and automated transmission provide the drive, ensuring great speed and mobility on any surface. The howitzer is 47 tons in weight. In the K9A1 version, a lot of enhancements have been made. The major focus was on boosting situational awareness, extending the effective range of fire to 54 kilometers, and making the crew’s job more comfortable.

To progressively replace Poland’s Soviet-built MiG-29 fighters with a new fleet of contemporary, multi-role aircraft, the FA-50s will begin to be delivered starting in 2023. The Polish Air Force will be greatly strengthened by the FA-50, which are of the same generation as the F-16. The aircraft is a supersonic sophisticated light attack platform that is both economical and effective. It is also fitted with a cutting-edge radar that improves detection abilities and satisfies the demands of light fighters from air forces all over the world. The aircraft will be outfitted with enhanced operating capabilities and the Block 20 standard in accordance with the precise specifications put out by the Polish Air Force.

The framework deal for the delivery of contemporary Korean K239 Chunmoo launchers for the Polish Army was signed on October 19 by Mariusz Baszczak, deputy prime minister and minister of national defense. In accordance with the framework agreement for the purchase of the K239 CHUNMOO multi-lead launchers, 288 launchers will be supplied, of which 18 will include ammunition and be integrated with Polish JELCZ vehicles as early as 2023. Contracts for the delivery of command vehicles, technical support vehicles, ammunition, and technical evacuation vehicles are expected to be given to Polish industrial companies.

Sales around the world

By fostering cooperation between the public and business sectors, South Korea has been looking to raise orders for its armaments from NATO members as Russia’s aggressive action against Ukraine continues to go on. Armed forces representatives from Australia, Estonia, Finland, and Norway visited a Hanwha Defense Corporation plant in Changwon, South Korea, in April to see the production of K9 self-propelled howitzers (SPHs). Customers of K9 come from these four nations. Since 2001, South Korea has been selling the K9 to eight nations, including Turkey, Poland, and India. Its comparably inexpensive costs and performance on par with German-made rival SPHs have earned it significant praise on the global market.

Greece, which believes its sizable fleet of outdated tanks is inadequate against its neighbor and archrival Turkey, is at the top of the list of nations that would be open to the K2. Italy may possibly be a significant market for the K2. Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria may all be considered, but in lower proportions. Norway, which currently has a tank fleet made up of 52 outdated Leopard 2A4s, might be the next to make a crucial choice. The Norway, similar to Poland must choose whether to modernize and expand their current fleet or choose the K2. According to reports, brand-new Leopard 2A7+s and K2s landed in Norway in January to undertake winter trials.

An arms export agreement for the homegrown South Korean interceptor missile Cheongung II worth US$3.5 billion was inked with the UAE earlier this year by Korean aerospace and military manufacturer LIG Nex1. This contract was the largest domestic weapons export agreement to history at the time, although Saudi Arabia ultimately elected to acquire an anti-aircraft defense system from Hanwha for over $1 billion in March 2022 and beat the previous record. This is the third significant Middle Eastern transaction that South Korea has made this year, following the sales of K9 to Egypt for upwards of $1,7 billion in arms and the UAE’s acquisition of a variety of Korean surface-to-air missile interceptors valued at around $4 billion. However, six months after it was signed, the pact with Poland resulted in a new record being established.

Along with these significant agreements, South Korea also agreed to supply Australia with K9 self-propelled howitzers in December of last year. In order to fill the gap between the Collins-class diesel-electric sub Australia wants to replace and the nuclear-powered subs promised by Australia’s alliance with the U.S. and the U.K., South Korean officials recently visited Australia and pledged to build attack submarines within seven years. Furthermore, South Korea may also potentially take action to replenish nations like Canada who have transferred their own weaponry to Ukraine.

In addition to demonstrating the technical worth of its exports, South Korea should keep in mind that the purchase of weapons is always related to the formulation of public policy. It will be necessary for South Korea to show more interest in the security situation in Central and Eastern Europe and to take a more assertive stance toward Russia if defense cooperation with Poland and other nations in the region is to advance.

Written by: Balázs Pál.

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