by Arda Mevlütoğlu

Date: Issue 120 - February 2023

On July 27, 2022, Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defense Mariusz BŁASZCZAK approved several arms agreements with South Korean defense manufacturers in a ceremony held in Warsaw. The agreements cover K2 main battle tanks (MBT), K9 self-propelled howitzers and FA-50 light combat aircraft for the Polish Armed Forces.

This move by Poland is the first overseas sale for the K2 Black Panther MBT and an impressive export feat for the South Korean defense industry. 

South Korean Systems Ordered

Within the contracts, Polish Army will take delivery of 980 K2 MBTs, designated K2PL. The first 180 tanks will be manufactured by South Korean Hyundai ROTEM. Remaining 800 K2s will be produced in Poland through transfer of technology, starting in 2026. The contract for the K9 self-propelled howitzer is for the delivery of 672 examples by Hanwha Defense. The first execution agreement for 212 K9A1 howitzers, along with logistics and training package as well as a substantial number of ammunitions, was signed in August. The deliveries of 212 howitzers are scheduled to be finished in 2026. All of those howitzers will be integrated with the Polish Topaz Battle Management Systems and Polish C2 systems. 

Poland received the first ten K2 Black Panther MBTs and 24 K9 howitzers on December 6th, 2022. The K2s were delivered to the 20th Bartoshitsky Mechanized Brigade and the howitzers were delivered to 11th Masurian Artillery Regiment, both subordinate to the 16th Mechanized Division.

The third contract is for the acquisition of 48 FA-50PL light combat aircraft. The FA-50 is a combat aircraft version of the T-50 trainer, which is developed by Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI), with assistance from Lockheed Martin. The FA-50PL will be equipped with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, Link 16 tactical data link, and it will be capable of firing the AIM-120 AMRAAM medium range and AIM-9X short range air to air missiles. Polish defense media reported that Poland is interested in the KF-21 BORAMAE fighter, which is under development. 

Shortly after, on October 19th, Poland ordered 299 K239 Chunmoo multiple launch rocket systems, capable of firing unguided and guided artillery rockets. The Chunmoo system is equipped with two missile containers, each of which can hold as many as six 239mm guided missiles, offering a range of over 80km. The container can also carry a ballistic missile with a range exceeding 290km. The Polish Chunmoo systems will be installed on Jelcz trucks, manufactured by the Polish Armaments Group.

Poland’s Modernization Efforts

The contracts mark a major milestone in Poland's modernization efforts of its armed forces, and also a huge success for the South Korean defense industry. After the start of war between Russia and Ukraine on February 24, 2022, all NATO countries, especially neighbors of Russia initiated large scale armament programs. Poland stands out among these, with many orders being given to South Korean and American companies. In addition to the K2PL, K9PL and FA-50PL, Warsaw ordered 366 M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams MBTs, 18 M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) along with 9,000 guided missiles, including 45 ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles, 96 AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopters, eight Patriot long range air defense systems, and 32 F-35A Lightning II 5th generation combat aircraft. According to Prime Minister Mateusz MORAWIECKI's statement on January 30, Warsaw decided to increase military spending from 2.4% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2022 to 4% in 2023. As MORAWIECKI underlines, this is the highest percentage of GDP diverted to defense spending among NATO countries. 

Poland plans to spend $100 billion on the military until 2035. The total manpower of the army is planned to increase from 110,000 to 250,000, making it the largest land army in the EU. For comparison, French army consists of about 200,000 personnel on active-duty Polish Defense Minister Mariusz BŁASZCZAK stated that Warsaw’s target was to increase the number of soldiers in the Polish armed forces to 300,000, with the inclusion of 50,000 Territorial Defense Force (WOT) volunteers. The current number of WOT troops is around 36,000.

The MBT fleet of Poland is a mixture of upgraded examples of legacy Cold War era Soviet and modern Western designs. Prior to the outbreak of the Russo - Ukrainian War, Polish ground forces had around 230 PT-91, 249 Leopard 2A4/A5s, and more than 320 T-72s. The PT-91 is an indigenous extensive upgrade to the T-72M1, done in early 1990s. The remaining T-72s were also upgraded with new communication, targeting and engine control systems. All Leopard 2A4s (a total of 142 tanks) are being upgraded to Leopard 2PL version under a contract signed in 2015. 

Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Poland has donated over 200 T-72 tanks to Ukraine. In early 2023, Warsaw also announced that 14 Leopard 2s, 30 PT-91s and 30 T-72s were to be delivered to Ukraine. The order for the K2 Black Panther is the result of expediting the replacement process of the legacy T-72 and PT-91 MBTs, complementing the incoming M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams.

K2 Black Panther

The K2 Black Panther is designed and developed by Hyundai ROTEM as the next generation MBT. South Korea’s MBT development experience started with the K1, which was developed with assistance from United States. The K1 is a derivative of the American M1 Abrams, including subsystems from the M60A3. More than 1,500 K1's had been produced between 1986 and 2010.

As an M1 derivative, the K1 enabled South Korea to accumulate MBT design and production experience and establish infrastructure, while the South Korean army improved interoperability with the US Army against the armored formations of the North Korean army. However, the K1 incorporated design and systems subject to US export control, which limits South Korean operational independence and also export prospects. Additionally, South Korean army had developed a new operational concept which called for integration of all air, land and sea assets in a networked environment. An indigenous design was the only solution for adopting new concept of operations (CONOPS) and achieving operational independence.

Conceptual design studies for a next generation MBT had been executed in mid 1990s with first prototypes beginning trials in early 2000s. The development phase was completed in 2008. Upon completion of the test phase, the contract for the first batch of 100 K2s was signed in December 2014. Deliveries of this batch was completed in late 2016. 

The main armament of the K2 is a 120mm/55 smoothbore gun produced in South Korea under license by Rheinmetall of Germany. The gun is equipped with an autoloader and can fire about ten rounds per minute. The autoloader has 16 rounds in its magazine and additional 24 rounds are stored inside the hull. Secondary armament consists of a 7.62mm coaxial machine gun and a 12.7mm heavy machine gun on the top of the turret.

The K2 is powered by German EuroPowerPack consisting of the MTU MB 883 Ka501 1,500hp diesel engine and the Renk HSWL 295TM automatic transmission system. The first batch of 100 K2s were delivered with the EuroPowerPack. South Korea has also been working on the development of indigenous powerpack solution. Doosan developed the DV27K engine and ST Dynamics developed the EST15K transmission. The local powerpack was planned to be used in the second batch of K2s, however problems in tests, especially reliability and durability issues of the transmission resulted in the change of configuration: The production of the second batch was started with a hybrid powerpack consisting of DV27K engine and Renk HSWL 295TM transmission system.

Windows of Opportunity

The increase in military spending among NATO countries provides a window of opportunity to defense industry companies that can offer platforms and weapons meeting NATO standards. Many countries have turned to the US for modernizing their armed forces and in many cases replacing Cold War era, Soviet-origin platforms. This trend is the result of a combination of several factors, political motives being largely dominant. Bulgaria's selection of the F-16V to replace legacy MiG-29's, decision to acquire the F-35A by Finland, Czechia, and Germany, HIMARS orders by Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Netherlands and Poland are among the latest examples to the increase in US defense export to Europe. South Korea stands out in this new environment as a supplier of NATO-standard platforms that incorporate at US and / or European technologies and subsystems, while having virtually no political strings attached. The Polish acquisition efforts will most likely provide a case study for the reorganization and modernization of NATO’s armed forces in the coming years