South Korea emerges as key ammo supplier for Ukraine

South Korea emerges as key ammo supplier for Ukraine
South Korea has entered into a joint venture with Poland to manufacture arms that will be first used to supply Ukraine, but later help Warsaw build the biggest conventional army in Europe. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews June 1, 2023

South Korea has entered into a joint venture with Poland to produce arms and ammo that will initially be used to supply Ukraine, but will later contribute to Warsaw’s ambitions to create the largest conventional force in Europe.

South Korea is currently executing its largest arms deal in history with Poland, valued at $13.7bn, according to Reuters. South Korea's arms sales jumped to more than $17bn in 2022 from $7.25bn a year earlier. This surge in South Korea's arms sales is attributed to increased demand as Western countries, including the EU, have actively sought to bolster Ukraine's defence capabilities, while tensions have escalated in other volatile regions.

As bne IntelliNews reported, Ukraine had been running out of ammo, and faced a possible critical shortage this summer that could have turned the tide of war against it.

A shortage of shells has been particularly acute. The US sent one million of the workhorse 155mm artillery shells to Ukraine at the start of the fighting a year ago, but with a fire rate of some 8,000 shells a day in the early stage of the war, those supplies were only enough for just over 160 days. By rationing and increasingly limiting shelling to only high-value targets, Kyiv has managed to spin those supplies out to over a year.

The US has increased its production by half, but is still only producing 150,000 of the 155mm shells a year and has been unwilling to invest into new production facilities to boost its output by the order of magnitude needed to fully supply Ukraine with shells.

As a close US ally, South Korea has relied heavily on US military hardware and is another centre for the production of US-compatible materiel – including the production of 155mm shells.

Until recently the offers of more shells from EU countries have been woefully inadequate. Denmark offered to send Ukraine 8,000 shells in April – enough for only one or two days of shelling. But that changed recent after High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell announced in May that the EU would send Ukraine 200,000 new shells, sourced from the stockpile in South Korea – enough to complete the summer campaign and for the widely anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive. Kyiv has clearly been stockpiling arms and ammo ahead of what could be a hammer blow against Russia’s occupying forces.

The arms deal between South Korea and Poland, concluded last year, encompasses a wide range of military equipment, including hundreds of Chunmoo missile launchers, K2 tanks, K9 self-propelled howitzers and FA-50 fighter jets, reports UBN. Notably, the agreement leverages international public-private partnerships and consortia to expand South Korea's influence and realise its ambition of becoming one of the world's leading arms suppliers.

As part of the collaboration, a consortium comprising South Korean and Polish companies will be established to facilitate the production, maintenance and supply of these weapons. The consortium will also serve as a foundation for potential arms exports to other European countries. It is anticipated that starting in 2026, Polish plants will be responsible for producing 500 out of the total 820 tanks and 300 out of the planned 672 howitzers.

In the short term the arms deal will supply Ukraine, but thanks to the war in Ukraine, and the potential threat that poses to Poland from Russia, the government in Warsaw has ramped up its military spending and is planning to build the largest conventional army in Europe.

The collaboration will also boost South Korea's growing presence in the global arms market. With its expanding arms sales and the establishment of international partnerships, South Korea is solidifying its position as a major player in the defence industry and is also partly driven by China’s growing military might in Southeast Asia. This trend aligns with South Korea's aspirations to become one of the world's leading arms suppliers.