The Leopard 2, M1A2 Abrams, Challenger 2 and T-14 Armata are often regarded as the top dogs on today’s lists of current main battle tanks. However, South Korea’s K2 Black Panther certainly deserves a place near the top of these lists.
Designed almost entirely in house by South Korea, the K2 is one of the newest and most advanced main battle tanks (MBT) around today.
An intense development phase saw South Korea investigate and incorporate the best features from foreign designs into a single high performing machine.
The K2 outguns even the M1A2 Abrams, but despite its heavyweight punch, it is more than 10 tons lighter than its American counterpart.
Production of the K2 started in 2008 and the tank entered service in 2014. Today, it is South Korea’s most formidable armored vehicle.
As with many vehicles, the story of the K2 started long before its development.
After the Korean War the Korean peninsula was split into two; North Korea and South Korea.
The two neighbours signed an armistice in 1953 which brought the fighting to an end, but tensions between the countries remained high. Both North and South Korea heavily invested in their militaries to deal with one another should war break out again.
By the late 1970s North Korea possessed large numbers of powerful Soviet-designed MBTs. Meanwhile, South Korea had smaller numbers of inferior tanks like M47 and M48 Pattons provided by the US.
Constantly fearing a North Korean attack, South Korea attempted to obtain newer foreign designs like the M60 and Leopard 1.
This did not work, so they decided to build a tank themselves.
But they quickly hit a wall: South Korea had never designed an MBT before and lacked the infrastructure and technical knowhow to do so on their own. Therefore, they had to rely on significant foreign help.
They planned to select a foreign design and built it domestically under license. They settled on the XM1 – the M1 Abrams’ prototype – to be the basis for their new tank. After inspecting the design South Korea made many modifications that tuned the tank to their particular needs.
The resulting tank was named the K1 and entered service in 1987. Externally it resembled the Abrams, even being nicknamed the “baby Abrams” by US troops in the country.
It carried the same 105 mm gun as the early Abrams and was vastly more capable than anything North Korea had at the time.
Still, around 80 percent of the tank was foreign, preventing South Korea from exporting it to other nations.
In 1995 South Korea’s Agency for Defense Development (ADD) began a project to design and build a new tank entirely in-house. It would improve on the still-powerful K1, and, as it was a local design, South Korea would be free to export it.
South Korea spent the next two years establishing what they wanted and how they would get it done. This tank would be called the K2.
They investigated and inspected numerous systems and features from the best tanks around the world, generating ideas and technologies that they could then incorporate into their new design.
An unmanned turret was suggested for the K2, as was a 140 mm gun smoothbore gun from Rheinmetall, but in the end designers settled on a conventional manned turret and a crew of three.
Five XK2 demonstrators were built over the mid 2000s and the type was cleared for acceptance into the military.
Inside was a 120 mm L/55 smoothbore gun developed by ADD and Hyundai Wia. This gun is even longer than the Abrams’ 120 mm L/44 gun, and can fire 120 mm NATO standard rounds.
The gun is loaded by an autoloader, which is similar to the one used in the France’s Leclerc MBT.
Mass production started in 2013, with the K2 entering service with the South Korean military in 2014.
The K2 Black Panther
Compared to other contemporary MBTs like the Challenger 2 and Abrams, which entered service in the 1990s and 1980s respectively, the K2 is a very recent design.
As a fourth generation MBT the K2 is packed full of cutting edge systems and technologies.
It is protected by conventional steel, classified composite armor, explosive reactive armor and active protection systems.
For about the first 100 vehicles built, the German 1,500 hp MTU MT-883 ka501 V12 diesel engine was used due to supply issues with South Korea’s planned engine. However these supply issues were rectified, and the following tanks were produced with locally manufactured power packs of equal power.
The vehicle weighs 61 tons.
One of its most famous features is its advanced suspension system which is known as the In-arm Suspension Unit (ISU). Each bogie can be controlled independently from the rest.
The K2 is able to improve off-road handling by adjusting each bogie to best suit the terrain at hand. It also gives the tank the ability to “sit”, “kneel” and “lean” by dropping the suspension at the back, front or on one side.
This significantly increases the tank’s usable gun depression and elevation.
Furthermore, the tank is equipped with a Dynamic Track Tensioning System that continuously maintains track tension, even through harsh manoeuvres.
In addition to its excellent mobility, the K2 can also travel through rivers 4.1 meters deep, despite its height of 2.4 meters.
Top speed is 43 mph (70 km/h) on road and 31 mph (50 km/h) off road.
However, the tanks most impressive feature is its sophisticated and highly capable fire control system. The CN08 120 mm smoothbore gun is one of the most capable on any MBT today, and can fire at a rapid pace thanks to its autoloading mechanism.
A high frequency radar system is mounted on the front of the turret and scans the area ahead. Using this and other sensors like thermal imagers and laser range finders, the fire control system can lock onto targets over 6 miles away, including aircraft.
The tank is also able to automatically delay a shot momentarily if the gunner fires as the tank hits a bump on the ground. Once the gun has returned over the target, it will fire.
Sensors monitor the tank’s surroundings and watch for incoming fire. If this is detected, the turret will automatically and rapidly rotate towards the threat.
It is also likely that the fire control system has the ability to detect, select and fire at targets without any input from a human. This may be achieved by the tank’s software analysing data received from other friendly assets in the field.
From his position the commander is able to completely override the gunner and take control of the turret and firing.
Incredibly, there are rumours that this extends even further and that the vehicle can theoretically be operated by a single crewmember in emergency situations.
Unfortunately its extreme capabilities have come at a cost – quite literally – as it is likely the single most expensive MBT in the world. This has resulted in rather unimpressive exports, although Turkey has made a deal with South Korea for licensed production of the K2, and Poland has expressed interest in a similar deal.
There is no doubt that the K2 is one of the best tanks in the world right now (at least in general metrics). There is even a fair argument to be made that it is the premier MBT on the planet right now.
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It may be built for a relatively small country with an overshadowed military, but the K2 can tango with the very best and win.