February 5, 2023:
Polish support for Ukraine in 2022 was prompt, responsive, substantial. This was the result of centuries of mistrust about Russia and more recent disagreements with Western allies over how reliable, dependable or predictable the Russians are.
While the Poles appreciate Western support for Ukraine, they also criticize Western nations’ willingness or ability to send Poland and Ukraine the weapons they need. To deal with this problem, Poland has come to rely on South Korea. In late 2022 Poland ordered $5.8 billion worth of tanks, self-propelled artillery and ammunition. Deliveries are to be made within a year and Polish tank crews begin training in South Korea in October 2022. This purchase is part of Poland’s effort to improve its defenses in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Poland ordered billions of dollars’ worth of South Korean K2 tanks, K9 self-propelled 155mm howitzers and FA-50 jet trainers reconfigured for combat use. While the K2 and K9 purchase amounts to nearly a thousand vehicles, most will be built in Poland under license. The 48 FA-50s are manufactured in South Korea and available for immediate shipment. Orders for armored vehicles not being built in Poland are delivered as soon as possible.
South Korea currently provides a wide, and growing, assortment of weapons and services. This includes guided rockets like the American GMLR and short-range ballistic missiles. To deal with the nuclear threats from North Korea, South Korea is considering nuclear weapons. These will not be available for export.
South Korea also provides a lot of weapons and vehicle upgrade services. For example, South Korea is upgrading its 59 F-15K “Slam Eagle'' fighter-bombers. This upgrade is expensive, costing $2.73 billion ($45 million per aircraft) and will not be completed until 2034. South Korea has noted the success other nations have had upgrading their local versions of the F-15E model which the U.S. created in the late 1980s as a two-seat fighter bomber. Most American F-15Es are over 35 years old while export customers are still receiving new aircraft. The South Korean F-15 K's are all 10-15 years old. This justifies the extensive and expensive upgrades, which apply to many electronic systems including a late-model AESA radar. There is also an updated cockpit with new flight and fire control software as well improved electronic countermeasures and passive sensors. The F-15K can carry 13 tons of weapons, including highly accurate SLAM-ER cruise missiles and guided penetrating bombs to go after North Korea bunkers. South Korea is also buying more aerial tankers to keep the F-15Ks in the air longer while waiting for targets to be found.
South Korea also has 167 F-16C fighters that are being upgraded to F-16V models. South Korea has 50 F-35 stealth fighters in service with more on the way.
A growing number of South Korean warplanes are designed and built in South Korea. Currently this includes 60 FA-50 jet trainers equipped as light bombers. A new jet fighter, the KF-21 is on the way. Also called Borame (“Fighting Hawk ''), this new fighter design made its first flight in miod-2022 and expects to enter service by 2026. Developing the KF-21 cost at least $8 billion. The South Korean air force wants to buy 120 of them. The first 40 will be Block 1 while the other 80 will be the upgraded Block 2.
The block 1 KF-21 is a twin-engine 24.5-ton air superiority fighter. The F414 engines are American models built in South Korea, and are the same ones used by U.S. Navy F-18E and the South Korean TA/FA jet trainer. The block 2 KF-21 is designed as a fighter-bomber, with sensors and electronics similar to those used in the F-35 so that the pilot can handle flying the aircraft as hitting ground targets with guided bombs and missiles. F-15K fighter-bombers will be replaced by the block 2 KF-21s in the 2040s. South Korea also uses 19 prop-driven basic trainers equipped as light bombers. South Korea is rapidly retiring older F-4 and F-5 aircraft.
South Korea has already developed world-class armored vehicles, warships and support aircraft, including helicopters and become a major arms exporter. Neighboring countries, like Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Australia are also developing manufacturing capabilities for combat vehicles, ships and aircraft. Japan was the first country in the region to develop the capability to build modern weapons but, until recently, the Japanese post-World War II constitution banned export of weapons. That was recently changed and now Japan can build for export. Japan has to catch up with South Korea, which always produced these new weapons with the intention of competing in export markets.
South Korea remains the most advanced and productive weapons developer and manufacturer in the region. Chinese firms, most of them state-owned, also produce a wide variety of weapons that are cheaper, and less effective, than South Korean models.
South Korea is in the top ten countries when it comes to GDP and arms exports. This is impressive for a nation of 51 million that started with little industrialization or arms manufacturing in the 1950s to become a powerhouse in both areas. That is about to change because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions imposed because of that. At the start of 2022 (before the Russians attacked) the major arms exporter was the U.S. (38 percent of total arms exports) followed by Russia (19 percent). France (11 percent), China (4.6 percent) and Germany (4.6 percent). South Korea was 10th, with 2.8 percent. With Russian arms exports greatly reduced because of the sanctions, many of their customers seek other suppliers. South Korea is going to get a lot of that business and exactly how much won’t be known until the end of 2023.