Korea Korea conquering European tank market?

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US neocon think tank analyst shooting a barrage against Germany and France. The typical American „Korea good boy, Krauts/Frenchies bad guys“ trope. Next time he‘ll bash ROK for any minor nuisance that goes against US interests ...


South Korea Could Sweep Up Europe’s Tank Market

Germany’s self-inflicted wound has left defense partners looking for alternatives.​

By Blake Herzinger, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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Polish army soldiers stand in front of South Korean tanks at the Baltic Container Terminal in Gdynia, Poland, on Dec. 6, 2022. Mateusz Slodkowski/AFP via Getty Images

January 30, 2023, 3:58 PM


Germany remains the fourth-largest donor to Ukraine’s defense, but Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s dithering over the transfer of Leopard 2 tanks, the standard main battle tank for most of Europe, is still dominating headlines even after his government agreed to send them. Relenting after prolonged prevarication has only made the German government look indecisive and unwilling to lead even in matters of European security. While Germany has long been a defense acquisition partner for its European neighbors, this episode has shaken the confidence of its customers, creating the impression that Berlin’s confused defense policy and weak leadership are strategic liabilities and encouraging them to explore other options for defense hardware.

Operators of the Leopard 2, particularly those facing a Russian threat at their doorsteps, are questioning the wisdom of dependence on Berlin for a key element of their ground forces after witnessing the last few weeks of buffoonery. And the Franco-German plan to develop a replacement for both the French Leclerc main battle tank and the Leopard 2 seems destined to be dragged down by stultified bureaucracy, making their planned Main Ground Combat System an unattractive prospect to hang nations’ future force structures upon. But there aren’t any other hot European tank production lines in Europe, making Leopard tank variants the only option in town.

However, there is another planned tank production line in Europe. South Korea’s Hyundai Rotem and Hanwha Defense won immense arms contracts with Poland in 2022, which included a deal for 1,000 K2 main battle tanks and 672 K9 self-propelled howitzers. Of the total number of tanks, 180 will be built in South Korea between 2022 and 2025, with domestic production capability coming online in Poland by 2026 for the remaining 820. These will be built to Polish specification under the designation K2PL, with the first 180 tanks to be later upgraded to the K2PL standard. For Warsaw, the Korean deal meant getting tanks much faster than Germany’s Rheinmetall would be able to supply, and at a competitive price point, but it also delivered on Polish desires for technology transfer to enhance its own domestic defense industry.

The drive for indigenization is familiar to South Korea, which began the XK2 program in 1995 as an effort to distance the Korean tank program from U.S.-derivative platforms. The design reached the prototype stage in 2007, and after completing rigorous trials and evaluations, South Korea signed a contract for its first K2 tanks in 2014. While some have dismissed the K2 as a less sophisticated Leopard 2 imitation, it is still a world-class main battle tank with generally comparable capabilities to European-produced best tanks. In fact, it has performed well in trials competing against the Leopard 2.

But it is not just Poland. Turkey’s Altay main battle tank is a K2 derivative, and states such as Slovakia have engaged with South Korea to discuss options for replacing their vintage T-72 tanks. As many of Eastern Europe’s outdated Soviet-era tanks have already been sent to Ukraine, K2-based designs may be a good fit for several states eager to upgrade as well as diversify their defense relationships.

Norway also had the K2 on its shortlist, evaluating it against the Leopard 2A7, before the Norwegian chief of defense’s recommendation last year to do away with main battle tanks in the Norwegian military. While that question remains unresolved, Norway has joined Poland in ordering 28 K9 self-propelled howitzers from Hanwha Defense as part of a $180 million contract, adding to the ranks of other European states such as Finland and Estonia in adopting the Korean artillery system.

Of course, the entirety of Europe is unlikely to immediately pivot to buying tanks from South Korea, and there are potential pitfalls. One of the most important is South Korea’s own sensitivities regarding Russia. Seoul has been criticized for its own explicit refusal to send lethal assistance to the embattled Ukrainians—but has also reportedly been flexible with respect to its explicit policy by apparently agreeing to export munitions to the United States, which would then quietly find their way to Ukraine. And South Korea is geographically distant from Europe, which might be a deterrent for states that prefer to shop with their neighbors.

But in terms of equipment sales, Korean willingness to transfer technology and localize production is a considerable advantage. As mentioned, Poland’s arms deals with Hyundai Rotem and Hanwa Defense include domestic production lines that will begin producing Polish K2PL tanks and K9 self-propelled howitzers by 2026, as well as an advanced K9 maintenance, repair, and overhaul facility capable of servicing Polish equipment as well as other European forces. With domestic production and maintenance ensured, there is less vulnerability to potential future policy shifts in foreign capitals and an assured flow of spares and repairs. While Korean designs could still be beholden to export controls, South Korea has allowed clients to market its designs in the past with little to no restriction.

While the defense industries of many advanced states, including the United States, are facing severe production shortfalls in their defense industrial bases, South Korea’s retains robust and has scalable capacity for mass industrial production. This production capability, combined with Seoul’s willingness to localize production in Europe, is a considerable selling point compared with reliance on German national champion Rheinmetall, which may or may not retain sufficient capacity to meet demand in a timely manner.

The critical mass generated by Poland’s considerable orders may also work in Korea’s favor. In the midst of a pivotal defense modernization and expansion program, Poland is set to have one of the most formidable militaries in Europe, with more modern tanks than any member of NATO save the United States and Turkey. In fact, its tank fleet will outnumber the combined strength of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy. While estimates place the number of Leopard 2s in service in Europe at around 2,000, in coming years there will be nearly 1,000 K2s in service in Poland alone. States that are now sending their own Leopard 2 stocks to Ukraine may view acquiring the K2 as an avenue to promoting interoperability with a state that has shown itself ready to confront Russian aggression with fewer caveats than the traditional leaders of Europe.

The United States may also see indirect benefits from encouraging South Korea to aggressively pursue increasing its defense market share in Europe. As a treaty ally, Washington has a very real interest in ensuring a vibrant and robust South Korean defense industry that can produce the kinds of modern weapons needed to confront North Korean aggression.

Tying South Korea’s heavy industry to Europe’s security develops a useful linkage between U.S. allies and interests in both theaters. Polish troops, for instance, will train with South Korean forces in both countries. And, as the intensity of the Russia-Ukraine war forces the United States and its allies to remember the shocking rate at which industrial-scale warfare depletes equipment and ammunition, it makes sense to develop commercial relationships now that can rapidly address shortfalls in key areas.

A glance at the signatories of last week’s Tallinn Pledge—Estonia, the U.K., Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Slovakia—reveals an uncomfortable truth about states previously assumed to be leaders in Europe, such as France and Germany. They are absent. The stark difference in threat perceptions and urgency between Europe’s center and its Russia-facing periphery has been made very clear.

Rather than allowing Europe’s security to be held hostage to Berlin’s wariness of offending Moscow, more states may elect to follow Poland’s example in forging new extra-regional defense relationships with states that offer the operational flexibility they need as well as reinforce their own domestic economies. With successive South Korean presidents making clear their desire for the country to become a power player in defense exports—including current President Yoon Suk-yeol’s announcement of his aim to make South Korea the fourth-largest defense exporter by 2027—South Korea may be well positioned to seize more of Europe’s business.

 

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