Nicknamed “Thunder,” the K9 artillery gun has arguably become the world’s most proven and iconic self-propelled howitzer.
Developed in 1998 by the state-run Agency for Defense Development and Hanwha Defense, South Korea, the 155mm/52-calibre howitzer entered service in 1999. The self-propelled gun has since then been deployed in the frontline areas as a key deterrent against North Korea, which remains technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce.
The Thunder demonstrated its impressive power in November 2010 when North Korea bombarded the Island of Yeonpyeong near the western sea border. A battery of six K9s responded to the surprise attack, firing eighty shells toward the enemy barracks to leave scores of casualties to the North.
With the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the Koreas bearing the risk of erupting into an intense artillery war, the capabilities of the K9 are crucial. Against that backdrop, the artillery system has been improved its lethality, mobility, protection, and survivability.
The K9 was designed primarily to meet the tactical concept of “Shoot & Scoot”. In layman’s terms, Shoot & Scoot means that a gun moves to a firing position, completes a fire mission and then leaves the firing position before an enemy can counter it.
The 47-ton K9 has a firing range of 40+ km with conventional 155 ammunition and it can move as fast as 67 km/h per hour. Equipped with an automatic fire control system, the howitzer can fire within 30 seconds from a stationary position and within 60 seconds while on move. A burst rate of fire of three rounds can be achieved in less than 15 seconds, with a maximum rate of fire from six to eight rounds per minute continuously for three minutes.
As the Thunder was built to operate on the rugged mountains next to DMZ, the vehicle is equipped with advanced hydro-pneumatics suspension to support movement over the rocky terrain. Thanks to its 1,000-horsepower engine, the Thunder features a higher power-to-weight ratio than many other howitzers like the US-built M109 Paladin.
What makes the K9 more special is the combined operation with the K10 Ammunition Resupply Vehicle. The K10 is the world’s first automatic ammunition transfer system that facilitates ammunition resupply while the respective crews remain protected under armour. Using the same chassis as the K9, the resupply vehicle can resupply the K9 on the battlefield under protection, using an automated bridge to connect the two vehicles. It can hold up to 104 rounds and transfer them to the howitzer at a rate of around 12 rounds per minute.
K9A1 Self-Propelled Howitzers maneuvers at a ROK Army firing range in June, 2021.
A modified variant, the K9A1 has been in service with the South Korean Army since 2018. The K9A1 is equipped with an auxiliary power unit (APU) that allows vehicle to be operated and fired without running the main engine, which saves the valuable engine hours. Using the APU also means crew members can operate without being exposed to the engine noise.
Other modifications for the K9A1 include the driver’s night periscope with forward-looking infrared cameras that can be viewed from the monitor, and rear-view camera to help ensure crew safety.
By combining the inertial navigation system and global position system, the K9A1 can locate itself more precisely, while the fire control system is upgraded to use an electronic fuse setter and ammunition status control system. The new FCS is programmed for ammunition with an extended range of 54 kilometers.
In the near future the K9 Thunder SPH is taking another leap forward in its capability enhancement. Utilizing a fully automated turret instead of semi-automatic ammunition loading system, the K9A2 will be capable of firing nine+ rounds per minute in a stable manner. The number of crew can be reduced from five to three.
A mock-up of the K9A2 Self-Propelled Howitzer put on display at DSEI 2021.
“The K9 capability continues to be evolving in a way to satisfy the demands of the concept of future land warfare,” said Yoon Young-ki, principal engineer involved in the K9A2 development project. “The development of a full-automatic ammunition handling and loading system has been very successful to increase rate of fire to nine from six rounds per minute.”
The K9A2 version is expected to be upgraded further over the next decade to extend its firing-range and rate of fire. In addition, the newer version, or K9A3, will be able to conduct manned/unmanned operations, with a final goal of making the Thunder a fully unmanned artillery based on artificial intelligence technology.
“As the path of growth is based on system evolution, all K9 guns can be upgraded to the latest version,” said Pasi Pasivirta, director of European business development for Hanwha Defense. “This has proved to be an efficient way of fighting obsolescence. All new features will be available for all K9 users.”
The K9 has by far the most popular gun among self-propelled howitzers in the world with some 53 percent of market share. Nearly 1,700 units of the K9 are in service with several countries, including South Korea, Turkey, Poland, India, Finland, Norway and Estonia.
More orders are likely to come, as Australia is in the process of acquiring 30 AS9 “Huntsman” vehicles and 15 AS10 armored ammunition resupply vehicles. The Australian version is to feature upgraded armoured protection and a beefed-up suspension to cope with the increased weight of the vehicle. Combat weight of the AS9 is understood to be in the region of 50 tonnes.
A concept image of AS9 Huntsman, an Australian version of the K9 Thunder.
Impressed by K9’s outstanding combat performances, existing K9 customers such as Norway and India are said to be considering buying more K9s.
“Besides superior battlefield capabilities, the K9 has an advantage when it comes to operational and maintenance costs, as the artillery is operated on a large scale globally,” said Jeff Sung, a spokesman for Hanwha Defense. “In addition, the development of modifications to customers’ needs is swift and successful through various localization programs, including local partnerships and tech transfer.”