In July 2020 South Korea finally retired the last of its UH-1 (Huey) helicopters. Since 1968 South Korea has operated 129 UH-1Hs., which flew 792,000 hours since 1968 when the first ones were acquired. In 1978 the last UH-1H was acquired and put into service. Since then most of the UH-1Hs have gone out of service due to accidents or because they simply wore out. By 2010 only about fifty were still in service and fewer than twenty were flyable.
At that time the South Korean Army had nearly 600 helicopters, and 40 percent of them were dying of old age. Since the 1990s South Korea had spent billions modernizing its armed forces with new tanks, warships and aircraft while army helicopters remained at the bottom of the acquisitions list. Since the 1990s most new weapons were locally built because of all the technical and military technologies South Korea has mastered in the last few decades. Not just so South Korea could produce its own modern weapons, but so weapons could become a major export item.
South Korea had, since the 1990s, built weapons production capabilities for world class warships, warplanes, armored vehicles and infantry weapons. Since the 1980s a South Korean firm had been building UH-60H and MD-500 helicopters under license and after 2000 South Korea firms went ahead with developing and producing their own helicopter designs. In 2010, when the South Korean KUH (Korean Utility Helicopter) first flew, the army had fifty UH-1H transport helicopters that were over 40 years old, and 120 MD 500 light attack gunships that were over 30 years old.
The government preferred to build replacement helicopters in South Korea, using South Korean designs. That was not possible given the number of older helicopters in need of replacement and the time it took to design, develop and produce a new South Korean design. Since the 1970s, nearly a hundred UH-1s and MD 500s have been lost to accidents, and that accident rate increases the older these birds get. To avoid that, older helicopters deemed too risky to fly were grounded and retired. For these helicopters a refurbishment would cost nearly as much as a new helicopter. South Korea developed a plan to build nearly 250 KAHs to replace the last UH-1Hs and expand the number of medium transport helicopters in service, plus buy 150 French H155s to replace the aging 260 MD-500s built between 1976 and 1988.
The KUH, 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, and it was designed for civilian and military use. South Korea becomes only one of 11 countries that produces helicopters. Full scale production began in 2012 and as of 2020 half the 240 Surions ordered had been delivered.
Currently most of the nearly 600 South Korean Army helicopters were built in South Korea. The first were the 257 MD-500 built under license during the 1970s and 1980s. This was followed in the 1990s by 138 UH-60Ps. Since 2012 120 of 250 KUHs have been built in South Korea. Other types of helicopters are too complex, and the South Korean Army only needs small quantities of them. That is not enough to justify the cost of having new ones designed and built in South Korea. These include 33 CH-47 heavy helicopter transports and the hundred AH-64 helicopter gunships. Only 36 of the AH-64a are in service with the rest arriving between 2022 and 2028.
The UH-60, AH-64 and CH-47 are very successful designs that are combat proven and very popular with many export customers. Other nations have had problems designing and building competing designs. While many nations have designed competitive replacements for the UH-1 and MD-500 designs, creating competitive replacements for the UH-60, AH-64 and CH-47 has, so far, resulted in a lot of failures and near-misses. South Korea proved successful in building exportable armored vehicles, warships and aircraft by choosing models that would be profitable via sales to the South Korean military and likely to obtain some export orders. That has worked, although so far the KUH has had a hard time gaining export customers because of competition from existing European designs and cheaper Russian equivalents like the Mi-17. Even China has not yet broken into the helicopters model, so South Korea can take some satisfaction in that.