The K2 is the world’s only fourth-generation tank. It is arguably the most advanced tank in the world, and South Korea troops swear by it. However, it is expensive, at $8.5 million per tank. Poland was not deterred by the price – Warsaw just finalized a $15 billion deal with South Korea to buy 180 K2s that will arrive later this year. Poland will also help manufacture another 820 K2 variants customized for its military, making for a total of 1,000 tanks from South Korea.
What makes the K2 so great? First, some background. ROK soldiers need to be able to fight hard on the ground with the best weapons available. Their cold war with North Korea could break into fighting at any moment. Just to give you an idea of how high the stakes are, there are at least 500,000 ROK troops in service at any time. North Korea is believed to have an army of 1.2 million personnel.
A Tank Made for a Korean War
The Korean peninsula is made for war. That starts with the terrain surrounding Korea’s Demilitarized Zone – it is hilly and rocky, which gives both sides places to hide their tanks and set up ambushes. Losses in a future conflict would be extreme, so any type of armored vehicle put to use needs to be survivable and powerful, with the ability to deal out a high level of punishment to the enemy.
The K2 Black Panther is made by Hyundai Rotem, and it was introduced in 2016. The K2 was an outgrowth of the XK2 program that began in 1995. This was an effort to replace the older K1 and American M47-M48 tanks. The South Korean bureau tasked to work with Rotem on the K2 spent $230 million over the next 12 years. By 2007, Rotem was partnering with 20 other defense firms to build the new tank, and the first prototype was ready that year. One hundred K2 tanks were delivered by 2016.
At over $8 million per unit, the K2 is at least twice as expensive as the M1A2 Abrams and Russia’s T-14 Armata. The South Korean government accepts the high price as a fair exchange for the tank’s eye-popping capabilities.
The K2 Is Fast and Powerful
The Black Panther has a 1,500-horsepower MTU EuroPowerPack engine. This enables a speed of 44 miles per hour on roads and a range of 267 miles. Acceleration is the engine’s main feature. The tank can go from zero to 20 mph in seven seconds. For auxiliary power, there is a 400-horsepower gas turbine unit that can power systems when the tank is not running the main powerplant. The K2’s suspension is interesting, as it can move in different directions – up, down, or side-to-side depending on the terrain. This gives the gun better firing positions and creates a smoother ride.
The K2 has a Rheinmetall 120 mm/L55 smoothbore gun with an autoloader. The three-person crew can fire 15 rounds per minute. The tank shoots various NATO rounds but has a newfangled “smart” guided shell – Korean Standoff Top Attack Munition – that is especially effective against multiple targets that are sought out by the advanced fire control system. The beyond-line-of-sight smart round can take on enemy tanks that are five miles away.
The K2 has a multilayered hull featuring the Korean Active Protection System. Non-explosive reactive armor and explosive reactive armor blocks protect the tank. Sensors and thermal imagers detect enemy fire, after which a defensive rocket can destroy incoming rounds.
The K2 has it all. The gun is made more lethal by the tank’s suspension. It carries “smart” rounds for better accuracy. The engine is powerful and helps the vehicle maneuver quickly. Its armor and protective systems are top-notch. The K2 is rightly considered one of the best tanks in the world, and it is optimized for the type of terrain and the unique style of combat that could someday break out against the North Koreans.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.