Australia has become one of a growing number of export customers for the South Korean K9 Thunder self-propelled 155mm howitzer. Australia will modify the current K9A1, which entered service in 2018, as the Huntsman AS9. The initial order is for 30 AS9s howitzers and fifteen AS10 ARVs (armored resupply vehicles). All will be built in Australia at an existing facility of the South Korean K9 manufacturer Hanwa. That facility will be modified to build the AS9 and AS10 and the first vehicles will be available by 2024.
The AS9 also borrows design features from the Norwegian version of the K9. Norway became a partner with Hanwa in upgrading older K9s used by other NATO countries to the Norwegian K9 VIDAR standard. VIDAR adds more NATO standard subsystems and upgraded protection. Norway will assist Australia in transferring some VIDAR features to the Huntsman.
The K9 first entered service in 1999 when South Korea introduced a locally developed and manufactured replacement for the elderly American M109 self-propelled 155mm howitzers as well as even older towed and self-propelled artillery they had long used. The South Korea army initially ordered a hundred K9s but found the K9 so effective that they eventually ordered most of the 2,400 K9s built so far. The K9 provided South Korea with an artillery weapon that could match the more numerous North Korean artillery just across the border, especially the many aimed at Seoul, the South Korean capital that contains a disproportionate fraction of the national population and GDP.
The K9 proved to be a popular export item, with nine foreign nations ordering K9s or obtaining manufacturing licenses for local production for over a third of the K9s ordered so far. This includes the original model and the new K9A1 as well as local designs in Turkey (the T-155) and the Polish AHS Krab that use K9 tech and components.
Because the K9 entered service 22 years ago with the South Korean military, some of those first vehicles have worn some out and replaced with upgraded and newly manufactured models. South Korea also bought nearly 200 K10 ARVs and is upgrading all its K9s to the K9A1 standard, which adds better sensors, navigation electronics and more capable FCS (fire control system). There is also an APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) that allows a stationary K9 to shut down the main engine but still be able to operate sensors and the main gun. The new FCS is more compact, automated and able to handle new types of 155mm ammo, including the rocket assisted round with a range of up to 56 kilometers.
While superficially like the American M109 the K9 is heaver (46 tons versus 28 for the M109), carries more ammo (48 rounds) and has twice the range (up to 56 kilometers) in part because of a barrel that is a third longer. There is more automation on the K9, so it has a crew of five versus six on the M-109. The K9A1 weighs 47 tons but retains the same 1,000 HP diesel engine, max speed of 67 kilometers an hour and max road range of 360 kilometers on internal fuel. Like other heavy tracked vehicles, the K9 is best moved long distances by tank transporter, tractor-trailer vehicles or railroad flatcars. The K9A2 is coming in 2022, which will add more automation and allow for a crew of three, or even just two in an emergency. The K9A2 can also be operated remotely and take on ammo from the K10 ARS more quickly. A new auto-loader for the 155mm gun will make possible max fire of up to ten rounds a minute, for short periods because of barrel overheating if continued too long.
With the K9 South Korea joins Germany in their effort to build a suitable replacement for the elderly M109 design. During performance tests by export customers to select a self-propelled howitzer the K9 regularly defeats upgrades of the M109 as well as the new Russian 42-ton 2S19 as well as the 45-ton British AS-90 and 55-ton German PzH 2000. The K9 wins based on technical capabilities, field tests and a South Korean reputation for quality and reliability. In competitions held by Scandinavian countries, the K9 proved to be the only candidate that can handle the extreme cold and deep snow experienced during winter in northern Europe.
The K9 is the result of South Korea deciding to become a major weapons developer and exporter. This began in the 1990s after South Korea had become a major economic power and exporter. South Korea has been successful at this although the largest customer remains the South Korean military, which must deal with the threat from North Korea and prefers to do it with armored vehicles, artillery, helicopters, warships and infantry weapons designed and built in South Korea. All those items have found export customers, often at the expense of American systems.