Saudi Arabia signs $3.2 billion deal for South Korean air defense systems

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — South Korea will export air defense systems to Saudi Arabia as part of a $3.2 billion deal signed in November but only revealed this week by the former’s Defense Ministry.

The announcement comes as Saudi Arabia hosts the World Defense Expo, to be held on February 4-8, during which the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding to strengthen defense cooperation.

The ministry noted that the sale of 10 KM-SAM Block II medium-range surface-to-air missile systems represents another major export deal. Korea sold the weapon to the United Arab Emirates in a $3.5 billion deal signed in January 2022.

Defense News has learned that, as of late 2023, KM-SAM deliveries to the UAE had not begun because Hanwha Systems was still developing the more capable Block III active electronically scanned array radar.

LIG Nex1 produces KM-SAM Block II batteries, while Hanwha Systems provides the radar and Hanwha Aerospace supplies launcher vehicles. The weapon can intercept both aircraft and missiles, the latter particularly important as Saudi Arabia regularly shoots down ballistic missiles fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“With a series of foreign arms sales, including this recent KM-SAM export to the Saudis, Korea’s defense industry has gained international attention in the global arms market for two points: the level of technical qualifications and industrial capacity,” said Kim Jae Yeop. , a senior researcher at the Sungkyun Institute for Global Strategy in Seoul, told Defense News.

“Defense cooperation between Seoul and Arab states is likely to accelerate on the arms trade agenda. As some countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, face increasing military threats from the Iran-backed Houthi militant group in Yemen, Korea can take on a reliable supplier of weapons systems to meet the challenge,” Kim added.

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In 2017, Saudi Arabia purchased Korean-made Raybolt man-portable anti-tank missiles. And in March 2022, the kingdom reportedly purchased multiple Korean-made K239 Chunmoo missile launchers, electro-optical systems and ammunition. When Defense News visited the Hanwha vehicle production facility last October, it spotted several sand-colored Chunmoo systems.

The new memorandum of understanding is expected to strengthen bilateral defense cooperation. Witnessed by the respective defense ministers, the document called for the establishment of a joint committee “to further develop defense industry and defense technology cooperation between the two countries in the medium to long term, and …conduct research and development in necessary areas such as joint research and weapons systems development and production,” according to a news release from the South Korean Defense Program Command.

Eom Dong-hwan, head of DAPA, said Russia’s war in Ukraine has exposed limitations to Western defense-industrial capability, while South Korea has demonstrated “its own ability to deliver major weapons systems in a timely manner.”

“This is expected to strengthen Korea’s status as an emerging arms supplier to the global arms industry,” the director added, referring to the recent deal.

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

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