Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin announces a set of reform measures called the “307 Plan,” under which the military plans to beef up its defense readiness against imminent enemy threats, during a press briefing on March 8.
/ Korea Times photo by Cho Young-ho
By Lee Tae-hoon
A growing number of politicians and defense experts are expressing exasperation over the country’s repeated failures to produce world-class weapons.
They claim the nation may face a serious defense loophole due to the government’s zeal to replace high-tech military imports with indigenous ones and make its arms industry a new growth driver.
The development of K2 tanks, K9 self-propelled howitzers, K11 dual-caliber rifles, K21 infantry fighting vehicles and guided-missile patrol boats has encountered major setbacks, according to officials of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA).
Rep. Kim Hak-song of the governing Grand National Party (GNP) claims that the high defect rates among Korean-made weapons stem from the military’s excessive demands on required operational capability (ROC).
“Korea should acknowledge its own limits in its capability to develop advanced weapons,” he said in a recent parliamentary hearing. “It should consider lowering ROCs.”
A 2011 DAPA report shows that Korea’s arms technology still lags behind that of advanced countries but the military is demanding local manufacturers produce weapons that exceed performances of any of the existing ones.
It says Korea’s core military technology is roughly 78 percent of the level of the United States and Britain.
Rep. Sim Dae-pyung, chairman of the minor opposition People First Party, claims that Korea must succeed in making reliable arms products before contemplating selling them overseas.
“So many flaws have been found in the K-series weapons,” Sim said. “How can you persuade any country to trust Korea and buy the problem-ridden weapons?”
Kwon Oh-bong, vice commissioner of DAPA, admits that the arms procurement agency is struggling to meet the two lofty goals of better countering Pyongyang’s increasing threats and boosting the economy through the promotion of local arms manufacturers.
“Our agency is keenly seeking a breakthrough as it is accurately aware of the crisis it is facing,” Kwon said.
Korea’s weapons exports lingered at $1.2 billion last year, up about 2 percent from 2009, partly due to the disappointing performance of the K9 self-propelled howitzers when North Korea undertook a surprise artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November last year.
Of the six Korea-made howitzers deployed on the border island in the West Sea, two could not function properly due to the North’s artillery fire, and one could not immediately respond because a dud shell blocked it.
The remaining three K9 155mm-howitzers fired 80 shells against North Korean artillery units, but most of them missed their targets.
Redefining defense priorities
Rep. Yoo Seong-min of the GNP claims that the government should make the first priority beefing up national security, rather than boosting the export competitiveness of domestically made arms.
“What are weapons for? To better protect the country or make money?” he asked.
“Who will take responsibility if war breaks out five or 10 years later and hardly any of the indigenous high-tech weapons are functional, while the country is being bombarded by the North’s conventional weapons?”
He argues that Korea should review its plan to make the arms industry as one of the country’s growth drivers.
North Korea’s two deadly attacks, which killed 50 South Koreans, are widely seen as wake up calls in realizing the importance of strengthening military readiness against imminent enemy threats.
Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin has also vowed to bolster the country’s military capability to strike back against the North as a part of the comprehensive military reform, called the “307 Plan,” that he announced on March 8.
Despite mounting criticism experts say the government cannot let go of its ambitions to make the country an arms development powerhouse.
In fact, DAPA announced last week that it would postpone the deployment of the K2, the country’s new main battle tank under development, by up to one year to 2013 because of mechanical problems involving its engine and transmission.
Earlier this month the defense minister reportedly decided to import a key part of the K2 tanks from Germany to meet the scheduled date of deployment.
Korea initially planned to start mass production of the K2 this year, but the plan hit a snag in 2009 after the engine and transmission, known as the “power pack” was found to be defective.
DAPA’s announcement should be a relief for local defense contractors who will have more time to fix the problems.
Critics, however, say the decision may pose a security risk and is an embarrassment for the military, which wants to replace aging K1 and U.S.-built M48 tanks with the K2s.
Nevertheless, the government is seeking to increase Korea’s annual arms production to $10 billion and weaponry exports to $4 billion by 2020, saying the country’s impressive performances in the manufacturing sector has proven that its local defense companies have great potential to grow into global players.
Two Korean companies, Samsung and LIG Nex1, were ranked among the world’s top 100 arms-producing companies in 2009, generating $1.17 billion and $750 million respectively in arms sales.
Last year, the Army admitted to a maintenance failure of K9 howitzers, saying cheap antifreeze resulted in damaging the diesel engines of the costly machines.
Army officials said 38 engines of about 500 K9s encountered a phenomenon of cavitation that caused damage to engine components and a loss of efficiency.
Locally developed by the state-run Agency for Defense Development in 1998, the K9 howitzer has a maximum range of 60 kilometers and can fire up to eight rounds per minute.
In the past two years two K21 amphibious infantry fighting vehicle sank, killing one soldier.
A team of military and civilian experts came to the conclusion in late 2010, after a two-month investigation, that a lack of buoyancy, malfunctioning of the wave-plate and drain pump problems were main factors in the sinkings.
They also found that when the vehicle moves at full speed, the pressure inside the engine compartment goes down, allowing more water to flow inside. The pump also failed to adequately remove the water.
DAPA is planning to unveil an improved version of the K21 this Wednesday.
Defects have also been found in eight of the 22 K11 airburst assault rifles that Korean troops dispatched to Afghanistan and United Arab Emirates use.
According to a senior official of the arms procurement agency, DAPA plans to resume deploying the new airburst assault rifle in November after fixing technical problems with its fire control system and laser range-finder.
Korea spent 18.7 billion won ($16.7 million) to develop the K11 under a project launched in 2000.