CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — As its military looks to tap new technologies to compensate for a dwindling conscript force, South Korea has launched a tender to procure unmanned ground vehicles for the nation’s Army and Marines Corps.

A tender published by the Defense Acquisition Program Administration earlier this month lists a budget of 49.63 billion won (U.S. $36.56 million) for multipurpose variants of the ground robots.

The vehicles will be purchased domestically, said the notice, via a competitive tender. After contract signature, production of an unspecified quantity will proceed till December 2026.

The bid marks the first major acquisition program for Seoul’s ground troops to procure operational UGVs, Kim Jae Yeop, a senior researcher at the Sungkyun Institute for Global Strategy in Seoul, told Defense News. The vehicles are envisioned to carry out reconnaissance, transportation and lightly armed missions alongside manned ground formations.

According to Kim, there are two leading candidates for the bid: Hyundai Rotem and Hanwha Aerospace. “Both companies are important Korean defense contractors, especially for land systems, and have been proceeding with their own UGV development programs,” he said.

Hyundai Rotem confirmed to Defense News that it will participate in the tender, though it declined to specify what platform it will offer.

As for its credentials, a spokesperson noted that the company “was the sole bidder selected for a rapid demonstration acquisition project after initially proposing it to the Korean Army” in November 2020.

That $3.6 million project, a precursor to today’s procurement effort, involved battery-powered HR-Sherpa-based 6x6 UGVs. “Hyundai Rotem’s UGV is the only vehicle that has been in actual operation for more than two years in various terrains in Korea,” the company spokesperson said.

Hanwha Aerospace also has been active in the UGV field, and the company can point to overseas experience. For example, the U.S. military chose Hanwha’s Arion-SMET 6x6 UGV to participate in a Foreign Comparative Testing program that occurred in Hawaii last December. It was the first Korean UGV ever evaluated for potential adoption by the United States.

The Arion-SMET, its name standing for Small Multipurpose Equipment Transport, weighs 1.8 tons, and its batteries permit a road range of 100km. South Korea’s army tested it in 2021, and it was demonstrated to U.S. Forces Korea the following year.

In separate news, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration approved a two-year pilot project, beginning in the third quarter of this year, for a UGV-based air defense system for the Marine Corps. A prototype is to be ready by the second half of 2026.

Armed with a 40mm weapon, the vehicle is meant to automatically detect, track and destroy intruding drones. The new platform is intended to replace existing manned antiaircraft systems, thus streamlining personnel numbers.

Nearby Japan is also adopting UGVs. According to a Rheinmetall press release issued April 8, the German company will supply three Mission Master SP vehicles. Japan is slated to receive these UGVs equipped with cargo, surveillance and remote weapon station payloads in January 2025.

Gordon Arthur is an Asia correspondent for Defense News. After a 20-year stint working in Hong Kong, he now resides in New Zealand. He has attended military exercises and defense exhibitions in about 20 countries around the Asia-Pacific region.

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