South Korea is emerging as a major defense production hub, bagging key military deals and developing new-generation technologies, be it combat aircraft, missiles, artillery systems, tanks, or small arms.
Recently, the UAE announced a $3.5 billion deal with South Korea for its “Cheongung-II” mid-range surface-to-air missiles.
The UAE defense ministry announced its plan via Twitter to acquire the Korean air defense system. The Korean Defense Acquisition Program Administration affirmed that the negotiations have commenced even though the deal has yet to be inked. If inked, the missile deal will become the biggest weapons export in the history of South Korea.
Korea was under Japanese occupation during World War II and fought alongside Axis powers by the virtue of being a Japanese territory. Much like the partition of Germany after the Axis surrender, Korea was also subject to partition along the 38th Parallel (a reference to latitude 38° North) – with the northern half being administered by the Soviet Union and the southern half being administered by the United States.
While this partition was meant to be temporary, the Cold War politics of North vs South made it impossible to reunite the peninsula.
However, the South Korean military was ill-equipped compared to North Korea that had a numerical advantage and enjoyed considerable support from China and the USSR in the form of rigorous training, manpower, military organization, and a large supply of various weapons.
This would prove devastating at the beginning of the Korean War as the ROK military was pushed to the brink of defeat until US-led forces intervened.
The experience prompted ROK to be better equipped and trained. South Korea began with license-manufacturing of foreign hardware to meet its military’s requirements which encouraged it to manufacture more advanced technologies later.
Here we’ll take a look into the key weapon systems in the aerospace, naval, and ground warfare developed by the country that has stormed the world.
The KF-21 “Boramae”
The KF-21 is described as a remarkable feat in the South Korean aviation sector. The Boramae, as it is called, is a state-of-the-art 4.5 generation combat aircraft being developed in association with Indonesia.
It is developed as an advanced multirole fighter and is stealthier than most of its contemporaries, placing South Korea in an elite league of countries developing their own fighter jets.
In April 2021, the first prototype was completed and unveiled during a spectacular rollout ceremony at the headquarters of Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) in Sacheon.
It was officially given the name Boramae, meaning “Young Hawk” in Korean. The first test flight is anticipated in 2022, with manufacturing scheduled to begin in 2026.
At least 40 aircraft are planned to be delivered by 2028, with South Korea expecting to deploy a total of 120 of the aircraft by 2032. The KAI KF-X is Seoul’s second domestic fighter jet development program, following the FA-50.
In late 2020, KAI also announced that it would start developing military transport aircraft, making its way into the broader military transport market.
Dokdo-Class Amphibious Assault Ship
Being the flagship of the South Korean (ROK) Navy, the Dokdo-Class is much more than just an amphibious assault ship as they will also deploy F-35B fifth-generation fighters on board, making it a game-changer in the Western Pacific.
Designed by Hanjin Heavy Industries (HHIC), the requirements for the amphibious landing ships were to enhance South Korea’s current amphibious operation capability, both in terms of assault and military operations other than war (MOOTW) type operations.
Currently, two ships have been introduced in this class, named Dokdo and Marado. These are capable of transporting up to 200 vehicles and 750 marines, and up to 15 helicopters including UH-1H and UH-60Ps. The Dokdo class is essential in the service’s transition to a Blue-Water Navy.
In a speech delivered in March 2001, Kim Dae Jung (the then President) stated that his administration was aiming to build a navy that “will defend the national interests in the five oceans and perform a role in defending world peace.”
K2 Black Panther
The K2 is an advanced next-generation Main Battle Tank developed by the Agency for Defence Department, considered to be among the most technologically advanced and costliest of its type in service.
It combines an auto-loaded 55 caliber 120 mm main gun, advanced composite armor along with hard and soft-kill active protection systems.
The tank is fully equipped for a future battlefield scenario, capable of network-centric operations, usage of smart munitions, advanced FCS (fire control system) and optical sensors, Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS), a millimeter-band radar, Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), jammers, Laser Warning Receivers (LWRs) and even an automatic fire suppression system along with atmospheric sensors to alert the crew of any hazardous environment.
The tank is highly maneuverable: it can achieve speeds of up to 70 km/hr on road and can accelerate from 0 to 32 km/hr in just 8.7 seconds and maintain speeds of up to 52 km/h in off-road conditions.
It can also climb 60-degree slopes and vertical obstacles 1.8 meters in height. Interestingly, the Black Panther fields an advanced suspension system called the In-arm Suspension Unit (ISU), which allows for individual control of every bogie on the tracks.
This allows the K2 to “sit”, “stand” and “kneel”, as well as “lean” towards one side or a corner. Although many features remain classified, even the unclassified ones are enough to offset any other tank in front of the Black Panther.
Gathering media spotlight upon getting a bulk order from India, the K9 ‘Thunder’ is a Self-Propelled Howitzer incorporating several technologies from the K2 Black Panther.
The main armament is CN98 155 mm 52 caliber artillery gun manufactured by Kia Heavy Industry (now Hyundai WIA) and has a maximum firing range of 40 km using K307 base bleed ammunition.
Supported by a semi-automatic feeding system the Thunder can achieve the maximum rate of fire of 3 rounds in 15 seconds, with a choice to land-shells in multiple rounds simultaneous impact (MRSI) mode, followed by 6 to 8 rounds/min for the first 3 minutes, then 2 to 3 rounds/min for sustained fire.
The K9 Thunder can shoot-and-scoot by ready to fire in 30 seconds when stationary or one minute during the move and then shifted to another position to enhance its survivability from counter-attacks.
Quite successful in the international market, variants of K-9 are in service with India, Estonia, Finland, Turkey, Norway, and Poland.
Daewoo Small Arms
The South Korean small arms are also very popular in the domestic and international market. The production success can be estimated with the fact that the K1 submachine gun alone would have 180,000 units produced and be exported by the time its successor would be announced.
The K-series small arms include the K-1 submachine gun, the K-2 Assault Rifle, the K-3 Light Machine Gun and the K-5 Semi-Auto Pistol. All of these small arms have seen considerable success in the export market, especially the K-2 Assault Rifle.
South Korea was the 10th-largest arms exporter in 2015–19 with a 2.1% share of the global total. Its arms exports increased by 143%, more than double, between 2010–14 and 2015–19, the highest level of increase among exporters in the top 10, according to SIPRI.