Heavy Metal in the South, Pt. 3 – A Tank Factory of Your Own

As mentioned in the last post, a big part of the reason behind the Polish decision to go for the K2 Black Panther was the industrial package. Now, it should be emphasised that there really are no bad tanks on the (western) export market today. The competition and continued development of the main platforms has made sure of that, and which tank would come out on top depends heavily on your terrain, doctrine, and a host of other aspects. The differences in combat capability between individual variants of the same tank – such as Leopard 2A4 and 2A7V – are also vastly larger than between different tanks of corresponding vintage – such as M1A2SEPv3, Leopard 2A7V, and K2NO.

K2 Black Panther tanks from the South Korean 11th Mechanised “Hwarang” Division during a combined arms exercise back in January. It seems likely that in addition to getting the WKM-B the eventual K2PL-standard would feature a remote-weapon station for the weapon as opposed to the pintle-mount seen here, as is the case of the K2NO. Source: ROK Army FB/Jung Seung Ik

Obviously, even if Hyundai Rotem would strike gold and bag the Norwegian order, the K2 would be an outlier in Europe. So is it worth the issues that will cause? There was a particularly sour comment made by KMW advisor Nicholas Drummond to CNN, in which he described the tank as “overall less sophisticated with inferior electronic architecture” compared to the Leopard 2, leading the news outlet to sum it up as “essentially a less capable version of the German Leopard 2”. What exactly he based that comment on is unclear to me, as most open sources seems to agree on the K2 being on par with the most modern versions of the M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 when it comes to these things. He eventually took to Twitter to give a more nuanced critique, but even there he repeated the claim that the K2 Black Panther is based on the Leopard 2, and that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Now, if getting the same powerpack and sporting a 120 mm smoothbore gun is using the “Leopard 2 as a model”, the whole argument is spun out of a rather thin thread. In particular when you realise that the plan all along was to move away from the German powerpack to a local replacement. My understanding is that the tanks currently rolling off the production line indeed has a Korean Doosan DV27K engine (interestingly enough a long-stroke design rather than the MTU883 short-stroke), though the transmission still is German after the local replacement experienced issues (the transmission is in many ways the more complex and specialised part of the powerpack).

Still, he has a few valid points – such as the Leopard 2 thanks to its age being a more mature system, and that the 2A7-family of versions sporting many of the key systems that are selling points of the K2 (active protection, integrated BMS/C4I-solutions, and so forth) – and it is true that the huge success of the Leopard 2 on the export market is a significant advantage when it comes to pooling spares and resources, as well as sharing in the R&D costs. However, the situation is not quite as rosy as he would have you believe. While a number of European countries back in the day did set up domestic production lines, many of those have since closed or gone cold, with production of Leopards in recent years becoming a significantly more German affair. He is also overlooking the sheer scope of the Polish framework agreement.

There are currently roughly 1900 Leopard 2 tanks in service in Europe once you remove the 280 or so Norwegian and Polish tanks that are to be retired in the near-future. This is a ball-park figure based on Wikipedia, but should give the correct order of magnitude. You can add another 82 Canadian ones, as well as approximately 550-600 in service or on order from other non-European customers (the question mark being the total number in Singaporean service). With the exception of Austria, the European tanks are operated by NATO-members, so there will indeed be the opportunity to share logistics. At the same time, the numbers aren’t overwhelmingly in favour of the Leopard, as the total NATO-fleet of Leopards is somewhere in the order of magnitude of twice the Polish order – significant, but not the 9:1 Drummond’s thread might give the impression of. Also notable is that with R&D-cost sharing usually being done on a per system-basis, and with ROK sporting a couple of hundred K2s themselves, the situation isn’t looking overly detrimental to what it would have if Poland would have gotten a thousand Leopards and made up a third of NATO’s Leopard-fleet.

A family picture taken at ADEX21 of the Omani-test vehicle, an operational-standard K2, and the K2NO sporting the Kongsberg Protector RWS and Trophy active defence system. Source: Hyundai Rotem

Now, the supply base will be narrower, and Korea as a source for spares and potentially crucial upgrades does raise more questions than a European country would. Any Polish factory will also be within range of more Russian long-range systems than German factories would be, and the work involved in getting spares from South Korea to Poland is bound to be a more complex logistical process than simply driving trucks over the border from Germany.

However, as mentioned there is deep mistrust towards the German arms industry following years of issues with the Leopards (there is room for glancing in the mirror on the side of the Polish authorities, armed forces, and industry as well, that is for sure – however, right or wrong, that does not change the overreaching sentiment in Warsaw). In addition, the inability to find common ground on Ukraine is cementing the split further. Drummond argues that it would be “ridiculous” to suggest that Germany would not support its NATO-ally Poland, and by extent argues that anything relating to arms deliveries to Ukraine is a different beast and shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath.

This might indeed be a correct reading of how Berlin thinks, but unfortunately for Drummond it just underscores the rift between how the strategic picture looks in Warsaw and Berlin respectively. Because while Poles without doubt are nice people who help Ukraine out of their kind hearts, there is also a strong strain of strategic self-interests that goes into arms deliveries to Ukraine (as indeed is the case for a number of countries along NATO’s eastern front). Ukraine’s fight will in many ways determine the security environment Poland will live in for decades to come, and a big part of why Poland is shipping their tanks to Ukraine is because Ukrainians fights not just for their own survival, but for the safety of millions of Poles, Finns, Estonians, and a host of other NATO- and EU-citizens. Berlin’s inability to grasp the Polish sense of urgency and how important they see the deliveries to Ukraine means that the discussions about e.g. the delivery of just 44 used Leopards does raise questions about Germany. And these questions are not just about Berlin’s willingness to aid Ukraine, but as the transfer would bolster Polish security, the questions raised are tied directly to Germany’s willingness to stand by its allies – at least that is how the question is formulated in Warsaw (and in a number of other capitals). Not necessarily because Berlin would make a conscious decision to abandon their allies, but because the strategic picture in Berlin is so remarkably different from that seen further east. And seriously, if me noting this rift makes me a Putin apologist, then that’s a really curious definition of the term (with that said, there certainly are Putinists who try to increase the rift among Western countries by using these talking points for their own purposes. That, however, should not take away from valid criticism).

It also in many ways is a two-way street. The fact that South Korea is still in a state of war with the North and have uneasy feelings about China (and to some extent doesn’t trust Japan, although a direct ROK-Japanese conflict is extremely unlikely) does indeed raise questions about what happens with promised deliveries in case of a renewal of fighting along the 38th parallel? However, at the same time the unease about a massive nuclear-armed adversary on the other side of the border is something Poland and South Korea have in common – and apparently something Germany for all its talk is lacking – and this is were security of supply suddenly is turned on its head. When Warsaw call Seoul and tells them “We need this now, because we worry for our national security”, they speak a language Seoul understands. And while they most likely won’t risk their own national security to meet the Polish needs, short of that one can expect them to show a greater interest than Berlin would. Because Poland isn’t a user among 18, but the largest customer and the bridgehead on the European market. And because the Koreans know themselves what it means to feel like you are living under threat, and understand that sense of urgency and the can-do attitude needed to meet that threat.

Is the risk of a Korean War 2.0 in the next five to ten years or so (after which the local Polish production lines should be up and running) big enough that the whole deal deserve to be questioned? Personally I don’t think so. The challenges in this deal are found elsewhere, and we’ll get to those, but it is good to realise that it is not just about performance of the tanks, but about how the fleet will be kept supplied as well.

So yes, Poland won’t be able to share spares with their NATO-allies (to say they won’t have “interoperability”, as Drummond does, is a stretch), which is a minus. At the same time, as a Finn I certainly understand the feel that one wants to be able to handle production and management of spares in-country. These things are always balanced against each other, and which one will take precedent depends on national needs and industrial policy. Drummond also goes on about the possibility of Poland not being able to support its K2 fleet, and possibly also the K9, overlooking the fact that with Poland a total of five NATO countries will be operating the SPG – all of them in Europe (compared to seven for the PzH 2000).

Clip from the Norwegian tests, starting with the K2 Black Panther showing off the hydropneumatic suspension

From a wider European perspective, while the Leopard 2 is an excellent platform for years to come, and while MGCS looks promising, having another serious contender (or two, with the M1 Abrams finally finding a European customer) and a  new production line in Europe is certainly a net positive in my opinion – even for us Leopard 2-users. Competition will drive the prices down, will force the large European defence companies to stay innovative and efficient, and if the worst comes to play, you certainly can’t have too many tank factories on the continent. Already now Norway is benefitting from this effect, as the Norwegian decision later this year will certainly be made with a better offer from Germany than would have been the case if the K2 wasn’t on the table. If that means one Leopard-user less with whom to share the R&D and spare part costs, I believe we not only can live with that, but that we might even be better off at the end of the day.

With that said, the level of ambition shown by the Poles and the challenges therein should not be underestimated. Just getting license production rolling will pose a challenge, as starting up a production line can easily run into cultural issues with the developer, differences with the supply chains, and teething troubles, all of which tends to increase both delays and costs. That is not to mention bringing along the K2PL-upgrade which so far is only a paper-product (if even that). Once we start looking at the K3PL next-generation tank, we are slowly approaching territory which if not exactly fantasy-land then at least belongs to its neighbour, rather-unlikely-land. Let’s remember that even countries with decades of unbroken production and development of main battle tanks have faced issues once they have started looking at the next generation of things. The challenges inherent in the complete program should not be underestimated!

One of the things supporting a successful joint Polish-Korean endeavour is the history of ROK with the successful K1-project and the proven ability to both design, produce, and maintain the tanks in operational service. Here a K1 is undergoing maintenance at an Army depot. Source: ROK Army/Lt. Kim Bitchan

However, before we start mourning failures that haven’t happened, let’s remember a few details that increase the probability of success. One is the know-how of the Koreans, and this being their best shot at entering the extremely competitive and conservative European market, and at a time when it is bound to grow. Success with the K2PL – and potentially the K3PL – would offer a unique opportunity to court countries that are vary of overreliance on German (and to a lesser extent, French) arms suppliers, and as such might be open to buying from unconventional sources – especially if the product is good. This is a serious driver for the Koreans to go above and beyond when it comes to helping their partners – and crucially, customers – in this endeavour. Similarly, the Polish industry is staffed by people motivated by the national security crisis brought on by Russia, and eager to show the world what they can achieve. A will to perform won’t get you the whole way, but it is a crucial ingredient. In this case it is also backed up by a solid knowledge base acquired over the years through producing, maintaining, and modernising a number of different vehicles. The most notable projects are without doubt the Rosomak and the older PT-91, but also work on other military vehicles have taken place in Poland in recent years. The step-by-step approach with deliveries of ROK-standard vehicles, production of K2PL, and only then a new design, gives significantly more credibility than what would have been the case if Warsaw would just have tried to build a MGCS-competitor on their own.

Still, it is a long way that stretches ahead for the Polish-tank program(s), and caution is a good companion. But as Poland is increasingly becoming the most important European ground power in NATO – and as such a key ally for both Finland and the other allied states around the Baltic Sea – I sincerely hope for the best.

7 thoughts on “Heavy Metal in the South, Pt. 3 – A Tank Factory of Your Own

  1. BB3

    I think Poland partnering w/ S. Korea is a game changer given the #s being acquired by Poland and their proposed ability to locally produce the artillery, tanks, IFVs, missile launchers and munitions in Poland w/in 5 years. If Ukraine survives Putin’s invasion – I’ve got to believe that Ukraine is going to want the very same equipment – which makes sense since Poland has established itself as Ukraine’s best/ closest ally – and Ukraine is going to want/ need a lot of equipment and munitions to guard against another Russian invasion and I’d think Romania, Bulgaria, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Baltic and Nordic countries will also be open to S. Korean/ Polish equipment if the price is right – and if the promised future iterations of tanks, artillery, missile launchers etc. get finished and put into production locally in Poland. JMO

  2. Ben

    I’d like to briefly chime in with the view from the other side of the Atlantic. Germany (and to a lesser extent France) has repeatedly proven to be such a bad ally and partner that calling them unreliable is overly generous. Whenever the US asks them for anything, we get blown off and insulted even though we’re really the only thing protecting them and their interests abroad. Their refusal to cooperate puts a huge amount of strain on the transatlantic relationship, and I think the US probably would have left NATO entirely if Russia had stayed quiet for the last 15 or so years.

    I think Poland is absolutely correct to assume Germany will ignore and abandon them, so it’s only sensible to go elsewhere for important defense articles like tanks. As an American I obviously would have preferred to see them go all in on the Abrams, but South Korea is also a solid partner and I doubt we would have given them this kind of industrial offset so I can’t complain.

    1. JM

      I’m not German, but you should take into account that in the last 20-25 years USA has being asking many nonsense things like the second Irak, Afganistan and so on.

      Being an allied of USA seems like being friend of that big guy that is involved in fights when drunk. At first you support him, but after several brawls you avoid to go out with him.

  3. TumiTam

    As a Pole, who is interested in geopolitics I can say that germans are completly unreliable partner for my country. First: Germans treat Poland as colony. Read about Otton von Bismarck’s “mitteleuropa” plan. Also Germans are using EU authorities to controll and dominate polish economy (all those green revolutions, cars euro standarts). Second: Germany chose Russia as an ally to controll Europe. It was obvious for everybody that if the NORDstream 1 & 2 will be build, nothing would stop russia from war. Mr. Scholtz showed the real germans face in the first days of russian invasion. So. No matter how many reasonable reasons the Author of this article will write. Dear germans, go F yourselves and your “ordnung muss sein”

  4. Piotr

    As additional comment. Poland was asking for many years to participate in European arm industry on many levels but was treated by Germany and France with prejudice. After many years of waiting poles finally decidet to go its own path.

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