The K2 Black Panther: A South Korean MBT

The Leopard 2 is a really solid tank. So far, it’s gone into a battle royale with the Leclerc, Challenger 2, and M1A2 Abrams, and come out the winner. It’s also bested the famous Merkava Mark IV. It also has tremendous export success. But, seeing as I love tanks, I can’t resist examining more in detail. Maybe today’s opponent will be able to unseat the reigning champ, the Leopard 2E.1

The K2 Black Panther is South Korea’s second indigenously produced tank. The first, the K1, is basically a licensed M1 Abrams variant. You’d be hard pressed to tell the K1A1 from an M1A1 at a distance. Interestingly, the K2 bears a strong resemblance to the Leclerc in terms of overall design. I don’t know if that’s happenstance, or deliberate reverse engineering, or if Hyundai had some quiet deals with GIAT.

The K2 weights about 55 tonnes, and has a conventional layout, with driver forward, a two-man turret in the middle, and an engine in the back. Like the Leclerc, the hull is relatively short, thanks to a compact engine. It’s a conventional diesel though, the 1,500 hp MTU 883 (or a locally made equivalent engine) rather than the hyperbar V8 on the Leclerc. Leclerc might get better acceleration, but the 883 is more fuel efficient and likely more reliable. Also cheaper. Everyone’s going diesel these days. The Russians are pretty much all-diesel, and the Leopard 2 has a diesel, and that’s our super-popular benchmark. I’m not sure whether the K2 or the Leclerc has better acceleration, but they can both probably get going faster than a Leopard 2E because of the superior power/weight ratio on the K2.

The K2 also uses an autoloader. It’s a bustle-mounted, conveyor-type autoloader, just like the one on the Leclerc. Interestingly, though the Leclerc’s autoloader holds 22 rounds, the one on the K2 only holds 16 rounds. This is comparable to the Leopard 2 (15 ready rounds) and the M1 (17 ready rounds), but notably lower. I’m not sure what the reasoning is here, or if there’s some issue with sources. There aren’t many that talk about the K2, and fewer still in English. It’s curious either way. Perhaps a retrofit later. 16 ready rounds is good, but we’d love to sacrifice some extra turret stowage compartments or something for 22 ready rounds. Plus, that would give an overall capacity of 46 rounds rather than 40 in the K2.

The K2’s gun is a 120mm L55, licensed from Rheinmetall. The best tank gun in the world. The Leclerc has a 120mm L52 model, which is good, but not quite as good. Same gun as the Leopard 2E. So this is a tie overall. However, the Koreans have developed a top-attack munition for their tanks, which follows a ballistic trajectory to attack the roof armor with a 120mm HEAT round. This is going to do awful things to even those tanks that have plenty of roof armor. I don’t know of a reason that the Leopard 2E couldn’t mount this, but it currently doesn’t. Both are able to mount the Israeli LAHAT gun-launched ATGM. When the South Koreans designed the K2, they were strongly considering the 140mm gun. While it was not selected, it can be installed without significant modification to the turret.

The K2 has a 7.62mm coaxial machine gun with 12,000 rounds of 7.62mm ammo stored and a roof-mounted 12.7mm HMG for the commander with 3,200 rounds stored. I do not know how many of these are ready rounds, though I suspect they use standard 200-round boxes for the HMG. The Leopard 2E has a 7.62mm coaxial machine gun and a second 7.62mm machine gun mounted on the roof. Interestingly, the Germans mount that by the loader’s hatch, not the commander’s. The Leopard 2 carries 4,750 rounds of 7.62mm to be split between both machine guns. Again, I don’t know the ready capacity of the coax gun. The K2 seems to be showing some American design influence in the quantity of machine gun ammo carried. I approve. Neither tank mounts these weapons in a remote weapons station, though this is changed in the Leopard 2A7 variant. Not a big deal though, it’s an easy enough thing to change for either.

Armorwise, the K2 is at a disadvantage by virtue of being newer, since I don’t have as much discussion on it. The 2E is a known commodity, with very thick frontal armor, substantial roof armor, and optional side armor kits for the turret and skirts. In terms of frontal armor, the 2E is very good against KE, being comparable to the M1A2 against KE threats and much better against HEAT. Neither is as well armored as the Challenger 2 on the turret face.

The K2 has more modern composite armor construction, and has a “stepped turret” with reduced-height turret faces, and then a higher middle portion to accommodate the gun’s desired depression angle. So we’d expect a thick and tough face. Looking at it and doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations tells us that it’s no worse than the Leopard 2E or M1A2, and likely better. It’s probably going to end up being comparable to the front armor of the Challenger 2, or possibly a trifle less good. It’s a very modern armor array, with not a lot of frontal area and plenty of thickness to work with. It’d be easy to play with lots of modern metallurgy and composites to get something really good here.

Side armor is rather less thick. It does include ERA, as does the roof over the crew compartment. The turret hatches also have ERA modules. I don’t know much about this ERA, but it indicates some likely good resistance to HEAT rounds or RPGs on the side. Improved side skirts and possibly additional turret side armor might be warranted in urban combat scenarios, but the Black Panther is well-suited to conventional warfare as-is.

The Black Panther also includes a ‘soft kill’ active protection system right from the factory. It has a radar-driven missile approach warning system, and can automatically fire visual/infrared screening smoke grenades in the direction of the threat. This will also make it easier and cheaper to add a ‘hard kill’ system, since we only need to add the effectors. No additional sensors are needed.

Both the K2 and the Leopard 2E have modern thermal sights for the crew. Fire control on the K2 is significantly better, with automatic target tracking capability and integration of the radar system. It can also hold fire momentarily if the gun is jostled by a large bump. The Leclerc has a similar system, but as far as I can tell, the Leopard 2E does not. The K2 has a battle management system, one is available for the Leopard 2E, but it’s not fitted standard.2 The K2 also has a datalink system for sharing targeting data, but the Leopard 2E does not.

Due to the rough mountainous terrain on the Korean Peninsula, the K2 has a hydropneumatic suspension system that is adjustable for ride height or to tilt the tank, like on a low rider. It’s cool and useful, since it deals with harsh terrain or lets you make best use of available cover, and no other current tank has it. That said, it’s overkill in the plains of Central and Eastern Europe.

So how does it shake out? Is the K2 better?

Yes. The K2 is a more advanced tank than the Leopard 2E, and crucially, it has more growth room. Remember, early versions of the Leopard 2 weighed 55 tonnes, and armor augmentations have driven that up, putting extra strain on the suspension and powertrain and reducing acceleration performance. The K2 is the best western tank on the market today.

And now, the other question you’re wondering: would we buy them? That depends strongly on price and politics. The K2 has a reputation as the most expensive tank in the world, but quoted figures aren’t awful. They’re actually quite competitive with those of the Abrams, which is a decent apples-to-apples comparison. The Leopard 2E includes native production licensing and spares. So we’ll see. As for politics, Germany is closer and a NATO member. But South Korea actually spends money on defense these days and doesn’t have ideas in its head for an EU army of stupid. So we shall see. But given the cost of the 2E package and the 2A7 offered to Saudi Arabia, the K2 looks like a good buy.

What about the T-14 Armata I reviewed last week? Now it gets interesting. Both are very new,  very advanced tanks for about the same price. Again, we’ll set aside politics for you to keep this technical, where you want it, lest the K2 score an easy win. Both tanks are very new. Neither tank has a ton of information available about it. The T-14 has better survivability from complete crew/ammo isolation. The K2 has the better electrics, with lots more features being confirmed, including the important battle management system and third gen infrared sights, and South Korea has a much better track record of good electronic systems. Both have excellent guns. The K2 can be easily upgraded to a 140mm if desired. The T-14 is rumored to be upgradeable to a 152mm gun, but no such gun exists yet3. The T-14 has a smaller engine, but the K2’s engine is more proven. Both should have plenty of room for future upgrades. The T-14 comes with a hard-kill active protection system, but we might be able to find a better one if we shop around.

In the end, the greater survivability of the T-14 outweighs any disadvantages from the unmanned turret and the Russian electronics. The better base platform is the one to choose, and that’s Armata. Electronics are easy to upgrade, engines and transmissions are easy to change out, and there’s a long tradition of export buyers putting French electronic systems in Russian vehicles, but ammunition stowage and crew safety is relatively permanent. So the Armata is our overall champion, with the K2 a close second best.

 

1.) I’m choosing the 2E because it’s a known commodity, and I actually have successful sale prices (to Spain, and it’s similar to the one sold to Greece). The 2A7 adds a lot of modifications for urban combat, which isn’t really my bag. Plus, it hasn’t been sold yet, and the prices on offer to the Saudis were really high, though support and spares is likely increasing it.
2.) It’s another thing included in the 2A7 upgrade kit. This is totally my bag.
3.) I would actually expect something in the 130-140mm range here, but that might just be projecting. I don’t know what supergun the Russians have under development.

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