South Korea Skills Base Broadens

K9 Thunder self-propelled howitzer. (JR Ng)

The South Korean defence industry is widening its skills and knowledge across all sectors, including tier supply.

The Republic of Korea (RoK, or South Korea)’s defence industry has been shaped by the country’s unique strategic environment, having evolved over several decades to address the requirements of its rapidly modernising armed forces and a national imperative to expand its national export potential.

Enduring threats posed by an unpredictable and belligerent Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) as well as historical baggage with Japan and an increasingly powerful China have driven indigenous defence-industrial advancement across the air, land, and naval domains and provided the RoK armed forces with a highly credible set of offensive and defensive capabilities.

Despite the remarkable progress Seoul is seeking to decrease its reliance on advanced technologies – especially command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) – from the United States as well as position its defence industry as an engine of growth for national economic development.

The push for next-generation development is being spearheaded by the Ministry of National Defense (MND)’s Agency for Defense Development (ADD) that was established in the 1970s to oversee licensed production of US-designed weapons and munitions.

There is a growing consensus that the South Korean defence industry has come of age with large homegrown public and private corporations such as Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME), Hanwha, Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI), Hyundai Rotem, Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), and S&T Motiv – along with numerous mid-sized and small-medium enterprises (SMEs) – moving up the value chain from licensed-production and equipment/platform upgrades to comprehensive development of high-end platforms and systems.

Land systems

Land platforms and weapons have unsurprisingly emerged as one of the leading sectors within the South Korean defence industry, given that its principal customer – the RoK Army (RoKA) – is the country’s largest military service and responsible for countering the Korean People Army (KPA). Although equipped with comparatively obsolete equipment, the KPA nevertheless possesses large fleets of artillery and armoured vehicles that can adequately cover the distance to Seoul and other vital cities from well-hidden and hardened firing positions on its side of the demilitarised zone. This has spurred the south to develop highly capable military vehicles, ranging from wheeled armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) such as the Hyundai Rotem 6×6 K806 and K808 Wheeled Armoured Vehicles (WAVs) to the tracked K21 infantry fighting vehicle (IFV), K9 Thunder 155/52 mm self-propelled howitzer (SPH), and upgraded K1A1 and K2 ‘Black Panther’ main battle tanks (MBTs).

One standout success is Hanwha Defense’s 46 tonne K9 Thunder SPH, which offers a sustained fire capability of three rounds/minute and a rapid-fire rate of eight rounds/minute. Besides being the primary SPH platform for the RoKA, the type has been exported to countries including Estonia, Finland, India (local production), Norway, and Turkey (local production). The K9 had earlier been a contender in the Australian Department of Defence (DoD)’s Land 17 Phase 1C artillery replacement programme, although the effort was abruptly cancelled in mid-2012, Australia again expressed strong interest in the SPH in mid-2019 with plans to sole-source 30 SPHs under the Land 8116 Protected Mobility Fires requirement, although a firm decision has yet to materialise to date.

Hanwha is nevertheless in the running for the DoD’s Land 400 Phase 3 mounted close combat capability, which calls for the acquisition of up to 450 IFVs and 17 manoeuvre support vehicles worth between $6.8-10.2 billion (A$10-15 billion) to replace the Australian Army’s upgraded but ageing M113AS4 armoured personnel carriers (APCs).

The company has proposed an enhanced version of its successful K21 IFV called the AS21 Redback. The 42t IFV will be operated by a three-person crew and accommodate up to eight fully equipped dismounts and will feature Australian firm EOS Defence System’s two-person T2000 turret and Elbit Systems’ highly integrated C4I suite.

A Hanwha official told AMR that mobility testing of the Redback had already commenced in its Korean test facilities around late 2019 ahead of in-country assessments and the company plans to establish a “full-service” manufacturing and support plant in Geelong should it secure the contract in 2022. The Redback is competing against Rheinmetall’s Lynx IFV.

“We believe that our Redback is a strong contender as it builds on the proven design and operational pedigree of the K21, which certainly meets or exceeds most requirements of modern armed forces around the world,” the official asserted.

Meanwhile, Hyundai Rotem is positioning its K2 MBT for potential exports, having been actively marketing region-specific variants of the tank in recent years. The company appears to be especially bullish about its prospects in Africa and Middle East, having unveiled a desert-optimised K2 with modifications such as a turret shade, additional bustle-mounted air-conditioning system, and supplementary dust covers and filters.

Naval systems

Likewise, the rapid assimilation of foreign technical expertise – notably from Western European shipyards between the 1960s and 1990s – has produced a naval shipbuilding industry that has evolved from upgrading and license-manufacturing foreign designs to producing indigenously-developed surface and underwater combatants.

South Korea’s naval production capabilities are centred on DSME, HHI, and Hanjin Heavy Industries & Construction (HHIC), which as built at least 150 vessels for the RoK Navy (RoKN) ranging from the smaller Chamsuri and Geomdoksuri-class patrol crafts to the 8,500t Sejong Daewang (KDX-3)-class Aegis guided-missile destroyers and 14,500t  Dokdo-class helicopter carriers.

The indigenously built 8,500t Sejong Daewang (KDX-3)-class Aegis guided-missile destroyer.

Recent successes include the Royal Navy’s new Tide-class Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) replenishment vessels, which was built by DSME at its Okpo yard on Geoje Island in partnership with BMT Defence Services using the latter’s Aegir afloat support ship design. DSME was awarded a $605 million (£452 million) contract in March 2012 for four 39,000t tankers to replace its retired Leaf- and Rover-class vessels.

Elsewhere in the Asia Pacific, HHI is also delivering two 2,600t multirole José Rizal-class frigates to the Philippine Navy at a cost of $337 million. The vessels are derived from the company’s HDF-3000 design, which is originally based on the RoKN’s Incheon-class frigates. The lead ship, BRP Jose Rizal, arrived in Subic Bay on 23 May. Its sister ship, BRP Antonio Luna, is being fitted out and is expected to be delivered by the end of 2020.

BRP Jose Rizal frigate
BRP Jose Rizal frigate. (HHI)

Despite having no experience in submarine development and construction prior to its acquisition of the KSS-1 Chang Bogo‐class (Type 209/1200) and KSS-2 Son Won-Il (Type 214) – the latter featuring air-independent propulsion (AIP) – the diesel-electric submarine (SSK) designed by Germany’s Howaldtswerke‐Deutsche Werft (HDW) were built locally by South Korean shipbuilders with the exception of the lead KSS-1 boat.

This eventually led to the development of the fully indigenous KSS-3 Dosan Ahn Changho-class AIP submarine, the first of which was launched in late 2018 and is presently undergoing sea trials in anticipation of service entry in 2020.

DSME has been actively seeking opportunities in the submarine-export market. It has exported a Nagapasa-class SSK – based on the Type 209/1400 design – to Indonesia and secured a contract for three follow-on boats in 2019. The company is also pursuing potential contracts in India and Peru.

At the 2019 edition of the International Maritime Defense Industry Exhibition (MADEX) in Busan, DSME highlighted a new export SSK design called DSME 2000. The 71 metre long single-hull design features an underwater displacement of 2,180t and will incorporate a comparable suite of indigenous system developed for the RoKN’s latest KSS-3 SSKs, and will be equipped with lithium ion batteries for improved range and endurance.

It is envisioned to offer a maximum operating range of 10,000 nautical miles and will be operated by a 40-person crew and will be able to accommodate up to 10 more personnel.


Major aerospace companies such as KAI and the aerospace business of national airline Korean Air have over the past three decades developed extensive expertise relating to the maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) and upgrades of RoK Air Force (RoKAF) aircraft over the past three decades. It is now fully capable of indigenously producing a range of parts and airframe structures, including composite production component manufacturing, testing and simulation, and tooling.

However, despite significant progress military aerospace industry remains dependent on foreign technologies to compensate for enduring capability gaps especially in the areas of advanced airborne sensors and aero-engines.

Perhaps the most important military aerospace development currently underway is the Korean Fighter eXperimental (KF-X) programme being led by KAI with significant foreign input. KAI was awarded a contract in December 2015 to develop the KF-X and will supply six prototypes for ground and air testing with the aim of completing development by 2026.

KAI's T50i Indonesian export version
KAI’s T50i Indonesian export version. (KAI)

Thereafter, it will commence serial production of an initial batch of 120 aircraft that will replace the RoKAF’s ageing F-4E Phantom and F-5E Tiger II aircraft. Assembly of the first prototype is expected to be finalised by the end of 2020 and rollout following soon after.

Despite its indigenous design, the KF-X features significant foreign content from European and US suppliers. For example, Collins Aerospace Systems is supplying several critical power and control systems such as the aircraft’s integrated and compact environmental control system (ECS) which includes air conditioning, bleed air control, cabin pressurisation and liquid cooling. The company is also supplying the aircraft’s engine start system components, including the air turbine starter and flow control valve.

The KF-X will also feature Collins Aerospace’s latest variable speed constant frequency (VSCF) generator which is more efficient and 10 percent more power dense compared to the company’s existing VSCF generators.

Besides Collins Aerospace, the KF-X will include equipment provided by Cobham Mission Systems (missile eject-launchers), IAI ELTA (AESA radar development), Elbit Systems (terrain following/terrain avoidance TF/TA system), General Electric (F414-GE-400 engines), L3 Harris (BRU-47 and BRU-57 release systems), Meggitt (brake control system, carbon brakes, displays, wheels etc), and Saab (AESA radar development).

KAI’s near to medium export strategies will continue to revolve around its T-50 Golden Eagle advanced jet trainer aircraft and its FA-50 multirole fighter variant. Both types have been successfully exported to countries including Iraq, the Philippines, and Thailand, with a company official noting that several other Asia Pacific and Middle East countries have expressed “strong interest” in acquiring advanced trainers and/or light attack aircraft.

KAI is also pitching an upgraded version of its twin-engine, medium multirole Surion Korean Utility Helicopter (KUH) called the Surion KUH 1E for export markets. Likewise, the helicopter was originally developed with a foreign partner, with Eurocopter (now Airbus) providing the main gearbox and rotor components and KAI providing the remaining content. While the Surion has found domestic success, it has yet to gain traction overseas although KAI believes it is close to securing a launch export customer.

Surion medium helicopter. (JR Ng)
Surion medium helicopter. (JR Ng)

Meanwhile, KAI is developing the Light Armed Helicopter (LAH) – derived from the Airbus Helicopters H155 design – to replace the RoKA’s AH-1F Cobra and MD 500E/500MD helicopters. The LAH prototype was rolled out at the company’s Sacheon facility in early 2019, subsequently performing its maiden flight in July of that year. It is expected that the RoKA will acquire around 214 examples with service entry between the 2022-2023 timeframe. It is expected that the LAH will eventually enter the export market once it fulfils domestic orders.

COVID-19 impact

The push for increased exports has taken on greater urgency amid the Covid-19 coronavirus, which has seen the South Korean government slashing its annual defence budget by $733 million – with $577 million of this sum originally earmarked for the RoK Armed Forces’ modernisation – to reduce the economic impact of the pandemic.

Nevertheless, local companies are set to benefit from a series of government initiatives aimed at ensuring the survival of the defence industry, which Seoul considers one of its key pillars of its national economy.

Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said on 15 June that the Ministry of National Defense (MND) will roll out schemes including financial support and exemptions of penalties on late payments. He also noted that the MND will prioritise acquisitions from local companies over foreign imports for fiscal year 2021.

by Jr Ng