The South Korean army has peculiar needs. For one, just across the Demilitarized Zone, North Korea possesses one of the largest tank armies in the world.
In this cauldron of densely packed military forces, both sides share a peninsula that is also very mountainous. During the Korean War, many battles were fought in places such as the Punchbowl, Pork Chop Hill, Old Baldy, Bloody Ridge and Heartbreak Ridge, just to name a few.
Any weapon built specifically to exploit the peninsula’s terrain would have an edge. So, when South Korea produced its first domestically designed tank, Seoul took the mountainous terrain into full account.
South Korea started to think about modern main battle tanks in the late ’70s when North Korea began fielding T-62s with 115-millimeter guns — outmatching Seoul’s M-48 Pattons and their 90-millimeter guns.
Thus, the United States gave South Korea permission to domestically assemble a modified Abrams tank termed the K1. The K1, like the original Abrams, first sported a 105-millimeter gun. However, the K1 is smaller than the Abrams and it has a diesel rather than a gas turbine engine.
The K1 also has an uncanny, superficial resemblance to the larger American tank, so much so that U.S. troops stationed in Korea nicknamed it the “baby Abrams.”
But South Korea owns very little of the technology behind the K1. Eighty percent of the components came from other countries, chiefly the United States. So while the K1 — which is still in service — outclasses anything the North Koreans have, South Korea wanted a new, domestically designed tank that would surpass any foreseeable North Korean threat.
Furthermore, the South Koreans wanted to own all the technology so they could export it.
The result was the K2 Black Panther.
Development started in 1995 and cost $260 million. In the end, South Korea designed a tank that on paper appears to be at equal, if not better than, the specifications of current NATO tanks.
To achieve this, the Koreans looked all over the world for inspiration, technology and know-how — and combined it all into a formidable machine that is distinctively Korean.
From Germany, South Korea developed its own version of the Rheinmetall 120-millimeter L55 gun, which is a full 1.3 meters longer than the 120-millimeter L44 caliber gun used on all Abrams tanks and older Leopard 2s. With a longer gun comes greater internal pressure, so the L55 gun has superior muzzle velocity.
From France, South Korea adopted its own version of the Leclerc’s autoloader. Shells are loaded from the back of the turret, via a machine gun-like belt, allowing it to fire 15 rounds a minute — if rounds are continuously fired and not accounting for target acquisition, reacquisition and lazing.
The tank’s fire control system is a technology transfer from France’s Thales, so it is likely again using some Leclerc technology. As an advanced fire control system it is highly automated so even Korea’s conscript crews can learn it quickly. Once a target is acquired, the gun and turret can automatically track it without further human intervention.
The K2 can also ford rivers up to 4.2 meters deep via a snorkel kit that doubles as a “conning” tower, something the Korean army learned from the 35 T-80Us it acquired from Russia back in the late ’90s.
Although the heart of a tank is its gun, the next most important component is its engine and transmission, collectively known as the “powerpack.” For this, South Korea again looked to Germany and its excellent MTU-890 V12 diesel 1,500 horsepower engine.
Unfortunately, cracking that nut turned out to be much harder, and it took Seoul seven years to finally reverse engineer an acceptable copy. The domestically designed engine has slightly worse acceleration versus the MTU — 0–32 kilometers per hour at nearly eight seconds, up from seven seconds. The first 100 K2s produced will have MTU engines and successive batches will sport Korean engines.
Yet, despite the foreign influences, there are some original native innovations.
The most noticeable is the tank’s hydropneumatic suspension. Originally developed on the K1, an improved version allows the K2 to lower or raise its profile. Like a “low riding” street car it can kneel, sit or “lean” in any direction.
This allows the tank to conceal itself using the ultimate “hull down” positions, the holy grail of defensive tank tactics, where the tank’s turret and cannon peeks out from behind elevated terrain — which hides most of the tank from any enemies advancing against it.
Next is the use of a millimeter band radar in conjunction with the K2’s fire control system. Although South Korea didn’t invent millimeter band radar, its integration and application of it is unique.
Since mountainous terrain is uneven terrain, there is a danger of sudden bumps knocking out the aim of even a stabilized gun while the tank is on the move. The radar predicts uneven terrain and slightly delays the trigger. When the gun realigns with the target, it fires.
In terms of armaments, the Black Panther has a range of standard HEAT and tungsten core sabot rounds, but in addition it has a unique round all its own.
With lots of hills there are lots of little valleys for enemy tanks to hide in. When the K2 uses its suspension to “sit,” it can elevate its gun to a near mortar-like angle to indirectly fire a millimeter band radar-guided “top attack” round.
Once fired, the round deploys a parachute, selects a target and shoots a molten projectile into the thin top of an enemy vehicle. Germany and Israel have similar rounds, but only for artillery because their tank guns cannot reach the necessary elevation angle. Called the Korean Smart Top-Attack Munition, or “KSTAM,” it can reach out and touch someone eight kilometers away.
In terms of armor, the K2 most likely has a classified composite blend. Clearly, that doesn’t say much, but we do know that the front has been tested to withstand a close range sabot shot from the K2’s own L55 high velocity gun. At only 55 tons, the tank is a full 10 tons lighter than the M1A2 or Leopard 2A6, thus it isn’t well protected everywhere so reactive armor blocks bolster the vulnerable parts of the sides and roof.
Although South Korea has wanted to export this tank, all these bells and whistles don’t come cheap and the hefty price tag of $8.5 million per unit has made exporting tough.
However, there has been one taker. In 2008, Turkey evaluated this tank against the Leopard 2 and Leclerc. Part of the consideration was that Turkey wanted technology transfers so it could build its own variant.
The performance levels were clearly close enough — and South Korea sufficiently pliable with technology transfers — that Turkey chose the K2 to be the technological basis of its Altay tank project. For around $300 million, Seoul transferred technology, sample components and tooling to Ankara.
Interestingly, like South Korea before, Turkey is stuck at the powerplant phase and its Altay tank has yet to reach full production.
Faced with unique threats and a terrain that is not exactly tank friendly, South Korea adapted technology from all over the world, as well as its own innovations, to create a weapon customized to its unique needs and environment. In the process, Seoul designed a pretty good tank that has taken the lemons of its geography to make lemonade.