SEOUL — South Korea’s arms acquisition agency has decided to equip third batch of K2 Black Panther main battle tanks with a German transmission system, a part of the tank’s power pack that includes a locally developed engine.

The decision is a blow to a 15-yearlong effort to replace the German RENK transmission system with an indigenous one, which local industry expected would pave the way for exporting the tank.

The Defense Acquisition Program Administration, or DAPA, made the decision Nov. 25 during a committee meeting led by Defense Minister Suh Wook, ahead of mass production of 50 more K2 tanks.

“Around 50 units of K2 tanks will be built by 2023 with an investment of 2.83 trillion won,” the agency said in a statement. (That’s about $2.56 billion in U.S. currency.)

The new units will be fitted with a “hybrid powerpack” consisting of the RENK transmission and an engine developed by Doosan Infracore, as the homegrown automatic transmission developed by S&T Dynamics has failed in durability tests, the statement said.

A history of delays

The failure in local transmission development has also caused setbacks for the tank’s deployment in the South Korean Army.

The Black Panther was co-developed by the state-run Agency for Defense Development and Hyundai Rotem, a defense business arm of Hyundai Motor, to replace M48 Patton tanks and earlier models of K1 tanks that have been service since the 1980s. Prototypes were unveiled in 2007.

Mass production of the first 100 units was approved in 2011, with deployment scheduled for the following year, but the effort was delayed over a faulty engine and a lack of progress on a locally produced transmission. The government then decided to use the German-made power pack consisting of the MTU 883 diesel engine and RENK transmission system for the first batch.

The tanks entered service in 2014, and in that same year, local developers announced they succeeded in developing a 1,500-horsepower power pack that could be installed on the second batch of 100 tanks. However, the deployment of the second batch also faced delays, as the S&T Dynamics-made transmission system repeatedly failed to prove its reliability and durability under transmission production standards, which require a system to run without issue for 320 hours. The second batch of K2s were eventually delivered in 2019.

Export potential

The fate of the locally made power pack is a key concern for the tank’s potential foreign customers, including Turkey.

In 2008, Hyundai Rotem signed a $540 million contract with Turkey’s Otokar for technological transfer and design assistance of the K2. The technology was incorporated into Turkey’s main battle tank in the making, dubbed Altay. Defense News recently learned that Turkish procurement and military officials have been in talks with Hyundai Rotem to salvage its delayed program.

Poland has also reportedly shown interest in developing its own main battle tank in cooperation with Hyundai Rotem using technology from the Black Panther.

The Black Panther is armed with a 120mm L55 smoothbore gun indigenously developed by Hyundai Wia. It is also equipped with a fire control system capable of acquiring and tracking specific targets up to a range of 9.8 kilometers using a thermographic camera.

The tank can travel at speeds of up to 70 kph on road surfaces and maintain speeds of up to 52 kph in off-road conditions. It can also climb 60-degree slopes and overcome vertical obstacles at up to 1.8 meters in height.

Brian Kim was a South Korea correspondent for Defense News.

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