October 22, 2010:
The South Korean Army has nearly 600 helicopters, and 40 percent of them are dying of old age. While South Korea has recently spent billions modernizing its armed forces (new tanks, warships and aircraft), army helicopters have remained at the bottom of the list. That is the list of military technologies South Korea has mastered in the last few decades. Not just so South Korea could produce its own modern weapons, but so weapons could become a major export item.
South Korea has, over the last two decades, built weapons production capabilities for world class warships, warplanes, armored vehicles and infantry weapons. But it's only recently that the local helicopter industry has come alive. Meanwhile the army has fifty UH-1 transport helicopters that are over 40 years old, and 120 MD 500 light attack gunships that are over 30 years old. The government would prefer to build replacements in South Korea, using South Korean designs. But that may not be possible. In the last 40 years, nearly a hundred UH-1s and MD 500s have been lost to accidents, and that accident rate will only increase the older these birds get.
It was only last year that South Korea introduced its first domestically designed and manufactured helicopter. The KUH (Korean Utility Helicopter), nicknamed "Surion," carries two pilots and 11 passengers. It can be armed with 7.62mm machine-guns. Some 60 percent of the components are made in South Korea. The 8.7 ton KUH can hover at up to 3,000 meters and has a top speed of 240 kilometers an hour.
South Korea spent a billion dollars developing the KUH, and it was designed for civilian and military use. Thus South Korea becomes only one of 11 countries that produces helicopters. Full scale production begins in three years. The South Korean military is buying KUHs to replace its UH-1s and 500MDs. South Korea plans to energetically market the KUH overseas.
South Korea has ordered 245 of the new KUH helicopters, but deliveries won't begin until 2012. The KUH flew for the first time this year. It's going to be close race to maintain the size of its army aviation fleet.