In late 2020 South Korea declared its new LAH (Light Attack Helicopter) prototype ready for service and mass production. This is timely because most existing South Korean light attack helicopters are ready for retirement. Currently South Korea has 250 MD-500s, 12 Bo-105s and 75 AH-1s. A decade ago the South Korean Army had nearly 600 helicopters, and 40 percent of them were dying of old age. While South Korea has recently spent billions modernizing its armed forces with new tanks, warships and aircraft, army helicopters remained at the bottom of the todo list. Helicopter design and manufacturing is one of the last military technologies South Korea has mastered since the 1990s. Not just so South Korea could produce its own modern weapons, but so weapons could become a major export item.
The LAH was developed in record time by taking the LCH (Light Civilian Helicopter), and militarizing it. LCH is the French (AirBus) EC55 built locally under license for civilian use. It is a five-ton, twin-engine aircraft with a payload of 2.3 tons, or 13 passengers. The LAH has a crew of two and carries a day/night sensor that can direct the fire of a three-barrel autocannon and has two stub wings for 70mm unguided or laser-guided rockets as well as Hellfire or TOW ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles). There is some lightweight armor to protect the crew and engine as well as radar and heat-seeking missile detectors. Exhaust is vented upward to reduce detection by heat-seeking missiles and reduce the heat signature. Top speed is 320 kilometers an hour and range 850 kilometers. Average sorties last about 2.5 hours.
South Korea has, since the 1990s, built weapons production capabilities for world class warships, warplanes, armored vehicles and infantry weapons. It was only after 2000 that the local helicopter industry emerged. Meanwhile the army had fifty UH-1 transport helicopters that are over 40 years old, and 120 MD 500 light attack gunships that are over 30 years old. In the last 50 years, over a hundred UH-1s and MD 500s have been lost to accidents, and that accident rate increases the older these birds got. The government preferred to build replacements in South Korea, using South Korean designs. Doing that was speculative until South Korean aviation firms proved otherwise.
In 2010 South Korea introduced its first domestically designed and manufactured helicopter. The KUH (Korean Utility Helicopter), nicknamed "Surion," carries two pilots and 11 passengers. It can be armed with 7.62mm machine-guns. Some 60 percent of the components are made in South Korea. The 8.7-ton KUH can hover at up to 3,000 meters and has a top speed of 240 kilometers an hour.
South Korea spent a billion dollars developing the KUH, which was designed for civilian and military use. South Korea became one of only 11 countries that produces helicopters. Full scale production began in 2013. Currently half the 240 on order have been delivered. At first South Korea was going to buy enough KUHs to replace its UH-1s and MD-500s. That changed when the LAH became real and now KUH will only replace older aircraft of similar size. South Korea is offering the KUH for export and expects to do the same with the LAH, which is manufactured by the same firm that developed KUH. South Korea also has 150 French H155 LAHs on order but this may be cancelled or reduced if the South Korean LAH enters production on schedule in 2022 and proves successful in service.