SEOUL — South Korea’s defense procurement agency has announced a plan to introduce locally built marine attack helicopters designed for amphibious assault and close-air support.
The decision was made during a Defense Acquisition Program Administration meeting presided over by Defense Minister Suh Wook on April 26. As a result, Korea Aerospace Industries, or KAI, the country’s only aircraft maker, is to develop and produce 24 armed variants of the Korea Utility Helicopter, dubbed Surion, for delivery as early as 2031.
KAI developed the Surion with the help of Airbus Helicopters, formerly known as Eurocopter, in 2012 under a partnership forged in 2006. KAI has since produced more than 200 Surion helicopters for the Army and developed modified variants for different services, such as ones for medical evacuation, amphibious operations and law enforcement.
The announcement will have slashed the hopes of foreign helicopter makers bidding for the $1.4 billion program. Among the foreign bidders were Bell Textron proposing its AH-1Z Viper; Boeing with the AH-64E Apache Guardian; Turkish Aerospace Industries offering the T129 ATAK; and Lockheed Martin subsidiary Sikorsky pitching the S-70i.
“The decision was made after a comprehensive review of the operational capability and efficiency of the new helicopter fleet, in line with the helicopter’s interoperability with the existing fleet of amphibious helicopters for marines, namely Marineon,” the DAPA said in a statement.
The latest study on the method of procuring marine attack helicopters suggested the acquisition of a domestically built platform would be more cost-effective than buying a foreign-made model, according to the agency.
System scalability was another key consideration in choosing the domestic platform, as the South Korean military has plans to add a manned-unmanned teaming system to its helicopter fleet.
“By introducing marine attack helicopters, Marines’ operational capability of amphibious assault [and] close-air support would be enhanced, particularly in the defense of the northwestern islands (near the inter-Korean maritime border),” the statement said, adding local production of helicopters would also contribute to job creation.
KAI displayed a concept for a marine attack helicopter variant in 2019. Powered by a twin turboshaft engine with 1,800-plus horsepower, the marine attack version is to be armed with Lockheed Martin’s AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missile; the Mistral ATAM air-to-air missile developed by MBDA; 2.75-inch nonguided and guided rockets; and the 20mm turret gun, according to KAI.
The helicopter is envisaged to be fitted with the nose-mounted electro-optical/infrared targeting and designation system primarily developed by Hanwha Systems for the South Korean Army’s future light attack helicopter. The crew would receive head-mounted displays and night vision goggles.
Still, there are lingering worries over the shipborne operational capability of KAI’s marine attack helicopter modified from the ground-based KUH-1 utility helicopter.
“What KAI has proposed is an armed helicopter, not an attack helicopter,” Shin In-kyun, head of the Korea Defense Network, a Seoul-based defense think tank, wrote in an article for a local magazine in February. “This type of helicopter gunship has poor performances compared to inherent attack helicopters like the AH-64E and AH-1Z, while there is little difference in price.”
Shin indicated the Surion has a wide cabin with side-by-side seat, which is vulnerable to enemy fire and can block the pilot’s view.