Armor: South Korea Retires Its Russian Tanks


April 6, 2019: South Korea is finally retiring the 33 T80U tanks it received from Russia in the late 1990s, along with 33 BMP3 IFV (infantry fighting vehicles) and a thousand ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles). All this fairly modern (at the time) gear was used to settle a debt Russia lacked the cash to repay. Russia sent the best examples of the T80 and BMP3 it had in the hope of selling South Korea more of them. At the time Russia had over a thousand recent models of the T80 available for sale but South Korea was already (since 1985) producing its own K1 tank, which was based on the original American M1 (that had a 105mm gun). The T80U had a 125mm gun, a gas turbine engine, modern (for the time) fire control system and electronics as well as excellent protection. But South Korea equipped its army to deal the North Korean army, which had much older Russian made armor and other weapons. The K1 was more than adequate. The T80U did have some other advantages. The gas turbine engine provided better acceleration and mobility than the K1. While the T80U fire control system was competitive with the K1 equipment the K1E1 upgrade gave the K1 an edge. The T80U had some serious disadvantages. It was cramped for the crew because Russia deliberately selected smaller men for tank crews while the South Koreans did not. The T80U, like all modern Russian tanks, were less reliable than their Western counterparts. South Korea is retiring its T80Us not just because they are old but because Russia has tripled the cost of many replacement parts and South Korea now knows all it needs to know about Russian tanks.

This lack of reliability with Russian tank designs hurt the larger North Korean army which was undergoing an economic collapse in the 1990s, as well as a massive famine that killed about ten percent of the population. This economic crisis hit the North Korean military which not only failed to upgrade its tanks but was unable to keep them maintained well enough to provide adequate training. After 2000 it was noted that fewer and fewer North Korean armored vehicles were in good running condition and the crews were poorly trained. A few hundred T80Us would have made a big difference for North Korea but they could not afford it. Russia had heavily subsidized North Korea until the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. After that Russia could no longer afford to give away weapons as it often did before 1990.

The K1 and K2 tanks were replacing older American M48 tanks and were already superior to whatever the North Koreans had. The K1 and K2 gave the South Koreans a greater edge over North Korea and were built in South Korea and therefore exportable. Currently, South Korea has about 2,500 tanks, 1,800 of the K1s and K2s and the remainder the older M48s. North Korea has about 4,000 tanks in service with a third of them being 1950s era T-55s and even some Korean War vintage T-34s. North Korea also obtained about 800 T-62 tanks from Russia and then built about 2,000 “upgraded T-62s” locally. These were called the Chonma-ho in the 1980s and 90s and later as the updated Pokpung-ho in the 1990s. Russia considered the T-62, with its 115mm gun and lots of components that never quite worked, a failure. The T-62 was considered a major upgrade of the T-55 but it was soon eclipsed (and replaced) by the very successful T-72. The North Korean Pokpung-ho was supposed to be a T-62 upgraded to T-72 standards but there is no evidence that worked and, in any event, North Korean production standards were low and reports from North Korean veterans who made it to China and South Korea indicated the North Korean made tanks were nowhere near the effectiveness of the T-72 and T-80. North Korea had a few of those more modern tanks, obtained for studying and assistance in reproducing some of their design features. That never worked out because by the 1990s it was decided to give ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons priority when it came to development and production resources.

Adequately maintained North Korean tanks can still be dangerous, especially if they are defending and the crews have fairly recent ammo. North Korea is in the habit of keeping artillery and tank shells in inventory even when they are well past their “use by” date. When North Korean artillery and tank troops get to practice firing their weapons there are frequent misfires, some of which kill or injure the crews.

As effective as the K1 was, South Korea tried to improve on it with the larger, heavier and more expensive K2. That ran into problems. For example, in 2011 South Korea resumed production of its new K2 tank, after a year's delay, because of problems with the engine. These problems were first discovered in 2008 but proved more difficult to fix than anticipated. The prototype began testing in 2006, but there were lots of other problems, and delays. Three prototypes had been built, and the numerous delays led to a reduction of the production order from 500 to 380 and finally to about 320 with the possibility of raising that back to 400 or more. The problem with the K2 is the cost (over $8 million each), which is the highest for any modern tank.

The K-2 will replace the last of the older American M-48 tanks and complete the transformation of the South Korean tank force. This began in the 1980s when South Korea developed, and built its own K1 tank. The 51 ton K1 is based on the American M1 design, but is somewhat smaller and equipped with the same 105mm gun used by the U.S. M60 tank. The K1 has a 1,200 horsepower diesel, instead of a 1,500 horsepower gas turbine engine in the M1. Production of the K1 ended in 1997, with 1,027 built.

There have since been some upgrades to the fire control and communications systems which became known as the K1E1 and all of the original K1s are being upgraded to K1E1s, a process that will be completed by 2026. Meanwhile, South Korea developed the K1A1, which has the same 120mm gun as the American M1, along with other equipment used by the M1, but not the K1. The K1A1 is apparently part of the K2 development project, as not many K1A1s (and later K1A2) tanks were built. There were plans to build 300 K1A1s by 2010 but this was slowed down as K2 development moved along. Eventually over 300 K1A1/2 tanks were built. These, along with the K2s, gave South Korea about 800 tanks using 120mm guns. 

The new K2 has an improved 120mm gun, capable of firing an anti-tank missile, as well as the usual gun munitions. The K2 weighs 55 tons and outclasses anything North Korea, Japan or China has. The K2 has a number of new electronic defenses. It will have a laser detector that will instantly tell the crew the direction the enemy laser beam is coming from. Most tanks use a laser range finder before it fires its main gun. The K2 fire control system also enables the main gun (120mm) to be used to hit low flying aircraft (helicopters, mostly). There are also numerous improvements to the K2 mechanical and electronic systems, as well as more armor (both composite and ERA). This will make the K2 easier to use and maintain. An autoloader reduces the crew to three men. As good as the K2 is, the K1 remains the mainstay of the South Korean tank force. The main shortcoming is the lack of air conditioning (which the M1 and K2 have). For years officers and NCOs have been complaining that the lack of air conditioning makes South Korean tank crews less effective during the three months of the year (June-August) when it often gets very hot and humid. Most generals insisted that South Korean troops were tough enough to handle this, despite detailed reports from tank units (and personal testimonials from tank commanders) that crew performance was degraded by lack of air conditioning and even practice with the main gun tended to be more accurate in cooler months. As more of the first officers commanding K1 tanks in the 1980s rose to become generals the hostility against air conditioning faded. Now it’s mainly a matter of a South Korean firm designing an air conditioning system that will fit in the K1. South Korean manufacturers are working on this now what the prospects of a major sale are likely.

Even the Russians recognized the need for air conditioning and had, by the 1980s, made air conditioning an option on their latest tanks (including the T-80). Without that cooling option even Middle Eastern armies would switch to more expensive Western models that did have air conditioning.


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