We are hardly an expert on South Korea, having never been stationed there, and only visiting for a month for Exercise Team Spirit ’87, the annual joint US/South Korean wargames. Still, we found it a fascinating place, and a country that faces some interesting challenges, from a defense standpoint.
South Korea is on a peninsula. It’s only shared border is with its antagonistic neighbor, North Korea. North Korea invaded South Korea in July of 1950. After some truly harrowing fighting, US forces, rushed to the scene, managed to stem the tide, defeat the North Korean People’s Army, and regain lost ground. Disaster struck once again when massive Chinese forces entered the fight on the side of North Korea. Eventually, the lines were stabilized roughly along the 38th Parallel, the original border between North and South. In effect, we were right where we started. US forces have been present on South Korean soil ever since. Still, the South Koreans understand that, ultimately, their security rests on their shoulders. They have made enormous strides in becoming a democratic nation, and a highly industrialized one at that. A large part of that effort has been devoted to their defense industry.
From a strategic and operational standpoint, S. Korea faces a couple challenges. One, N. Korea has a massive army. It may not be particularly well equipped, but it is huge. And that army has a huge number of tanks and armored personnel carriers. Second, S. Korea isn’t that large a country. There isn’t a hell of a lot of room to maneuver on the strategic or operational scale (as contrasted to the tactical level, say, division and below). For instance, the capitol, Seoul, is very near the border, in fact, within artillery range of N. Korea. And being on a narrow peninsula, while it narrows the front you have to defend, and reduces the chances of flanking movements, it also allows the enemy to concentrate, and denies you the opportunity to use flanking movements in the counterattack.
One other thing. Korea is very mountainous. Like, really, really. So if you operate armored vehicles in that terrain, they better have a high horsepower to weight ratio, so they can make it up hills. There’s two ways to increase that ratio- increase the horsepower, or decrease the vehicles weight. Better yet, do both.
The Republic of Korea Army (or ROK Army) is organized along lines roughly similar to the US Army. For many years, it was equipped mostly with US weapons, but S. Korea has long worked at building its own defense industry, both to support its own army, and supply weapons to the international market. Most weapons, while not directly based on US systems, were roughly analogous. For instance, they built the K1 and K1A1 tanks, that bore a familiarity to the US M1 and M1A1 tanks.
As for armored personnel carriers, the ROK army has used a design based on the M113 since the 1980s. It is long been due for replacement. Finally, the Koreans have begun to field a new Infantry Fighting Vehicle, known as the K21 KNIFV (Korean Next-generation Infantry Fighting Vehicle).
One of the most interesting things about the K21 is how they saved weight. The K21 weighs about 26 tons. In contrast, a Bradley weighs about 33 tons. They are similar size vehicles. How did they save the weight? Well, for one thing, they make the chassis out of fiberglass. Yeah, fiberglass. Used in conjunction with ceramics and other materials, they can achieve good levels of protection for less weight. It will be interesting to see how it holds up to the stress of service.
As for armament, they’ve gone with a much larger weapon than a Bradley has. Instead of a 25mm autocannon, they’ve gone with a 40mm cannon. This provides a couple options that the 25mm doesn’t. First, most of the tanks it will face are older Soviet designs such as the T-55 and T-62. The APFSDS round of the 40mm can actually penetrate the side armor of these older tanks. Of course, it is fully capable of defeating armored personnel carriers. Also, with 40mm gun, you can have what are called “programmable rounds” where as the round leaves the muzzle the fire control computer sets the fuze of the round to either burst on impact, after a delay, or at a set distance from the muzzle. This is excellent for troops in the open, or for anti-aircraft fire.
The K21 also has a two-round anti-tank missile launcher, similar to the TOW launcher on a Bradley, but firing a domestically produced missile.