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South Korea making big strides as defense exporter

Felix Kim

South Korea is making its mark as a leading defense exporter following a year in which the value of its arms exports exceeded imports for the first time. Leading the way has been its K9 Thunder howitzer, which is the world’s bestselling self-propelled artillery weapon.

The U.S. $1.7 billion deal between South Korea and Egypt in February 2022 marks the biggest K9 export deal to date, raising to eight the number of countries that have purchased the system.

The K9 Thunder’s popularity is due to its reliability and adaptability to specific needs, In-Bum Chun, a retired lieutenant general with the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army, told FORUM. Its price tag, which averages one-third of its competitors’ systems, also helps.

“The K9 has been in use by the ROK military since 1999,” Chun said. “Approximately 1,200 systems are in use, with proven combat action during the shelling exchange in 2010 between North and South Korea. As of 2020, close to 800 systems are in use by other countries besides Korea.”

After absorbing the initial unprovoked bombardment by North Korea that sparked the artillery conflict in 2010, K9 crews responded with swift counterfire. This track record has been a selling point for the K9, Chun said.

Hanwha Defense, the system’s manufacturer, said Australia, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, India, Norway, Poland and Turkey are either deploying or planning to deploy the K9 Thunder.

The howitzer, pictured, has been customized for various terrains and conditions such as desert and snow. “The real-world threat that the South Korean military faces on a day-to-day basis has provided valuable experience and knowledge, which is adapted to the constant improvement of the K9,” Chun said.

The deal with Egypt also includes the K10 ammunition resupply vehicle and the K11 fire direction control vehicle, according to a February 3, 2022, news release from Hanwha Defense. The K10, which supplies the K9, is the first automated robotic ammunition carrier of its kind, Hanwha added. The K11 was developed specifically for the Egyptian military.

All three defense assets will be used by the Egyptian Army and Navy and will be produced in South Korea and Egypt under a technology transfer agreement.

Australia is poised to add 30 units of a K9 variant, the AS9 Huntsman, to its arsenal, along with 15 K10 vehicles, in a U.S. $700 million deal completed in December 2021, according to the Korea IT Times online magazine.

The Australia and Egypt deals followed one in September 2021 involving the development of a K9 variant for the British Army, the UK Defence Journal reported. A number of United Kingdom defense firms joined with Hanwha to form Team Thunder in a bid to manufacture the weapon for the U.K.’s Mobile Fires Platform program.

The success of K9 exports parallels a general surge in South Korean defense exports, which have grown 600% since 2005, with 2021 the biggest year, reported The Economist newspaper. South Korea completed its biggest defense sale in January 2021 when it signed a U.S. $3.5 billion contract to develop a missile system for the United Arab Emirates.

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.



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