Poland to buy hundreds of tanks, howitzers from South Korea after sending weapons to Ukraine

The agreement, which will be officially announced in Poland on Wednesday, will see Warsaw buy 980 tanks based on South Korea’s K2 model, 648 K9 self-propelled howitzers and 48 FA-50 fighter jets, the Ministry said. It would not confirm the value of the deal.

The first 180 K2 tanks, made by Hyundai Rotem and equipped with 120 mm self-loading guns, are expected to arrive this year, with production of 800 upgraded tanks in Poland in 2026, according to the ministry.

The first 48 shells made by Hanwha Defense are expected to arrive this year, with a second batch of 600 to be delivered starting in 2024. The Ministry said that they will be produced in Poland from 2026.

The ministry said these armored vehicles would partly replace Soviet-era tanks that Poland has given Ukraine for use in the fight against Russia.

The ministry’s comments to CNN came after Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszcza tweeted on July 22 that the deal would “significantly increase Poland’s security and the strength of the Polish Army.”

CNN has reached out to South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration and the weapons manufacturers involved for comment.

Chun In-Bum, a retired South Korean general, said the deal with Poland is Seoul’s biggest arms export deal ever.

He also praised the weapons involved.

“The K9 (howitzer)…is probably the best artillery system in the world, rivaled only by the German system. The FA-50 is the combat version of the T-50, which has earned a reputation as the best trainer in the world’s inventory. The K2 tank in its latest version by South Korea It’s going to be better than anything he’s had so far,” Chun said.

A higher profile of Korean weapons

Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, said the arms deal had its roots in the administration of former President Moon Jae-in, who sought large foreign contracts to boost South Korea’s defense industry.

Moon’s successor, President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office in May, wants to boost those exports, Easley said.

“But the war in Ukraine raises the geopolitical stakes” for Seoul, Easley said.

A lucrative arms deal with NATO member Poland will see South Korea share “the burden of defending the international order,” Easley said.

“Washington and NATO expect Seoul to increase aid to Ukraine and maintain sanctions against Russia, even if doing so comes at a cost to South Korea’s economy,” Easley said.

Since joining NATO in 1999, Poland has become a key member of the 30-member alliance, buying US-made military equipment including Abrams main battle tanks and F-35 stealth fighter jets.

Poland has also become a big supporter of the government in Kiev after the Russian invasion, making arrangements to send more than 200 tanks and self-propelled howitzers to Ukraine.

Urgent need

During a visit to Seoul in May, Poland’s defense minister said the war in Ukraine showed Poland’s urgent need for South Korean weapons.

“We talked about speeding up the delivery of these weapons to the Polish Army. Why is it important? Because of the war on our eastern border. It is important to equip the Polish Armed Forces with modern equipment, with proven equipment, and things like that. Korean-produced equipment,” Błaszczak said at the time.

He said South Korea and Poland faced similar security situations and therefore needed similar weapons.

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“Why has Korean equipment been proven? Because Korea has a challenge from its northern neighbor, which also pursues an aggressive policy, so our task is to equip the Polish Armed Forces with modern equipment. Equipment that will repel the aggressor. This equipment is definitely … produced in Korea,” said Błaszcza.

Some defense industry analysts question whether South Korea’s weapons are suitable for Europe, however.

Nicholas Drummond, a defense industry analyst specializing in ground warfare and a former British army officer, said the K2 tank is essentially a scaled-down version of Germany’s Leopard 2 main battle tank.

“Same gun. Same engine and gearbox. But overall less sophisticated with lower electronic architecture… Not a bad tank. But not field class,” he said.

Drummond also said that hardware made in Asia could eventually face supply chain problems during the war in Europe.

“It is right that Asian countries buy from Korea so that these customers can be easily supported in times of war. But supporting European customers in an emergency is likely to be more challenging,” he said.

A South Korean Air Force FA-50 Golden Eagle fighter jet at a US air base in South Korea in 2017.

South Korean ground attack aircraft

The FA-50 aircraft, produced by Korea Aerospace Industries in conjunction with US defense giant Lockheed Martin, is a light supersonic aircraft suitable for ground attack and some air-to-air missions.

Fielded by the South Korean Air Force since 2013, the aircraft is armed with Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, Maverick air-to-ground missiles and a triple-barreled 30 mm cannon. It can also use precision guided and gravity bombs.

The FA-50, in its fighter and training versions, has found export customers in Colombia, Indonesia, Iraq, the Philippines and Thailand. But with the order for 48 aircraft, Poland would become the largest aircraft operator outside of South Korea.