Russian armored vehicles in the South Korean army

Tanks T-80U in the exercise. Photo

Soviet and Russian armored fighting vehicles have been exported to many countries around the world, and some of these deliveries are of particular interest. For example, in the nineties, an agreement was signed for the supply of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers and various weapons for the South Korean army. It appeared for specific reasons and had curious consequences.

Debt and politics

Despite belonging to different political and military “camps”, the USSR and the Republic of Korea have developed economic relations and conducted mutually beneficial trade for some time. However, later the situation changed, problems began, and by the time of the collapse of the USSR, Seoul owed approx. USD 1.5 billion.

The Soviet debt became the topic of the Korean-Russian negotiations, which started soon after the collapse of the country. At that time, independent Russia could not pay the entire amount in money, and it was proposed to pay with military products. Seoul was offered to choose certain samples for the agreed amount – with delivery from the presence of the Russian army.

South Korea initially reacted to such a proposal without enthusiasm. For several decades, she conducted profitable military-technical cooperation with the United States, and obtaining Soviet / Russian equipment did not correspond to this policy. In addition to political issues, there were also technical ones. Russian armored vehicles and weapons would have to fit into the control loops created according to American standards.

BMP-3 of the South Korean army. Photo

However, the Russian proposal had good prospects. On account of the existing debt, it was possible to obtain the most modern samples from a leading manufacturer. In addition, the armored vehicles available to order favorably differed from those available in the South Korean army.

According to the terms of the contract

The military and political leadership of South Korea weighed all the arguments and decided that the Russian proposal was worth attention. The necessary bilateral consultations took place, and in 1994 an agreement was signed on the partial repayment of the Soviet debt by supplying military products. Under its terms, Russia was to transfer a diverse range of products, and the Republic of Korea wrote off half of its debts.

Under the agreement, the Korean army was to receive 33 T-80U main battle tanks in a linear configuration. Also ordered 2 commander’s T-80UK. In the interests of the motorized infantry, they purchased 33 BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles and the same number of BTR-80A armored personnel carriers. Together with armored vehicles, the order included more than a thousand anti-tank missile systems 9K115 “Metis” and several dozen portable anti-aircraft complexes “Igla”. Armaments and equipment were to be transferred over the next few years.

The first Soviet-made MBT and BMP were sent to South Korea in 1996 in the amount of several pieces. The following year, the pace of deliveries increased, and the customer has already received several dozen armored vehicles, as well as part of the missile weapons. New shipments soon arrived, and by the end of the decade, the treaty was fully implemented.

Russian armored vehicles in the South Korean army

T-80U in training, 2019 Photo

As new materiel arrived, the South Korean troops mastered it and gained the necessary experience. Tanks and infantry fighting vehicles showed themselves well in tests and in service, as a result of which the Korean Ministry of Defense wished to purchase new vehicles of two types. However, armored personnel carriers were not included in the new agreement.

The second agreement on the repayment of the debt by armored vehicles appeared in 2002 and was carried out until 2005. With its help, the total number of MBTs increased to 80 units; infantry fighting vehicles – 70. We managed to re-equip several new units and significantly increase the combat capability of the army.

Obvious advantages

At the time of signing the agreement, the state of the South Korean armored vehicle fleet left much to be desired. The bulk of the tank units were American M48s, which underwent several upgrades. Since the late eighties, its own MBT K1 has been produced. The receipt of several dozen Russian T-80Us dramatically changed the appearance and capabilities of the army.

The fact is that in all basic characteristics the T-80U was superior to the Korean K1, not to mention the older models. It had powerful anti-cannon armor, and the gas turbine engine provided better mobility – with less efficiency. The most important argument in favor of the T-80U was the 125-mm cannon with modern ammunition and controls for that period.

Tank in a joint US-Korean exercise. It looks like the American tanker is happy with the Russian technology. Photo

The main means of transporting infantry in the early nineties were M113 armored personnel carriers of American and local production. The production of its own K200 with higher performance also continued. However, both of these samples were inferior to the Russian BMP-3 in all basic parameters. The latter had advantages in protection, mobility and weapons.

BTR-80A became the first wheeled armored personnel carrier in service with South Korea. This car had certain advantages over the available equipment, but in other characteristics, at least, it did not differ from it. BTR-80A received mixed ratings, which is why deliveries were limited to a single batch.

In the field of missile weapons, similar phenomena were observed. Not the newest American models were in service with South Korea, and modern Russian systems favorably differed from them.

Temporarily the best

Thus, thanks to two agreements with Russia, the South Korean army was able to improve the overall appearance of its ground forces. She received more advanced tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, which favorably differed from the existing equipment. On the other hand, by 2005 we had received a little more than one and a half hundred vehicles – one could not count on a complete rearmament with all the desired consequences.

Joint work of a tank and an infantry fighting vehicle. Photo of the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Kazakhstan

However, over time, the situation began to change. South Korea continued to manufacture its own equipment. At the same time, projects for the modernization of existing samples were developed, and completely new programs were carried out. When creating them, among other things, the experience of operating Russian infantry fighting vehicles and MBTs was taken into account.

To date, all these processes have led to the emergence of several improved versions of the MBT K1 and BMP K200. In addition, the newest K2 tanks and K21 infantry fighting vehicles were delivered to the series. Modern samples in terms of characteristics are superior to the old Soviet / Russian vehicles and take away the title of the most advanced equipment of the Korean army from them.

Against the background of all these processes, the T-80U and BMP-3 continued to serve in their original form. The South Korean industry was able to master the production of individual components for small and medium repairs, but more complex measures, incl. modernization was possible only with the help of Russia. For reasons of economy and political expediency, such measures were abandoned, and the armored vehicles retained their original appearance.

Foggy future

Currently, the South Korean army has approx. 80 T-80U tanks, up to 70 BMP-3 and only 20 BTR-80A. All these armored vehicles belong to the 3rd Armored Brigade of the Ground Forces. The tanks are divided into two battalions of 40 units each, infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers are distributed in a similar way.

MBT K2 is the most modern example of the South Korean army. Before him, the most perfect was the T-80U. Photo Wikimedia Commons

Unlike its own Korean designs, Russian armored vehicles are not being modernized. By now, it is morally outdated, which is why it cannot fully compete with local products. As a result, the long-term plans of the command provide for the gradual abandonment of Russian equipment, as the supply of domestic products.

In 2016, information appeared in the Russian media about the impending Russian-Korean agreement, according to which tanks and infantry fighting vehicles would return to their homeland. It was reported about the completion of the assessment of equipment and the imminent appearance of the contract. The redeemed armored vehicles were proposed to be repaired and put into operation or to be used for spare parts. However, this topic has not been developed. There were no new reports on the transfer of used cars.

It is highly likely that in the coming years, South Korea will continue to operate Soviet / Russian armored vehicles, but will not modernize or replace them with similar imported models. As the resource depletes, the machines will be written off and disposed of. Also, the possibility of resale to third countries cannot be ruled out. The purchase of new Russian tanks and armored vehicles is virtually excluded.

South Korea has long set a course for the independent construction and development of armored vehicles. In such conditions, the T-80U / UK, BMP-3 and BTR-80A have no particular prospects. No one plans to write them off right now, but their future is no longer questionable. One of the most interesting stories of military-technical cooperation in recent decades is coming to an end.

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