South Korea's K-30 BIHO anti-aircraft system and Russian Pantsir-S air defence system

The Korean defence industry’s ambitious plan to sell 3 trillion won ($2.6 billion) worth of anti-aircraft artillery to India is on life support, with reports suggesting New Delhi may build the weapons on its own.

The Indian Defence Ministry agreed in a meeting between top officials to scrap plans to overhaul its self propelled air defence gun missile system (SPAD-GMS) through foreign acquisitions, and instead manufacture the weapons domestically.

According to another Indian outlet, Financial Express, the decision was made to ensure the Indian Armed Forces’ dependency on imports was cut down, amid fierce competition between Korean arms maker Hanwha Defence and its Russian competitor to win the SPAD-GMS contract. 

The decision threatens to undo over seven years of concerted efforts by the Korean government and Hanwha to export the K30 BIHO, one of Korea’s most successful domestic weapons projects to date. The BIHO is a short-range anti-aircraft artillery capable of shooting down enemy planes and drones at low altitudes, and is further bolstered by a short-range antimissile system.

Developed in 2013 and operationally deployed since 2015, the system was paired with the surface-to-air Chiron missile developed by the Korean aerospace manufacturer LIG Nex1 known as Shingoong. 

The Indian military began a bidding process for SPAD-GMS in 2013 to bolster areas along its border with Pakistan where five brigades are stationed. Candidate weapons were evaluated throughout 2015 and tested in 2017.

The Korean defence industry was eyeing the Indian market as a chance to move away from domestic sales to exports. The contract involves exporting 104 BIHO systems, 97 ammunition carriers, 39 command vehicles, 4,928 missiles and 172,260 rounds of ammunition, bringing the contract’s total value to between 2.5 trillion won and 3 trillion won.

The bid looked promising for Korea by October 2018, when India selected the K30 as the sole bidder for price negotiations after the system won out in a testing phase against the Russian-made Tunguska M1 and Pantsir missile systems. 

Moscow, however, a traditional supplier of arms to New Delhi, undertook a concerted campaign to stop the bid, openly requesting the Indian Defence Ministry to re-evaluate the process. Given India’s heavy reliance on Russian weapons, New Delhi found it difficult to sidestep pressure from Moscow lest it endanger future arms negotiations. 

The decision to manufacture SPAD-GMS locally, if true, appears to be an attempt by India to placate Russia while keeping to its plans to reduce overt dependence on Russian arms.

Seoul, however, has been taken aback by the Indian military’s alleged decision, alarmed that its high profile attempts to sell the K30 may have been in vain.

In September last year, the Korean government invited Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh as the sole minister-level guest to the Seoul Defence Dialogue, an annual security forum. Singh also met with Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon during that visit.

Korea’s former Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, who was replaced by Gen. Suh Wook last week, also took part in DefExpo 2020, a biennial defence exhibition hosted by the Indian Defence Ministry, in February to help promote the BIHO in India, the world’s second largest arms importer. 

“We have yet to receive an official communication from the Indian government,” said one Korean defence industry insider. “We are awaiting the results, since the BIHO was the only system that satisfied the performance requirements set by India, and agreements were reached between both countries’ ministers.”