In late March, images of the first Polish Army live fire exercises involving South Korean-built K2 Black Panther tanks were released, demonstrating the tremendous speed with which these assets have been integrated into active service – just eight months after they were ordered in July. The first tanks began to arrive in Poland in December 2022, six months after orders were placed, with the Polish Army expected to field over 1,000 of the vehicles. This will provide it with a tank force widely expected to be the most capable in Europe by a significant margin, in line with the ambitious new ground force goals outlined by Polish officials.
The K2’s introduction to Europe is a potential game changer for the balance of power on the ground, and one that has potentially serious implications for Russian security amid high tensions with the West and with Warsaw in particular.
Although South Korea has for over a year resisted considerable Western pressure to begin arming Ukraine, its emergence as a major supplier of equipment to emerging military powers in Eastern Europe allows its industry to play a major role both in the broader conflict between Russia and NATO, as well as to influence the Russian-Ukrainian War indirectly. The Korean tanks’ deliveries will free up more of Poland’s old arsenals of T-72, PT-91, and Leopard 2 tanks for delivery to Ukraine, all of which have already been integrated into the Ukrainian Army from Polish stocks.
The speed with which the K2s have been supplied thus directly affects Poland’s capacity for bolstering its neighbor’s forces. This contrasts to the German Leopard II and American M1 Abrams, the only Western tanks in production, for which clients have to wait several years for deliveries to begin. South Korea’s defense industrial base, particularly for ground equipment, is by several metrics the healthiest in the world producing NATO-compatible weaponry, which makes it particularly valuable to the Western bloc’s overall fighting strength.
K2 orders are just one example of major arms orders from South Korea significantly increasing the West’s capacity to arm Ukraine, a more recent example being the American order earlier in April for large quantities of Korean munitions specifically to allow its ally to send more of the U.S. Army’s stockpiles to Ukraine.
The K2 began entering service in the mid 2010s, making it 35 years newer than its rivals the Leopard II and Abrams, which entered service in 1979 and 1980 respectively. This age gap is reflected in many aspects of its performance, despite modernization of the older Western tanks over the last four decades. They provide the Polish Army with not only the most capable tanks in Europe, but also with a significant advantage over Russian tanks for multiple reasons.
Russia has neglected to invest in ambitious modernization of its frontline armor since the Cold War’s end, and the bulk of its fleet consists of modernized Soviet built T-72s such as the T-72B3M. Although the Soviet Union had been developing a highly promising new generation of armor, such as the ambitious T-95 tank, Russia cancelled these. Even its T-14 Armata tank – considered a toned down successor to the T-95 – was never operationalized despite on paper having the potential to provide key advantages over the K2. The T-72 and other Cold War era designs were considered more than sufficient when modernized to counter the Abrams and Leopard 2, which similarly were upgraded Cold War era designs. The mass introduction of Korean vehicles into NATO armies rapidly overturns that calculus. Against a genuinely clean sheet 21st century tank from South Korea the older Russian vehicles face prospects of a tremendous disadvantage.
The K2 combines relatively modest operational costs and maintenance needs with high mobility, an autoloader providing a high rate of fire and reduced crew requirements, as well as double the engagement range of its Western counterparts. It also integrates a range of advanced sensors including a millimeter band radar, which provides high situational awareness both to each individual vehicle and to the broader network, including early warning of potential threats from anti-tank assets. While a lack of serious Western investment in new tanks after the Cold War’s end allowed Russia to remain complacent, introducing more modern tanks from South Korea into NATO quickly and in very large numbers can quickly transform the balance of power on the ground.
Poland’s acquisition of K2 tanks is likely to be particularly concerning for Moscow because, far from being isolated, it represents part of a broader trend toward cutting edge South Korean armaments making NATO forces near Russian territory far more potent than they would have otherwise been if relying on Western equipment. Lookin at the K2 alone, Turkey is expected to acquire over 1,000 of the tanks in the form of the domestically produced Altay derivative, while Norway and Finland are considered leading potential clients.
The K9 artillery piece, which similarly boasts many advantages over both Russian and Western rivals, is already operated by Estonia, Finland, Norway, and Turkey with Poland expected to field close to 1,000. The K9 already holds around half of the global tracked howitzer market and the overwhelming majority of the market for NATO-compatible tracked howitzers. Later in 2023, Poland is also expected to begin receiving the first of 288 Chunmoo rocket artillery systems, with Norway and Romania both considered likely clients.
Acquiring tanks and artillery even on very large scales, as Poland is doing, remains considerably cheaper than modernizing aviation or surface navies. Large acquisitions even of costly equipment like the K2, K9, and Chunmoo are thus viable even for lower income European countries. This and the sheer speed with which they can be delivered, where Western tanks often take close to half a decade after orders to begin deliveries, will require a major calculus shift for Russian security on its eastern border. Where the Russian and Western defense industrial bases have declined considerably since the end of the Cold War, South Korea’s has grown rapidly, making it a potential game changer for NATO’s position against Russia particularly for its ground forces.
Where NATO can rely on South Korean industry, however, Russia appears to have no similar partners abroad that can supply its forces. China has refrained from exporting arms to Russia. North Korea, likely largely due to ongoing U.N. arms embargoes, appears not to have made any particularly significant equipment transfers despite the growing sophistication of its latest defense products and their compatibility with those Russia fields.
South Korean arms supplies highlight the contrasting trends between the country’s defense sector and broader industrial base and those across the Western world over the past 30 years. These trends could make Russia pay a high price for neglecting the modernization of its ground forces’ equipment since 1992. Beyond Russia, European defense manufacturers, and Germany in particular, which supplied the continent’s primary battle tanks in the last two generations, are expected to be major losers as the contrast between what they and South Korean industry can deliver, not only in armor but a broad range of asset types, becomes increasingly clear.
Korean competition is expected to accelerate the trend toward European defense industrial decline. Pressure is already coming from the United States, especially in fighter aviation where the F-35 has won every single tender on the continent when going up against local fighters. What the F-35 has done in aviation, the K2, K9, Chunmoo, and other Korean land systems are now well positioned to do on the ground.