SEOUL – In the biggest arms export in South Korean history, Poland will buy some 1,000 tanks, hundreds of self-propelled artillery pieces and dozens of fighter jets.
Reports of the deal have been leaking out of Poland for over a week, and today there was partial confirmation from the Korean side. The costing of the package has not been made public.
However, a rough estimate calculated by Asia Times, using the unit prices of the systems as sold to previous customers, puts the it in the US$15 billion-dollar range. An expert, speaking to Asia Times on condition of anonymity, put it even higher at $20 billion.
Both numbers far exceed $7 billion – the total value of all arms sold by South Korea to all global customers in 2021, which marked a record year for Seoul’s weapons sales.
More broadly, the deal showcases an emerging channel of East-West cooperation among US allies.
Much commentary has focused on what commonalities, if any, link US allies in the Pacific – notably Australia, Japan and South Korea to those in the Atlantic – notably, NATO members. Doubly so after the Pacific nations were invited to this year’s NATO summit in Madrid.
The South Korea-Poland arms deal represents a pay-off: The long-term coordination of arms specs, munitions standards, electronic systemization and company-to-company technological cooperation is enabling a seamless arms flow from Pacific to Atlantic.
And for Seoul – after decades of sychronizing operating systems with US forces and expending untold tons of national treasure on US kit – the deal represents a long-term dividend for its domestic defense sector.
It may also be a pointer to the future. Since the turn of the millennium, the armies of prosperous Western powers have been largely engaged in counterinsurgency. Now, big war has made an unwelcome comeback in Ukraine.
Large-scale conflict demanding big-ticket, high-tech and high-priced systems offers rosy prospects for armorers. Questions hover over the capacity of the Western arms industry to keep up as the Ukraine conflict devours weapons and gear at a demonic rate.
The deal with Poland puts South Korea, a manufacturing powerhouse, squarely on NATO states’ arms-buying list.
Korean firms are already heavily invested in Eastern Europe: Hyundai makes cars in the Czech Republic, Kia in Slovakia. Today’s convergence of strife and commerce looks set to ignite new Korean investment in the region.
Big bucks, big guns
Details of the South Korea-Poland deal have been trickling out for days.
On July 22, Reuters cited comments made by the Polish defense minister to a local magazine. Mariusz Blaszczak said that Poland would acquire 180 K2 tanks by the end of this year, as well as 48 FA-50 jet fighters and an unspecificed number of howitzers.
CNN, citing the Polish Defense Ministry, added further detail on July 28, reporting that the deal included 980 K2 tanks and 648 K9 self-propelled K9 armored howitzers, in addition to the 48 FA-50s. The first 48 K9s will arrive by the end of this year, CNN reported.
Officials at Hanhwa Defense, which supplies the K9, could not be reached by Asian Times. Officials at Hyundai Rotem, which supplies the K2, did not respond to enquiries. However, Yonhap news agency, quoting an unnamed official this morning, confirmed that an “initial deal” for 1,000 tanks has been signed.
Details to be worked through include timeline, pricing and the site of the manufacturing plant in Poland, the report stated. Approximately half the order will be supplied from Korean factories; the other half will be built in Poland.
The size of the deal is physically massive. Take the 1,000 K2 tanks, for example.
According to GlobalFirepower.org, only 15 countries in 2022 field more than 2,000 tanks. Russia leads the list with 12,420, followed by the US with 6,612. Middle powers France and the UK operate especially modest fleets: just 406 and 227 tanks, respectively. Poland’s pre-deal tank fleet numbered 863.
The pricing of the deal has not been made public, but in 2009, Guinness World Records found that the K2, then-priced at $8.2 million per unit, was the world’s most expensive tank.
Those prices would put the deal for 1,000 at around $8.2 billion. (What offset the Polish side would deduct from the total cost is not known.)
This year, India signed a deal to buy 200 K9s and support vehicles from Korea for $1.7 billion. That would make the rough unit price of a K9 around $8.5 million. For 648 guns, the total price would be in the $5.5 billion range.
Specialist website aerocorner.com puts a single KA-50 at $30 million. So, 48 of the aircraft would cost in the region of $1.4 billion.
The guide above is very rough: All the weapons come in different variants with different potential add-ons. And it seems likely that the huge size of the order grants Warsaw considerable negotiating leverage.
Even so, as per the above math, the approximate price tag is a mind-boggling $15.1 billion.
And as in all defense deals, that is just the purchase price; it does not include future maintenance, upgrades, etc.
Chun In-bum, a retired general with close sources in the defense sector, told Asia Times that the total price could be $20 billion.
Some context: Last year, according to a report from the Export-Import Bank of Korea, South Korea sold $7 billion worth of arms – a record for the country, the world’s eight-largest arms supplier for the year.
The leading sales items in 2010 were naval vessels sold to Indonesia and the Philippines.
The bank predicted that in 2021, arms sales might reach $10 billion. If Asia Times’ calculations are remotely correct, the reported deal to Poland will – far and away – outpace that estimate.
Big boys’ toys
The K2 , 54-ton “Black Panther” is a main battle tank featuring a 120mm auto-loaded main gun, composite armor and on-board missile defense systems. Its gunnery is assisted by an extremely high frequency radar system and a laser rangefinder. It has a range of 450 kilometers and a cross-country speed of 50 kilometers per hour (km/h).
It is operated as the main tank of the South Korean Army, is being evaluated by Egypt and Norway, and some of its features are incorporated in the design of Turkey’s indigenous MBT.
The 47-ton, K9 “Thunder” is an armored, self-propelled howitzer. It’s 155mm gun has a range of 40 kilometers and a rate of fire of 6-8 rounds per minute.
The weapon has already been a hit export. It is used by multiple NATO nations, including Estonia, Norway, Poland and Turkey, as well NATO-aspirant Finland, Australia and India. According to vernacular media this year, the K9 holds 69% of the global market for 155mm artillery systems.
According to its corporate brochure, Hanwha also sells auxiliary vehicles, including the K10 robotic ammunition carrier and the K77 fire direction center vehicle.
The KA-50 Golden Eagle is a light combat jet built by Korea Aerospace Industries. An advanced version of the TA-50 yet trainer, it can fly at 1,837 km/h.
Though a light combat jet lacks the capabilities of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters, it can conduct light combat, reconnaissance and training missions, at prices tags far lower that top-end aircraft such as the US-made F35, priced at between $77 and $101 million per unit.
The KA-50 is at the top-end of the light combat aircraft spectrum, incorporating an Israeli radar and a digital flight control system, and can be armed with Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and/or JDAM precision munitions.
K2s can often be seen, on-road and off, during the spring exercise season. And entire regiments of K9s can be seen deployed along the road net north of Seoul and south of the DMZ, in giant concrete bunkers offering overhead protection.
Modern warfare is tremendously complex, which is why multinational exercises lean so heavy on interoperability.
Not only must languages and tactics align, command-and-control nets, wider signals nets and electronic warfare suites must, too. It is critical that allied units can identify each other, communicate with each other, share munitions and – ideally – share components.
Interoperability is “very important and, in fact, is probably the top single-most important decision to share weapons,” said Chun, the retired general.
The Korean weapons being sold to Poland use munitions, components and systems that synch with those in NATO armies.
Take the K2. Its main armament is a 120mm smooth bore gun – as mounted on the M1 Abrams and German Leopard II, as well as the Israeli Merkeva. It’s machine gun is a 7.22mm general purpose weapon, a type and caliber widely used by NATO armies.
The tank uses the US GPS satnav system. Its transmission is German-made, and its IFF/SFF (Identification Friend or Foe/Selective Identification Feature) is compliant with NATO’s standard, STANAG.
Or, take the K9. It fires the NATO-standard 155mm shell – the main heavy artillery munition used by the alliance. Eastern European nations are phasing out their Warsaw Pact weapons, sending many to Ukraine, which uses primarily 152mm caliber shells.
And the FA-50 is a variant of the T-50 supersonic jet trainer, which is itself a joint project between KAI and US aerospace and defense stalwart Lockheed Martin.
The above weapons are the fruit of decades of experience, during which South Korea’s military has been operating in sych with its US allies, while spending countless trillions of won on US kit. But South Korea has leveraged related experiences and relationships to build up a domestic defense industry as part of its wider manufacturing base. It is now coming of age.
“We had the expertise, we had the experience, we had the good products,” Chun said. “Then Russia started a war.”
For arms merchants, Ukraine’s dire misfortune represents a potential bonanza. Eastern European states are using the war as an opportunity to get rid of older, heritage equipment by donating to Ukraine while “back filling” with the latest NATO-standard arms.
Poland, a NATO frontline state, is investing vast amounts to upgrade its defenses. Warsaw had previously stated that it would elevate its defense budget from 2% of GDP to 3% while doubling the size of its armed forces. This month, it said it would raise the share further, to 5%.
It has agreed to purchase 116 used M1 Abrams tanks from the US. But that number is dwarfed by the vast fleet of brand new war machines the Koreans will supply.
The Ukraine War, “gives us a great opportunity,” Chun said. “I am not sure Korea will celebrate at the cost of others’ suffering and misery, but people need to defend themselves and we have the equipment and the capability to provide it.”
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