Poland’s massive tank, artillery and jet deal with S. Korea comes in shadow of Ukraine war

Poland Korea

Officials from Poland and South Korea shake hands during the announcement ceremony of a major new arms agreement between the two countries. (Polish MoD)

WARSAW: In a move that both bolsters its military modernization efforts and creates a stronger geopolitical tie to the Pacific, Poland this week announced a series of major defense acquisition programs from South Korea.

The agreements — covering the purchase of 1,000 K2 tanks, 672 K9 self-propelled howitzers, and 48 FA-50 light combat aircraft — will completely transform Poland’s military as it seeks to bulk up in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while also beefing up Poland’s domestic industry.

The exact cost of the agreements were not made public, but South Korean media has pegged the spend at around $14.5 billion in total. If accurate, that would be roughly the same amount of money as Poland’s entire defense spending plan for the year released in Feb. 2022. Even spread across multiple years, as this buy would be, the Korean purchases clearly represent a major investment for Warsaw — especially after a series of procurement announcements made in May.

Mariusz Błaszczak, Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defense, officially approved the arms agreements on July 27. According to an official statement, “this is one of the most important and largest Polish defense orders in recent years. The ordered weapon systems are a real strengthening of Polish deterrence and defense potential. It will ultimately be produced with a wide participation of the Polish defense industry […]. Orders are characterized by a fast supply pace and a large transfer of technology to Poland.”

“This strengthening is extremely important in view of the situation on our eastern border,” said Błaszczak. “We do not have time, we cannot wait. We have to arm the Polish Army. Why such a weapon? Because we learn lessons from what is happening in Ukraine. We learn lessons from how the aggressor attacks, how Russia has attacked. We can see that armored forces and artillery are of great importance on the battlefield nowadays, hence the decision to strengthen this type of armed forces.”

The purchase is driven not just by fears of Russia, but also as an acknowledgement that Poland plans to continue to transfer older weapon systems to Ukraine and will need to backfill the resulting gaps.

Per the MND statement, the “main goal of these orders is to fill the gap resulting from the transfer of military equipment from the Polish Army resources to the Ukraine, including, among others: T-72 main battle tanks, and some PT-91 Twardy MBTs, 155mm self-propelled howitzers AHS Krab, by the end of 2025,” as well as growing Poland’s army.

And the industrial impact doesn’t hurt, with the ruling Peace and Justice party up for reelection next year. As part of the agreements, all three weapon systems will be domestically produced in Poland after 2026, with agreements in place to jointly-develop new tanks and howitzers for the future.

“Signing the framework agreement is indeed very important for the government of the Republic of Poland, but also for the government of South Korea, for our armaments industries, because now our countries are starting a strategic partnership and strategic cooperation. Hyundai Rotem will certainly expand this partnership with Poland, especially when it comes to locating production here in Poland with full transfer. I am convinced that both countries will be great partners in the name of the future, the more that we are expanding our cooperation to other areas,” emphasized Lee Yong-Bae, President and CEO of Hyundai Rotem.

There may be more to come: According to available information, Poland is to be interested also in development of wheeled armored personnel carriers and would potentially look to acquire the Korean-made AS21 Redback IFV, K239 Chunmoo rocket artillery system (called the K-MLRS, Korean Multiple Launch Rocket System), and the new generation Korean multi-role combat aircraft KF-21 Boramae. According to Poland’s MND “regardless of the purchase of FA-50PL, in the Polish Armed Forces Technical Modernization Plan for 2021-2035, there is still a task to the purchase of another two multirole fighter squadrons.”

“The Korean success in Poland is noteworthy because Poland is a member of NATO and could have opted for additional purchases from the U.S. or other European states,” Byron Callan, a defense industry analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, noted in an investor note this week. “We suspect that its products may be less costly and that Korea may be more willing to transfer technology. Successful export sales could further strengthen Korea’s defense industry as it also seeks to develop new products.”

Complementing the Abrams

Warsaw already has tank modernization efforts underway, with the announced acquisition of  250 American-made M1A2 SEPv3 Abrams Main Battle Tanks (planned for delivery through 2026) and 116 of the lighter M1A1 tanks (two battalions, with deliveries in 2023-2024). Now, those American tanks will be complemented by the Korean K2 Black Panther, designed by the Agency for Defense Development and manufactured by Hyundai Rotem.

The South Korean tanks will be delivered in two tranches. The first tranche will cover 180 (three battalions) of newly produced K2s, delivered between 2022 and 2025. The second tranche will be more numerous – 820 tanks (14 battalions) in the K2PL standard — with deliveries starting in 2026.

That same year, a new factory in Poland will launch and co-produce the K2PL, while older K2s delivered as part of the first tranche will begin to be modified, in Poland, to the higher K2PL standard. Along with the tank package will come a collection of Korean armored recovery vehicles and armored vehicle-launched bridges, a training and logistics package, and ammunition.

In addition, the Korean tanks will be able to integrate for combat operations with Poland’s upcoming amphibious infantry fighting vehicle Borsuk (Badger). Developed by Huta Stalowa Wola, the Badger is currently undergoing testing, and if it clears all requirements the Polish army is expected to begin negotiations on procurement.

And n the future, the two nations will collaborate on the K3PL, a new Polish-Korean tank developed on the basis of the K2PL, produced in Poland and South Korea.

Filling The Artillery Gap

As with the tanks, Poland was already underway with modernization efforts for its howitzers. Currently on order are 96 of the 155 mm self-propelled AHS Krab howitzers, produced domestically by Huta Stalowa Wola. Of the 80 that have already been delivered, 18 were donated to Ukraine, and in early June another 54 were put on order. According to Błaszczak, there is a plan to order another 48 Krab systems, with delivery completed by the end of 2026.

Those numbers will push Huta Stalowa Wola to its production capacity, but Poland will now get supplemental help from the K9 Thunder 155mm howitzer system, designed and developed by the Agency for Defense Development and Samsung Aerospace Industries, and now manufactured by Hanwha Defense.

Warsaw is planning for a first tranche of 48 K9A1 weapons, mostly newly produced, which will come with K10 ARV Fully-automated Robotic Ammunition Resupply Vehicles and K11 C2 vehicles as well as a training and logistics package, ammunition supply and technical support from the manufacturers.

The first 18 howitzers will be delivered from South Korea in 2022, and the remaining 30 will come in 2023. The K9A1, which is the older Korean design, will be modernized to the Polish K9PL standard after 2026, which requires integration with Polish communication systems and Poland’s Integrated Combat Management System known as Topaz.

The second planned tranche will be a massive order of 624 howitzers, equipped with the Topaz system. Deliveries of this tranche are expected to start from 2024, coming from South Korea facilities, but starting in 2026 a new Howitzer factory in Poland will begin producing the weapon as well; after that point, Poland will begin receiving both home-grown and Korean-produced K9 systems.

A future K9PLA3 howitzer design will see R&D begin in the 2025-2026 timeframe, based on user experience of both the K9PL and Krab. This version is to be produced in Poland and South Korea and would enter service in 2030s.

Successors For Soviet Aircraft 

The Polish Air Force fleet will be beefed up with 48 Korea Aerospace Industries FA-50PL light combat aircraft. (Breaking Defense reported that the South Koreans were meeting with Poland on a potential FA-50 sale in April.) The first 12 aircraft in Block 10 standard, equipped with British IFF Mark XIIA Mod 5/S, will be delivered to Poland in mid-2023.

According to current plans, the next batch of 36 aircraft is planned to start delivery in 2025 and will be completed in two to three years. These aircraft will resemble Block 20 configuration, equipped with AESA radar, Sniper targeting pod, and Link 16 datalink, and will be armed with AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles. In the future, Polish FA-50s will be integrated with high-end air-to-air weapons, potentially the US-made AIM-120 AMRAAM.

An Armament Agency of MND spokesman stated “we already have a specific configuration of aircraft that will be delivered from 2025, but this is not the last word, because the contractual agreement has not yet been concluded (it should be understood that the integration of further equipment can be taken into account later).” It is expected that a training center with simulators will be built in Poland and a MRO center will be established around 2026.

Getting the FA-50 into Poland has been a longstanding effort from Korea. The jet was offered to Poland twice (as the T-50P, tailored to Polish requirements) in tenders for new training aircraft in 2010 and 2012. Eventually Poland choose the M-346 Master as the replacement of obsolete TS-11 Iskra, and currently the Polish Air Force has 12 M-346 (dubbed “Bielik,” or “White-Tailed Eagle”) as part of the 41st Training Air Base in Dęblin. In late 2018, Warsaw announced the purchase of four additional M-346s, with Leonardo committed to deliver these aircraft by the end of October 2022.

But, according to Błaszczak, “currently used M-346 have too low availability rate – I signaled this matter to my Italian counterpart several times. That is why we decided on the FA-50, which will allow us to increase the number of cadets who will train at the Polish Air Force University as well as performing some NATO missions.”

It appears Poland will use the Korean-made jets not just as trainers, but as light attack aircraft that could be the successor of its one squadron of Su-22M4/UM3K Fitters and two squads of MiG-29A/UB Fulcrum, a pair of Soviet-era jets. In turn, the FA-50s will have to work together with the existing F-16 fighters currently in use.

“When it comes to interoperability with aircraft that are and will be in the Polish Air Force, [FA-50] integration will be maintained. The FA-50 aircraft will be integrated in the system with our F-16, and when it comes to infrastructure, this infrastructure that we have is enough to adapt these aircraft smoothly to our air forces.’ Inspector of the Polish Air Force Maj. Gen. Jacek Pszczoła said before the deal was announced.

“The Koreans assure us that the F-16 pilot needs six hours to start flying FA-50 solo,” Pszczoła added. This would also translate into lower costs of pilot training. “We intend to transfer pilots through the FA-50 to F-16 or F-35 and the training costs will be twice lower. The skills acquired on FA-50 will be used as much as possible when training on F-16 or in the future on F-35” he said.

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