Poland is buying almost 1,000 tanks, more than 600 pieces of artillery and dozens of fighter jets from South Korea, in part to replace equipment donated to Ukraine to help Kyiv fight the Russian invasion, the Polish Ministry of Defense told CNN on Tuesday.
The agreement, expected to be officially announced in Poland on Wednesday, will see Warsaw purchase 980 tanks based on the South Korean K2 model, 648 self-propelled K9 armored 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 auto-loading 120mm guns, are expected to arrive this year, with the production of 800 upgraded tanks starting in 2026 in Poland, according to the ministry.
The first 48 K9 howitzers, made by Hanwha Defense, are also expected to arrive this year, with delivery of a second batch of 600 due to start in 2024. From 2026 these will be produced in Poland, the ministry said.
The ministry said these armored vehicles would, in part, replace the Soviet-era tanks that Poland has donated to Ukraine to use in its fight against Russia.
The ministry’s comments to CNN come after Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak 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 the South Korean Defense Acquisition Program Administration and the arms manufacturers involved for comment.
Chun In-Bum, a retired South Korean general, said the deal with Poland is Seoul’s single biggest weapons export pact 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 a combat version of the T-50, which has gained a reputation for being the best trainer in the world inventory. The K2 tank in its latest version will be better than anything South Korea has to date,” Chun said.
Higher profile for Korean arms
Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, 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 industries.
Moon’s successor, President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office in May, also wants to push such exports, Easley said.
“But the war in Ukraine increases the geopolitical stakes” for Seoul, Easley said.
The profitable arms deal with Poland, a NATO member, means South Korea will be expected to share the “burden for defense of the international order,” Easley said.
“Washington and NATO will expect Seoul to increase assistance to Ukraine and maintain sanctions against Russia, even if doing so comes at some cost to the South Korean economy,” Easley said.
Since joining NATO in 1999, Poland has become a key member of the 30-member alliance, and has been purchasing US-made military equipment, including Abrams main battle tanks and F-35 stealth fighter jets.
Poland has also become a big backer of the government in Kyiv following Russia’s invasion, making deals to send more than 200 tanks and self-propelled howitzers to Ukraine.
During a visit to Seoul in May, the Polish defense minister said the war in Ukraine showed Poland’s urgent need for South Korean arms.
“We talked about accelerating the deliveries of these weapons to the Polish Army. Why is it important? Because of the war on our eastern border. It is important for the Polish Armed Forces to be equipped with modern equipment, proven equipment, and such is the equipment produced by Korea,” Błaszczak said at the time.
He said South Korea and Poland faced similar security situations and therefore needed similar weapons.
“Why is Korean equipment proven? Because Korea has the challenge of its northern neighbor, who also conducts an aggressive policy, so our task is to equip the Polish Armed Forces with modern equipment. Equipment that will deter the aggressor. Such equipment is undoubtedly … produced in Korea,” Błaszczak said.
Some defense industry analysts question whether the South Korean weapons are the right fit for Europe, however.
Nicholas Drummond, a defense industry analyst specializing in land warfare and a former British Army officer, said the K2 tank is essentially a less capable version of the German Leopard 2 main battle tank.
“Same gun. Same engine and gearbox. But overall less sophisticated with inferior electronic architecture. … Not a bad tank. But not class of the field,” he said.
Drummond also said hardware made in Asia may eventually face supply chain problems during a war in Europe.
“It is right that Asian countries buy from Korea as these customers can easily be supported in time of war. But supporting European customers in an emergency is likely to be more challenging,” he said.
South Korea’s ground attack jet
The FA-50 jet, produced by Korea Aerospace Industries in association with US defense giant Lockheed Martin, is a supersonic light combat aircraft, suitable for ground attack and some air-to-air missions.
The plane, flown by the South Korean Air Force since 2013, is armed with Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, Maverick air-to-ground missiles, and a three-barreled 30mm cannon for strafing runs. It can also use precision-guided and gravity bombs.
The FA-50, in its combat and training versions, has found export customers in Colombia, Indonesia, Iraq, the Philippines and Thailand. But with its order for 48 planes, Poland would become the biggest operator of the jets outside South Korea.