MELBOURNE, Australia — Given the region’s relative economic success and its share of the global defense spending pie, it is of little surprise that Asian defense companies are making inroads into the world arms market.
Countries in the region are quietly scoring export successes, none more so than South Korea. The country’s defense manufacturers have taken big strides from their beginnings as local assemblers and suppliers of defense articles to the South Korean military and are now a force to reckon with on the global arms market.
According to the Financial Times, South Korean military exports have soared nearly 1,100 percent since 2009 as the nation’s arms manufacturers thrive off growing global instability and the competitive pricing they can offer their potential customers, which has been a big selling point for South Korean defense equipment, particularly in more price-sensitive markets. An example of this is the Samsung Techwin K9 Thunder self-propelled howitzer. One of just three tracked 155-millimeter, 52-caliber howitzer systems in the market, the K9 has already found export success with Finland, Estonia, Poland and India all selecting the design for the respective requirements. Finland acquired 48 former South Korean army howitzers earlier this year for a reported $155 million, or $3.2 million a copy.
The willingness to transfer technology also works in its favor in countries looking to build up their own industrial base, with both Poland and India set to manufacture the K9 in their respective countries. Nevertheless, South Korea is not resting on its laurels. It has launched its own ambitious fifth-generation fighter program despite already being a buyer of the Lockheed-Martin F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighter. The KF-X fighter project, which is targeted for entry into service by 2025, is being developed jointly by Korea Aerospace Industries and Lockheed Martin with Indonesia as a strategic partner having contributed $1.7 billion in development funds to the program.
KAI is also partnering with Israel’s Elta to conduct operational testing on an active electronically scanned array radar being developed for the KF-X. South Korea intends to acquire approximately 120 jets, with Indonesia looking to acquire 50. However, KAI will almost certainly seek export opportunities for the type. It has already successfully carved a niche market for its T-50 trainer and light combat aircraft family as a popular choice with air forces seeking a trainer with a secondary precision attack and combat capability.
Asia’s other main arms exporter is China. According to Sweden’s Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI, between 2012 and 2016, China was the third-largest global arms exporter compared to South Korea, which ranked as the thirteenth. China’s problem so far is that its position in the global arms market is that of a niche exporter, with its sales mainly confined to lower-end weapons to poorer countries, 60 percent of all Chinese arms sales went to just three countries, namely Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, and a further 22 percent to Africa between 2012 and 2016, according to SIPRI.
However, this is slowly changing, with China scoring a number of high-profile sales of advanced equipment to nontraditional recipients. Among them is the sale of the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group’s Wing Loong armed medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with China taking advantage of the reluctance of the United States to export equivalent unmanned aircraft.
China has also significantly expanded its arms sales to U.S. ally Thailand following that country’s 2014 coup. In addition to the Norinco VT-4 tank and VN-1 armored personnel carrier, Thailand has also signed a contract to acquire three diesel-electric submarines from China. Like South Korea, China is also willing to transfer its own technology abroad to secure sales although most of its customers, most notably with the setting up of production facilities in Pakistan to manufacture the JF-17 Thunder fighter jet. The Chinese have made tremendous strides in their domestic weapons manufacturing capabilities, and although its most advanced systems are for home use, many of these technologies and advanced manufacturing processes are finding their way into the global market. This is also reflected at international trade shows, with CAIG displaying the larger and more heavily armed Wing Loong II at the 2017 Paris Air Show in June.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.