With drones, ships and satellites, S. Korean defense companies branch out into civilian industries

Posted on : 2021-02-11 15:55 KST Modified on : 2021-02-11 15:55 KST
Companies turn to private sector in search of future growth drivers, spying potential for “immediate integration” of defense technology
This 200kg-class multipurpose unmanned helicopter can be used for a variety of functions including surveillance/reconnaissance, communications relay and use on warships. (Provided by LIG Nex1)
This 200kg-class multipurpose unmanned helicopter can be used for a variety of functions including surveillance/reconnaissance, communications relay and use on warships. (Provided by LIG Nex1)

US defense manufacturer Raytheon is the company responsible for developing the microwave. During its research into military radar, it devised an ultra-short wave oven, which it initially called the “Radarange.” In the area of defense, the 707 jetliner produced by Boeing was transformed into the C-135 Stratolifter transport aircraft.

Recently, there is growing momentum behind trends of both “spin-offs,” where defense industry developments are adopted in civilian industries, as well as “spin-ons,” where civilian developments are employed in the defense industry.

Defense industry insiders reported on Feb. 10 that Hanwha Defense, one of South Korea’s leading defense industry companies, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) last month with the energy efficiency solutions company Danfoss Korea for the development of energy storage systems (ESSs) for ships.

The plan is to tweak its lithium battery technology for the 3,000-ton Jangbogo-III submarine so it can be applied to propulsion systems for distant-water and offshore ocean vessels. The move is seen as having marketability, with the South Korean government currently planning to convert around 500 civilian and government vessels to eco-friendly propulsion methods by 2030 as part of its “Green Ship-K” initiative.

That’s not all. Hanwha Aerospace, which took part in producing the Surion (KUH) transport utility helicopter, is attempting to secure an advantage in the civilian satellite market, while Hanwha Systems — which started out as a defense electronics company — is moving full speed ahead with its urban air mobility (UAM) efforts.

“If there’s a positive market response to applying ESS on [civilian] ships, then it will also be worth considering not just full-scale production but also exports,” a Hanwha Defense official said in a telephone interview with the Hankyoreh.

“There are quite a few examples of defense technologies that could be applied to everyday life,” the official noted.

In a Feb. 5 analysis of the defense company LIG Nex1, Daishin Securities analyst Lee Dong-heon noted “anticipated growth in the aerospace and civilian goods sectors, including satellite development in conjunction with KAIST, acquisition of InnoWireless [5G communications], and drone development with LG Electronics.”

Boasting advantages in the areas of precision-guided munitions and small unmanned helicopter technology, LIG Nex1 signed a work agreement last month with the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute, the city of Gwangju and others for the development of cargo drones capable of carrying up to 200kg in goods.

Its aim is to branch out into the area of drone cars. Having acquired InnoWireless last year, the company is working to develop state-of-the-art wireless communications technology that can be employed in both the defense industry and the private sector.

Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) recently set up a civilian aerospace industry task force based on its combat aircraft manufacturing technology. Hyundai Rotem has also employed its K2 tank technology to export unmanned trams to provide public transportation in Turkey and other countries.

Among defense industry insiders, the focus is on the establishment of high technology with strong application potential in civilian industry. The nature of military industry is such that the sales amounts set by the government cannot exceed the framework of the defense budget.

Under the circumstances, the private sector is seen as furnishing an additional growth engine. Also playing a part are recent developments as the realm of combat activities expands into space, with more and more areas of civilian overlap such as the use of networks for cyber warfare.

“We are planning to use the military as a testing ground for state-of-the-art technology, where we boost both industry competitiveness and defense capabilities simultaneously through a ‘spin-on’ approach of applying outstanding civilian technologies to defense areas, along with a ‘spin-off’ approach of transferring technologies with ripple effects to the private sector,” explained Minister of National Defense Suh Wook at a Meeting for National Defense Industry Development held last month by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE) and Ministry of National Defense (MND).

Commenting on this, a defense industry source said, “Defense technology is generally already being used by the military in actual combat, so there are a lot of technologies with the potential to be integrated straight away in the private sector.”

“We can expect to see more attempts by companies to seek out future opportunities in civilian areas,” the source predicted.

By Hong Seock-jae, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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