Just behind the top-tier air forces of the world is a small choice group of major regional powers who feature most of the capabilities of the great powers, although on a smaller scale. While Israel is perhaps the most obvious example, Harpia Publishing’s Modern South Korean Air Power – The Republic of Korea Air Force Today (ISBN: 978-1-950394-07-4) places the spotlight on another one of the big players.
Harpia’s books are a known concept for readers of my reviews. We are talking about a high-quality sturdy paperback with a liberal amount of pictures. For this volume, Harpia has brought in long-term aviation photographer Robin Polderman as the author, and the result is a really interesting volume on a topic which might certainly have global implications if things turn bad – the Korean peninsula being probably the only flashpoint with not only obvious interest to all three major powers but also a local actor with nuclear weapons and ICBMs.
The book takes a surprisingly broad approach, including not only a short history on the origins of military aviation in pre-war Korea as well as the history of the ROKAF from the humble beginnings up to today, but also a complete overview of all aircraft as well as helicopters and weapons in service today (including the Patriot and KM-SAM air defence systems operated by the service) as well as other podded systems (ELINT, jammers, recce/targeting pods, target towing systems, …). In addition the book deals with training (pilot/air crew training as well as major exercises), the modernisation plans stretching from 2021 to 2035, the surprisingly large and varied domestic aviation industry of the country, as well as the strategic picture including a history of recent developments covering roughly the last five years, as well as the moves of other stakeholders in the region. This include overviews of both US assets in the region as well as a concise but surprisingly exhaustive look at the North Korean Air Force. However, one of the things I felt was not discussed in appropriate detail was the role of the other services’ aviation arms, in particular when it comes to the question of helicopters where the ROK Army Aviation is a sizeable operator (read: they’ve got hundreds of them). As an example I am left somewhat in the dark when it comes to why both the Army and the Air Force flies around with their own Chinooks, and whether they perform similar roles? The title mentioning “air power” as opposed to “Air Force” also make this omission feel a bit strange, although to be fair the air force-focus is clear from the sub-header. At the same time, it is difficult to fault a book that manages to paint such a complete picture, even if my personal choice would have been to drop the part about Taiwan and the ROCAF and dedicate the space freed up to a short discussion on the other flying services. But perhaps we are just waiting for volume two (and three?) in a pattern similar to Harpia’s recent books on Chinese military aviation?
With that said, it really is difficult to stress enough how thorough the book is. How many books on the topic takes time to explain the role and functions of the AN/ASW-55 datalink pod? The many twists and turns that has shaped the modern ROKAF fighter fleet are also discussed, including the cancelled F/A-18 Hornet and F-15 Silent Eagle deals. The development of domestic aircraft have also turned out to be of surprising importance for the European discussion following Poland’s recent framework agreements with the Republic, a development which was not in the cards when the book came out last year. Perhaps most impressive is that Polderman manages to cram all this into 236 pages (followed by an appendix of full-colour unit badges, this is the longer of Harpia’s standards for those familiar with their books) without the text feeling dense. It is in fact a surprisingly easy read if you want to go cover-to-cover, as opposed to some Harpia titles which are more firmly in the reference work-section. With that said, the reference value is immense, both for defence analysts and scale modellers. As mentioned, you don’t get just the aircraft and units, but also weapons, electronic warfare capabilities, and future plans.
I have to say that I personally feel like this is one of the stronger books published by Harpia in the last few years, and as such is highly recommended to anyone interested in the topic.
The book was received free of charge for review from Harpia Publishing
The Republic of Korea has obviously a long history of being on more or less permanent war-footing, but it was somewhat more recently that they really fired up their own arms industry. For the MBT-side of things, this kicked off with the K1, which entered service in the late-80’s. This was a tank related to the M1 Abrams, although sporting enough differences – most visibly the integration of a combined torsion bar/hydrodynamic suspension as well as a more traditional diesel engine, but also a somewhat different approach when it came to sensors and sights – to ensure it was a new tank a not just a local copy of the M1. The K1 has moved through a number of versions, including following the path of the Abrams of going from a 105 mm rifled main gun to a 120 mm smoothbore one, and by all accounts have provided good service to the ROK Army even if never quite grabbing the headlines. Interestingly, one of the few export attempts was to Malaysia, where it was beaten by the PT-91. It’s a small world…
But there was still room for more tanks to replace old M48 Pattons. One of the solutions was to accept a battalion of T-80U from Russia – apparently as payment for debts owed by the Soviet government. A large-scale order for Russian steel was not, however, in the cards. Instead, development of a new tank started.
There is obviously no proof that the ROK would have used that inside knowledge of what was then one of the most modern non-Western tanks of the battlefield when designing what would become the K2. But I guess it didn’t hurt. Neither probably did the fact that ROK also operate a limited number of (ex-IDF) T-62 and T-72M1 in the aggressor role.
If the K1 had borrowed from the Abrams, the K2 would borrow from the Leclerc. Exactly how much is somewhat open for discussion – one anecdote gives that the autoloader is copied based on ‘YouTube-videos‘, though it should be noted that development work of the K2 was quite far along by the time YouTube was launched, leaving open the option that the term should not be taken literally but rather in general for video-clips on the internet, that a video clip helped iron out the final design at a rather late stage, or that the whole anecdote is fake. In any case, like the Leclerc, the tank is relatively light and sport a three-man crew tanks to the autoloader removing the need for a dedicated loader.
The K2 Black Panther entered service in 2014 – two years after the Japanese Type 10 and as such laying claim to being the newest tank in operational service. This newness has to some extent been exaggerated, as while the tank might be decades newer than much of the competition, the continuous development of the current generation of western tanks means that the latest and greatest version of the Leopard 2 and Abrams are more or less sporting the same level of protection, firepower, and combat management systems as the K2 does. There is without doubt a benefit to being able to integrate 21st century systems from day one of the design instead of bolting them on afterwards, which is seen in e.g. the growth in weight and lower mobility of the latest versions of the Leopard and Abrams, but this is more along the lines of bonus points in the margin than evaluation winners. All in all, it is a good and very modern tank, but it is still a competitor to the current generation of M1A2 SEP-series and Leopard 2A7, rather than to the next generation such as MGCS.
South Korea had faced issues with entering the European market for quite a while, the most successful defence export being the world’s greatest Les Misérables parody – Les Militaribles, set at the ROKAF’s 22nd Fighter Wing. However, in the last decade, sales of the K9 Thunder has picked up pace, as has interest in a number of other systems, such as the K21 IFV. The K2 has also showed up in Norway, where the tailored K2NO-variant is competing against the Leopard 2A7NO for the contract as Norway’s next MBT. While the Leopard arguably is the favourite, the K2 is reported to have outperformed the Leopard in recent winter testing, thanks to the advanced suspension and low weight allowing for good mobility (it should be remembered that the Korean peninsula is no stranger to snow).
It deserves to be emphasised that the market for a supplier of a modern tank is really limited, in particular if you aren’t interested in Russian (or rather, Soviet) or Chinese designs. The Leclerc scored a single export order to UAE, who eventually donated a number of tanks to Jordan. The Challenger 2 saw a small order from Oman, while the Ariete never left Italy. As such, all three are more or less out of the game at this stage. Just how dominant the Leopard 2 has been on the export markets is evident when one remember that the M1 Abrams has scored a whooping six export deals before the Polish one – all except Australia being to the Middle East or North Africa. So if you have burned your bridges over the Oder-Neisse line, have been politely declined to come aboard the MGCS in the earlier phases of the project, and still want to get your own tank production line with transfer of technology and the potential of a future tank design, where do you go? To Seoul.
The South Koreans were ready to supply not only tanks to Poland, but to participate in setting up a complete associated infrastructure including technology transfer, license production, development of an improved local version known as K2PL, local production of spare parts, and joint development of a future tank tentatively described as the K3PL. This all weighed heavily in the Polish decision, with some Polish analysts going as far as calling the K2 inferior to the M1A2 SEPv3, but the overall deal making a K2-buy interesting.
M1A2SEPv3 is considered by Polish Army as a superior tank, however Republic of Korea offers much more than just tanks. Besides K2PL which will be produced in Poland, there is also proposed cooperation on new tank, let's call it K3/K3PL. And there is more.
After years of rumoured interest, the outbreak of the war ensured that Polish authorities saw the K2 being the preferable way forward, and earlier this week signed a huge framework agreement covering buys and local production of not just the K2, but also K9 howitzers and FA-50 light fighters. In addition there are discussions regarding the IFV-side of things – in practice a further developed version of the K21-version known as AS21 Redback which is currently on offer to Australia – as well as about the K239 Chunmoo multiple-rocket launch system to complement the HIMARS ordered by Poland.
The scope of the framework agreement is huge. For the K2, it starts with 180 tanks of the current K2-version delivered starting this year and stretching out to 2025. As said, these would cover three battalions of 60 tanks each. Edit: Seems a Polish battalion is 58 tanks to be exact, this changes a few numbers down the line, but nothing drastic. This batch would be followed by an additional 820 tanks built locally to an upgraded K2PL-standard, with deliveries starting in 2026. All in all, that makes it a nice even 1,000 K2 in Polish service, which would fill a total of 17 tank battalions. Looking back at the OOB, that would mean converting all three remaining divisions into more or less the same pattern as the 18th with its six tank battalions, leaving Poland with a full four divisions of around 360 tanks each (one of them being a battalion short).
The cost of the tanks, according to the framework agreement, would come in at approximately 12.86 MEUR per vehicle, which is a lot but not overly expensive. In fact, it ties in rather nicely with the 11.2 MEUR per vehicle that Slovakia reportedly is paying for their CV90 IFVs, as well as with the reported 2009 unit cost of 8.5 MUSD for the Korean production run which inflation-adjusted to 2022 dollars (CPI. Yes, not ideal for military systems) and converted to Euros sits at 11.6 MEUR (and which at the time earned the K2 a Guinness World Record as “Most Expensive Tank”). Now, comparing vehicle costs are always complex and usually sits somewhere between “As relevant as the price of fish in Goa” and “Moderately useful” on the scale of relevancy to the discussion, but it does not feel like the Poles are paying a lot considering the reported scope – if the 12.86 Bn EUR really cover the whole acquisition program.
Approximately here we ought to stop and acknowledge the fact that Polish defence procurement has a history of not being straightforward, and with the politicians and armed forces having a tendency of being better at presenting plans and concepts rather than actually seeing them through. A framework agreement, even if a signed document and certainly of value, is not and should not be confused with an acquisition contract proper. However, several of the programs now kicked off are not new, but rather ones that have been in the pipeline for years without anyone actually pulling the figurative trigger. The war next-door certainly has given them a renewed importance, and as such it certainly is possible that the framework agreement will lead to serious orders – and fast, if the scheduled first deliveries in 2022 are to be met.
Still, it is difficult to overstate how ambitious the current framework agreement is. One thing that almost certainly will suffer is the ambitious K2PL-variant proposed during the last few years, which would have been a radical redesign that also included a lengthened hull with an additional roadwheel. It does seem unlikely that the currently described K2PL which will be ready for local production in four years would feature all the envisioned improvements, and as such that particular concept is likely dead. More likely, the K2PL is an iterative design on the current chassis, as the variant is said to feature improvements to the armour and observation system, a new active soft-kill/hard-kill protection system (the Elbit ASOP/IFLD), as well as integration of new types of programmable ammunition and the locally built 12.7 mm WKM-B heavy machine gun as the secondary weapon of choice (this is a Polish NSV chambered in .50 BMG).
However, the really interesting side is the industrial aspect, and here we have a true ‘glass half full/empty’-situation.