Armor: Good Enough Against North Korea

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March 8, 2021: The South Korean army has ordered the planned third batch of 54 K2 tanks. These will cost nearly $9 million each and be delivered by 2023. This will give South Korea 260 K2s, a very advanced tank design that first entered service in 2014. The first batch of a hundred tanks was delivered by 2015. Batch 2 began deliveries in 2016 and will be complete in 2021.

South Korea was designing its own tanks by the 1980s and began producing its K1 tank in 1987. The K1 was based on the original American 105mm gun version of the M1. Because South Korea equips its army to deal with the North Korean army, which has much older Russian made armored vehicles and weapons. The K1 was more than adequate even though it did not have the gas turbine engine that provided better acceleration and mobility for the M1. South Korea has over 1,400 so far and K1 is still in production.

The K1 and K2 tanks are replacing older American M48 tanks that were already superior to whatever the North Koreans had. The K1 and K2 gave the South Koreans a greater edge over North Korea. More importantly they were built in South Korea and therefore exportable.

Currently, South Korea has about 2,500 tanks, 1,600 are 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 a few 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 in the 1980s and 90s. These were called the Chonma-ho and some were later updated as the Pokpung-ho in the 1990s. Russia considered the T-62, with its 115mm gun and lots of components that never quite worked, a failure. For North Korea the T-62 was a major upgrade of the T-55 but it was soon eclipsed 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. 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 by then, 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 (initially over $8 million), which is the highest for any modern tank in production.

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, the 51-ton K1. While based on the American M1 design, K1 is somewhat smaller and still 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 was planned to end in 1997, with 1,027 built. But several rounds of improvements demonstrated that the K1 was worth keeping in production.

The first round of upgrades to the fire control and communications systems became known as the K1E1 and all of the original K1s are being upgraded to K1E1s, a process that won’t be completed until 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 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 makes 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, 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 and a major sale is likely for the K1s.

Even the Russians recognized the need for air conditioning and, 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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