South Korea’s onward march as growing global defense supplier continues apace. The latest major sale involves a $3.2 billion deal with Saudi Arabia that was signed back in November, but only recently revealed by the country’s defense ministry.
The deal involves the sale of 10 KM-SAM Block II medium-range surface-to-air missile systems. The KM-SAM – referred to Republic of Korea Army (ROK Army) service as Cheongung, or Iron Hawk – is a medium-range air-defense system capable of hitting aircraft and missiles out to ranges of 40 kilometers (25 miles). Each KM-SAM Block II battery includes four launchers with eight total missiles, plus a multifunction radar and a command post vehicle. Korean producers LIG Nex1 and Hanwha Systems share in production of key components of the system.
The Saudi pickup follows on the heals of an earlier Middle East regional sale in January 2022 to the UAE for the same weapon system under a $3.5 billion deal. Deliveries of these KM-SAMs to the UAE reportedly have yet to begin due to Hanwha Systems’ development of a more capable Block II active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar for the system.
South Korea has netted defense sales to Saudi Arabia in the past, such as its Raybolt man-portable anti-tank (MANPATS) missiles in 2017, and a sale of its K239 Chunmoo multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) in March 2022. The latest deal further solidifies the inroads South Korea is making in the Gulf region.
Meanwhile, South Korea continues to cement itself as a critical arms exporter for countries looking to acquire reliable weaponry within a reasonable timeframe.
As recently as 2008, South Korean arms exports struggled to break the $1 billion threshold, while in 2020 they failed to meet a government target of $4 billion (instead reaching $3 billion).
But now – buoyed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the capacity limitations of Western suppliers – South Korean weapons systems continue to see growing demand.
S. Korea sealed average of US$ 15 bil. in arms sales in 2022 and 2023
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The South Korean government set a target of $4 billion in weapons exports by 2020 but instead only reached $3 billion. However, exports rose to $7.2 billion in 2021, and – buoyed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the need for faster deliveries in a time of production bottlenecks – then more than doubled to $17 billion in 2022.
The latter total was largely attributable to a bundle of major defense agreements with Poland, who – seeking quality hardware at affordable prices, faster delivery timelines than the U.S. could provide, plus promises of foreign loans (some of which are now being scrutinized by Warsaw), technology-sharing and localized workshare – turned to South Korea to fill orders for main battle tanks, self-propelled howitzers, multiple rocket launch systems (MLRS) and light combat aircraft over the course of 2022.