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Korean-Made 155mm Shells in High Demand, U.S. Requests Massive Stock

Ukraine war consumes 3,000 rounds per day
The U.S. military purchased 100,000 rounds from South Korea last year
High-quality Korean ammunition due to continuous training

글로벌 이슈된 한국산 ‘155mm 포탄’…지난 4월 美행정부, 韓과 50만발 대여계약 체결[이현호 기자의 밀리터리!톡]
A 155mm howitzer shell. Photo provided by the Army

South Korean-made 155mm shells are gaining popularity worldwide.

A confidential document from the U.S. government has recently been leaked, stirring significant debate. This document reveals a conversation between Kim Sung Han, the ex-chief of the National Security Office, and Lee Moon Hee, the former Foreign Affairs Secretary, discussing potential responses to a U.S. request for 155mm artillery shells from South Korea. The document specifies a request for 330,000 shells, marking the second such solicitation by the U.S. following last year’s ask for 100,000 rounds. This raises the question: Is the U.S. repeatedly seeking 155mm shells from South Korea?

U.S. Support to Ukraine

The 155mm shell is a key type of ammunition used by various conventional weapons, including howitzers. It is notably utilized in the K-9 self-propelled gun, a cornerstone of South Korea’s defense arsenal. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has surged the global demand for these shells. In the battlefields of Russia and Ukraine, approximately 3,000 155mm shells are being expended each day. Over the course of a year, it’s estimated that more than a million rounds have been used.

The U.S. has reportedly supplied Ukraine with over a million 155mm shells. The number of shells stocked in the U.S. arsenal is inevitably decreasing. From the U.S. perspective, it’s a situation where they need to replenish their arsenal.

During his tenure as a legislator, Defense Minister Shin Won Sik revealed to the public that a South Korean company had exported 100,000 artillery shells to the United States. This transaction represents a form of indirect assistance, aligning with South Korea’s policy of not directly supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine. In this arrangement, U.S. forces stationed in South Korea reportedly redirected some of their artillery shells to Ukraine and the U.S. Meanwhile, South Korean firms sell shells to these U.S. military bases.

Cost-Effectiveness of Korean Shells

The leaked secret U.S. government document states that the additional 155mm shells requested by the U.S. from Korea amount to 330,000 rounds. It also provides a specific timetable, saying it takes 72 days to transport 330,000 rounds from Korea to Europe.

European defense companies have reduced their orders due to low demand for powerful ammunition. The production line related to these shells has also been halted. As a result, the annual shell production in Europe is about 300,000 rounds. Considering the 155mm shells used in Ukraine, it far exceeds the total production volume.

The demand for artillery shell support from South Korea is rooted in its strategic position and military capabilities. Given its ongoing standoff with North Korea, South Korea maintains a substantial arsenal of 155mm artillery, including the K-9 howitzers. Domestically, South Korean defense companies produce a significant quantity of these 155mm shells. This consistent production not only meets domestic needs but also allows for continuous improvement in the quality of the shells.

Chae Woo Seok, president of the Korean Defense Industry Association, stated that the U.S. maintains only a reasonable demand for conventional weapons and the ammunition consumed in their country (specifically, the 155mm type) with its policy centered on cutting-edge weapons. He further mentioned that, due to the Ukraine war, rather than increasing the number of shell factories, the U.S. is sourcing their demand from South Korea and seeking support.

글로벌 이슈된 한국산 ‘155mm 포탄’…지난 4월 美행정부, 韓과 50만발 대여계약 체결[이현호 기자의 밀리터리!톡]
Ukrainian soldiers firing a howitzer. Yonhap News

Signing Contracts With Korea for 500,000 shells

In April, reports emerged that the U.S. administration signed a contract with the Korean government and defense industry companies to rent 500,000 Korean-made 155mm shells.

It is very unusual to provide consumable weapons like shells to other countries by selling and renting. There has been speculation about the possibility of indirectly supporting Ukraine, where the U.S. manages Korean-made shells as stockpiles and backs Ukraine with existing shells.

The 500,000 rounds represent five times the 155mm shells our government sold to the U.S. and are about half the roughly 1 million rounds the U.S. supplied to Ukraine last year.

A government source has disclosed that in February of this year, the U.S. administration sought to purchase over 100,000 155mm shells from South Korea, following a similar acquisition of 100,000 rounds last year. The U.S. has been provided with a total of 500,000 rounds under a rental agreement.

This rental arrangement for shell provision marks a significant increase in support and is in line with South Korea’s policy of not directly supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine. The decision demonstrates South Korea’s commitment to responding to requests from its ally, the United States while adhering to its policy stance.

Additionally, a defense ministry official noted that the Korean and U.S. governments have been discussing support measures to defend freedom in Ukraine. However, the official also mentioned that they could not confirm the precise specifics of the ongoing discussions.

The U.S. government does not immediately send the 500,000 rounds to Ukraine. It’s understood that these shells first replenish the U.S. military’s reserves before being used to support Ukraine with the U.S. military’s existing stock. This approach mirrors the U.S.’s method last year when it purchased 100,000 rounds from Korea. This is why there is an interpretation that the Korean government has indirectly stepped up to support Ukraine with weapons.

Bypass Support: Indirectly Supporting Ukraine

Among the leaked documents shared via social media, a document titled ‘ROK 155 Delivery Timeline (330K)’ reveals the transportation plan for the shells. The document, labeled as ‘secret’ and classified as a second-level secret by the U.S. government, was written on February 27 this year. It includes the routes and time required to transport 330,000 South Korean-made 155mm shells to Europe and other places.

The document reveals that the first shipment will commence by air on the 10th day following the issuance of the execution order (EXORD), with approximately 4,700 rounds being transported daily until the 45th day. In addition, the plan is to deliver about 183,000 rounds to the destination within a month from the execution order, including 88,000 U.S. combat reserve shells stored in Israel.

On the 27th and 37th days after the execution order, one transport ship each departs from Jinhae Port in South Gyeongsang Province, South Korea, to Nordenham Port in Germany. The schedule also states that maritime transportation will be completed around the 72nd day. The document does not specify where the final destination of the shell transportation is.

According to another report, a separate leaked document written in early March mentions ‘1.33 million South Korean-made 155mm shells.’ The New York Times (NYT) previously reported that the leaked U.S. government secret document contains an internal discussion process where the Korean government ponders solutions as the U.S. pressures it to support Ukraine with shells.

By. Lee Hyun Ho

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