On the offense in defense exports
The author is Honorary Professor of Political Science and Diplomacy at Hanyang University.
On July 27, the Polish Ministry of National Defense announced a bold plan to purchase 980 K2 Black Panther tanks, 672 K9 Thunder self-propelled howitzers and 48 FA-50 light attack aircraft from South Korea. If you include ammunition, armored vehicles and other defense-related equipment, the total cost exceeds 40 trillion won ($27.9 billion).
These impressive achievements were made possible by the three leaders of the Korean defense industry: Hanwha Defence, the producer of the K9 self-propelled howitzers; Hyundai Rotem, the manufacturer of K2 tanks; and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), maker of the FA-50 attack aircraft. LIG Nex1, which provides short-range missiles, has also helped strengthen Korea’s defense industry.
The K9 Thunders currently occupy 50% of the market. (More than 700 of them have been exported to eight countries, including Turkey, India, Australia and Finland.) They have a firing range of up to 40 kilometers (25 miles) and are very accurate, which makes self-propelled howitzers popular around the world. global defense market. Due to its domestic situation, Poland has advanced its import schedule to August 26 for 212 Hanwha Defense K9 howitzers at a cost of 3.2 trillion won. A contract for a second batch of 460 howitzers is being negotiated.
Hyundai Rotem signed a formal contract with Poland on Aug. 29 for its first delivery of 180 K2 tanks, costing 4.5 trillion won, which will be followed by another contract for a second delivery this year. After the US and Germany discussed ending production of their once powerful tanks, the K2s emerged as a quality replacement. The summit between President Yoon Suk-yeol and his Polish counterpart in June at the NATO summit in Madrid, as well as back-to-back meetings between the two countries’ defense ministers, also helped exports.
Impressed by Poland’s purchase of hundreds of K2 tanks, Norway began to show interest in placing a $1.7 billion order due to the need to defend against Russia. Given the apparent impact on other NATO member countries – especially in Eastern Europe – exports to Poland mark a turning point for the Korean defense industry. The Voice of America noted Korea’s efforts to find a niche market based on a resource optimization strategy.
Value for money means that Korean-made weapons are comparable in quality to products from traditional defense behemoths and yet the prices are lower. But the price-performance ratio is not the only strength, because Korea also has the advantages of prompt procurement, timely financing by the Export-Import Bank and generous attitude towards the local arms production. Few countries can match Korea on these terms.
Korea can satisfy customers in various fields, including cultural exchanges. Korea is becoming a key state in global defense markets. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), Korea’s share of the global defense export market ranked 8th (2.8%) between 2017 and 2021.
In addition to Eastern European countries, Australia has considered introducing next-generation armored vehicles under a $7.5 billion contract with Hanwha Defense for its combat vehicles. AS21 Redback infantry, possibly with K239 Chunmoo multiple rocket launchers developed by the same company. If the contract is signed, Korea can become one of the world’s top five defense leaders.
Noteworthy in exports to Poland is the first entry of the FA-50 light attack aircraft into the European market. The FA-50 fighter jets are advanced versions of the KTX-2 supersonic jet trainers. Due to the need for a supersonic trainer to train supersonic fighter pilots, Korea had to borrow these planes from advanced countries including the UK in the past. So the country hatched a plan to produce a supersonic trainer itself, but the project was budgeted at 1.4 trillion won and was derailed due to the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.
A strong determination to single-handedly manufacture a supersonic trainer with the ultimate goal of domestic fighter aircraft production has enabled Korea to develop the FA-50 light attack aircraft armed with air-to-surface missiles. The amazing development of the KF-21 advanced supersonic fighter aircraft followed the same path as the FA-50 light attack aircraft.
The FA-50 single-engine attack aircraft and the F-21 twin-engine combat aircraft are equipped with engines developed by General Electric. It takes at least 20 years to develop aircraft engines because it requires advanced technology. The massive funding needed for development has forced Korea to suspend engine production efforts. The challenge should be taken up in the future.
What defense area should Korea develop for the future in addition to tanks, self-propelled guns and FA-50 light attack aircraft? Three courts await you.
The first is the development of submarines powered by lithium-ion batteries, which can operate for up to a month without recharging. Conventional diesel submarines struggle to conduct military operations because they cannot operate for more than a week without refueling. Nuclear-powered submarines can operate for years without refueling, but most countries using diesel submarines are expected to soon replace them with lithium-battery submarines. Japan is replacing its 24 diesel submarines with battery-powered submarines. Korea is also preparing for the dramatic transition.
Australia’s negotiation to buy lithium-ion battery-powered submarines from Japan fell apart due to demand for local production from Canberra. Given Korea’s strength in shipbuilding, including naval vessels and submarines, the country can become one of the leading producers of lithium battery submarines if it can manufacture them for respond to customer demand for local production.
Next is the cyber defense industry. Israel earned $6.75 billion from the export of its cyber technology in 2020 alone. The field demands the sophistication of cybersecurity capabilities that are impregnable against outside hacking to steal information on national security issues and business. The area also requires technology capable of neutralizing enemy cyber systems.
Korea won DEF CON – the equivalent of the Hacker Olympics – alone in 2015 and 2018 and in a joint team with the United States in 2022. Competitiveness can make Korea a forerunner in the cyber defense sector in the future.
Third, short-range tactical missiles with high accuracy. Korea shipped 2.6 trillion won worth of short-range missiles – Cheongung-2s – to the United Arab Emirates earlier this year. The United Arab Emirates chose them because they are of better quality – and cheaper – than those in the United States. The Cheongung-2 was developed by LIG Nex1, Hanwha Systems and Hanwha Defense with sponsorship from the Agency for Defense Development (ADD). Known as “Korean Patriot Missiles”, these are interceptors.
After the export of Hyeongung anti-tank missiles to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East, Eastern European countries show strong interest in the missiles after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February . Russia must stop the war. But since Korea’s defense industry has attracted a lot of attention from Europe, it can expand the market to the rest of the world.
Korea’s biggest export to Poland marked a milestone for its defense industry. This achievement is the result of quality at a good price. Moreover, there is no delay in the delivery of weapons, not to mention a smooth supply of spare parts.
Hanwha Defense has challenged the self-propelled howitzer market with its new K9A2s which can automatically load shells. Technology is always advancing. If Korea continues to improve the weaponry it exports, it may one day dominate the world at least in the tank and self-propelled gun categories. In the area of submarines and cyber defense in particular, the government and the private sector must invest massively. Otherwise, Korea can hardly become one of the leading countries in the defense industry.
Translation by Korea JoongAng Daily staff.