The ‘Hyundaization’ of the Global Arms Industry

The rapid spread of cheaper but good-enough weaponry poses a serious threat to U.S. military dominance.

By Joe Katzman

April 5, 2015 6:00 p.m. ET                      

Precision weapons and networked targeting have helped maintain America’s military superiority for decades. But technology marches on. New defense exporters are joining the global game with advanced and well-priced offerings, creating potential threats to the U.S. and its allies, and weakening Western influence. The Pentagon has a plan to cope with these evolving threats, but is it enough?

To understand what’s happening, consider the global automotive industry. South Korea’s Hyundai Motors became a serious global competitor by leveraging the rapid diffusion of technology, an initial edge in cheap labor, and a “good enough” product for value buyers. Their success wasn’t obvious in 2001, but by 2015 the proof was in our parking lots. A similar “Hyundaization” process is under way in the global defense industry.

A few examples: NATO allies Turkey and Poland didn’t buy their latest self-propelled howitzers from the U.S. or even Germany. Instead they turned to Samsung. South Korea’s Daewoo is building Britain’s next naval supply ships, and Korea Aerospace Industries is exporting TA-50 and FA-50 fighter jets to Iraq, Indonesia and the Philippines. The F-16 is America’s cheapest fighter; the new Korean, Pakistani and Indian fighters cost about 33%-50% less. If you’d rather pocket a 67% savings, Brazil’s A-29 Super Tucano has become the global standard for counterinsurgency. An urgent order from the United Arab Emirates is likely to see combat in Yemen soon.

The long-term threat involves the spread of precision-strike weapons that can hit what modern surveillance “sees.” In addition to Russian and Chinese exports, Turkey has begun to export new guided weapons, including a stealthy cruise missile. India’s Mach 3 Brahmos antiship missile is available, as are GPS-guided equivalents to Boeing’s JDAM, including the UAE-South-African Al-Tariq or Brazil’s Acauan. Pakistan has already bought Brazil’s MAR-1 radar-killer missiles for its JF-17 fighters. There are other examples.

America’s surveillance-strike capabilities helped defeat Iraq’s military in two wars. Now Western militaries must plan to face evolving versions of the same thing. Western navies and their marine forces, which routinely place themselves within harm’s reach during deployments, expect that these surveillance-strike capabilities will be more common a decade from now.

In addition to challenging the U.S. defense industry, this proliferation of value-priced and “good enough” weapons will challenge Western diplomatic and military relationships in two ways.
First, it’s hard to overstate the value of personal relationships with foreign militaries, which often begin through equipment training and support programs. As we’ve seen in Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere, today’s colonel may be tomorrow’s president.

Second, the flood of choices in the global marketplace will make it harder to withhold advanced weapons from specific regimes, reducing Western leverage throughout the world. In the 1990s it was widely understood that Western opprobrium would have a meaningful impact on one’s military. By the 2020s, that idea will seem quaint.

How is the U.S. responding? With technology. Last November then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel unveiled the Pentagon’s “third offset” strategy, designed to develop new technologies as a follow-on to the first two “offsets”—nuclear weapons and precision-guided munitions. The Pentagon plans to shore up its eroding edge by investing in fields like cyberwarfare; advanced computing and big data; robotics and autonomous weapons; advanced manufacturing techniques like 3-D printing; and electromagnetic weapons like railguns and lasers, to boost naval firepower and replace some land-based defensive weapons.

At present, the third offset is merely a statement of intent. The question is whether it would be adequate even if fully executed. Countries whose civilian companies must master big data, for example, can transfer that expertise to their military. Ditto for cyberwarfare, as Iran and North Korea have demonstrated. Passive radars using superfast computing and big data might even compromise today’s stealth technology. Meanwhile, Islamic State is already using lightweight commercial drones, and Peter W. Singer’s recent book “Wired for War” cites 87 countries with military robotics programs.

The West can’t stop Hyundaization, but market barriers like limited investment capital, technological chokepoints, the role of politics in purchasing, and the difficulty of setting up global service networks will slow it down. Nevertheless, Hyundaization is happening, powered by a global tsunami of techno-industrial momentum.

Western governments have a number of policy options to address the numerous military and diplomatic threats Hyundaization presents. But this much is certain: A serious response will have to think beyond technology.

Mr. Katzman is editor emeritus of Defense Industry Daily and the principal at KAT Consulting.

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