Cheaper & Readily Available, South Korea’s K239 Chunmoo MLRS Is Giving HIMARS A Run For Its Money

Although the Royal Australian Army decided to purchase the US-made HIMARS earlier this year, the service officials seem to be mighty impressed by its Asian alternative – the South Korean Chunmoo multiple rocket launcher after its performance at Talisman Sabre drills in Australia.

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In an interview, a senior Australian Army official described the Chunmoo multiple rocket launcher as having “great” capabilities. The comments have been made when Seoul relentlessly works to increase its presence in the Australian defense sector.

In light of Seoul’s deployment of the K239 Chunmoo artillery system and other weaponry to participate in the ongoing biennial international exercise Talisman Sabre in Australia, Brigadier Damian Hill of the Royal Australian Army (RAA) heaped praises on the performance of K239 Chunmoo MLRS developed by Hanwha Defense.

Referring to the Asian country with its official name, Hill said, “The Republic of Korea (ROK) has deployed K9 self-propelled howitzers and long-range rocket artillery systems to Australia for the first time to participate in a live fire exercise, demonstrating increased interoperability with regional partners.”

“The K239 has a great capability and, as an artillery officer, it’s really exciting to see all these capabilities demonstrated together at a live-fire activity during Exercise Talisman Sabre,” he added.

South Korea deployed the K239 Chunmoo MLRS for the much-anticipated drills, in addition to its ROKS Marado amphibious assault ship, the ROKS Munmu the Great destroyer, over 700 Navy and Marine Corps personnel, and its vaunted K9 howitzers. However, the Chunmoo MLRS has mainly managed to attract eyeballs for its exemplary performance.

This is significant at a time when the Ukraine war demonstrated that artillery is the bedrock of modern-day wars, despite technological advancements made and employed on the battlefield.

It’s especially significant for the South Korean arms industry, including Hanwha Defense, which has recently bagged its biggest-ever military contract for IFVs from Australia.

File:(K-weapon source) K-239 천무 -3 - 대한민국 국방부 K-239 -3 - Republic of Korea MND.webm - Wikimedia Commons
K239 Chunmoo MLRS- Wikimedia Commons

In January 2023, Richard Marles, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defense of Australia, announced that the country was set to procure US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket (HIMARS) systems, which he believed would improve the country’s long-range strike capability.

At the time, Marles stopped short of specifying how many systems Australia would purchase. However, in May 2022, the US State Department officially authorized a potential sale of 20 HIMARS and associated equipment to Australia for foreign military purposes at a projected cost of $385 million.

US soldiers maneuver an M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System into position as part of an exercise in Santa Rita, Guam, on February 10, 2022. US ARMY

While making the announcement which certainly aligns with the Pacific country’s goals of becoming a modernized military power, Marles said emphatically that it was imperative and critical for the Australian Defense Force to have cutting-edge, precise military capabilities given the current strategic environment.

It is in this context that Hill’s statement about the South Korean Chunmoo becomes all the more significant. Australia’s decision to buy the HIMARS was believed to be based on the combat success demonstrated by the system in Ukraine against a modern military force Russia.

However, the praises heaped on Chunmoo in the keenly watched Talisman Sabre drills held in Queensland have been taken as a cue that the South Korean MLRS has fast emerged as a system capable of matching, if not outmatching, the US-made HIMARS.

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Since the K239 Chunmoo MLRS can fire several kinds of rockets and missiles, it is considered a relatively flexible and adaptable weapon system.

It can launch 130mm, 227mm, and 239mm rockets and missiles. Designed for rapid-fire support against enemy troops, light armored vehicles, and fortified positions, the short-range 130mm rocket has a range of about 36 kilometers.

In contrast, the medium-range 227mm rocket, with a maximum firing range of 80 kilometers, is perfect for taking out larger and better-defended targets, such as command centers, communication hubs, and air defense systems. This is the same as the range of M142 HIMARS supplied to Ukraine.

In the fall of 2022, some reports emerged indicating that besides Lockheed Martin’s HIMARS, South Korean defense conglomerate Hanwha was also at the forefront with its K239 Chunmoo MLRS on offer to the Royal Australian Army.

The reports further stated that the company had claimed that if the RAA were interested in purchasing the South Korean system, it would allow a transfer of all technology to enable local manufacturing of both the launchers and, more significantly, the precision-guided missiles that these high-end systems fire.

The Talisman Sabre 2023 marks the first overseas live-fire exercises for the Chunmoo system with the Marine Corps – an apparent indication of Seoul’s willingness to intensify participation in the exercise and its desire to support the promotion of the domestic weapons system to a potential buyer.

As previously analyzed by EurAsian Times, South Korea’s burgeoning arms industry is appealing to several buyers worldwide that have traditionally relied on either Western or Soviet arms.

With the ongoing Ukraine war refusing to abate and arms manufacturers busy resupplying the combatants, the South Korean defense industry has emerged as a reliable alternative.

Chunmoo MLRS
K239 Chunmoo MLRS

Poland’s purchase of the Chunmoo MLRS despite placing an order for the US HIMARS is a case in point. Before the hostilities in Ukraine began in February 2022, Poland had announced that it would buy at least 500 US-made M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems. However, by the fall of 2022, a lot had changed.

According to experts, Polish officials likely realized that the country could not buy as many US systems as it originally planned. This was followed by a contract signed between Poland and South Korea for 300 K239 Chunmoo MLRS.

At the time of signing the contract, Polish Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said, “We’re aware that we will not receive all 500 HIMARS launchers, for which we have sent a letter of request, within a timeline that would be satisfactory to us. We decided to split the HIMARS order into stages. We will have both the HIMARS and the Chunmoo.”

The Polish bulk order for the South Korean system led to the popularity of the systems soaring in global markets, especially with global defense giants catering to the Ukraine war. It also led to military watchers concluding that the South Korean defense behemoth could give US-based defense manufacturers a run for their money.

An Asia-based military watcher who did not wish to be named told EurAsian Times, “All South Korean arms, including Chunmoo, are gaining popularity since they provide cutting-edge technology, coupled with advantages such as timely delivery and technology transfer that would spur local defense manufacturing. Are Chunmoo as good as HIMARS? Almost. Plus, they are readily available. HIMARS is battle-tested, so they are supposed to be in demand, but Chunmoo has managed to become a decent alternative.”

Besides Poland, another US ally, the United Arab Emirates, opted for the South Korean K239 Chunmoo MLRS long ago. There have been claims that Saudi Arabia has also purchased and fielded the system sometime in April this year.

Hanwha Defense is reportedly in talks with Norway, Spain, and Romania for a potential sale.

Although it may be misplaced to judge whether Australia would also opt for the South Korean Chunmoo MLRS, the comments made by the Australian Army official may augur well for the company that is looking for potential buyers in the global market.