Russia’s Iskander Ballistic Missile System Has Long Worried NATO: Its North Korean Cousin is Much More Dangerous
Enlarged KN-23 derivative with 2.5-ton warhead, via KCNA.
Throughout 2017 – the infamous year of “fire and fury” and the DPRK’s sixth nuclear test – Russian and Ukrainian media engaged in a veritable duel over which one of the two Soviet successor states was ultimately to blame for North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear capabilities. More recently, much has been made in the digital space on whether or not North Korea would supply weapons to Russia – a claim initially made by US intelligence that even Ukrainian military intelligence found to be farfetched.
For all the back-and-forth on the North Korea-Russia military nexus, or lack thereof, there is no doubt that the DPRK is in possession of formidable missile technology that bears a striking resemblance to Russia’s Iskander missile. In this guest essay for Sino-NK, A. B. Abrams gives us a rundown of North Korea’s recent addition to its arsenal and what this means for the balance of power in Northeast Asia. – Anthony V. Rinna, Senior Editor
Following the sharp escalation of hostilities between Russian and Ukraine in February the Russian arsenal of precision guided cruise and ballistic missiles has provided a key advantage which its armed forces have pressed to multiple ends. Among the diversity of weapons used, from Soviet built Kh-22 anti-ship cruise missiles pressed into an air to surface role to the stealthy new Kh-101, one of the most notable and widely employed has been the 9M723K1 ballistic missile – better known by the name of the system which launches it the Iskander-M. The Iskander saw limited use in combat in Georgia in 2008 and possibly in Syria from 2017, and has emerged as a key asymmetric asset very widely deployed by Russian forces as a means of countering numerically superior NATO ground units. Consistently made a priority for funding and comfortably exceeding production plans where most major programs faced cuts or delays, the system’s role in Russian military operational planning grew considerably as the arsenal expanded particularly in the 2010s. 150 launchers were deployed by the beginning of 2022 between twelve Army battalions, with twelve more launchers operating in a thirteenth battalion deployed by naval infantry. This ground launched tactical ballistic missile arsenal was many times the size of NATO’s own.
More notable than the Iskander’s numbers are its groundbreaking capabilities, which have sparked considerable concern in the West. Swedish Military Intelligence and Security Service chief Gunnar Karlson described his country in 2019 as unusually fixated on the missiles after they were deployed to the Kaliningrad enclave within range of Swedish targets, with analysts at Svenska Dagbladet highlighting that they provided a “completely new military capacity.” They elaborated:
“The trajectory of the missile is not quite a ballistic one; [it] can manoeuvre, but it is unable, say, to rise if it is already falling to the ground… The Iskander can reach very high speeds when the missile is directed downwards, some 2-3 kilometres per second [Mach 5.8 to 8.7]. To be able to shoot down a missile at such speeds, a very advanced air defence missile is required. Also, the missile must be very close to the target.”
Finnish and other Western sources consistently reached similar conclusions, with some referring to it as the “most advanced missile of its kind” in the world. The Iskander’s induction in 2006 foreshadowed Russia’s announcing of a range of other cutting edge missile programs in March 2018, which were similarly intended to heavily compensate for conventional disadvantages and seriously reduce the viability of the U.S. and its allies’ fast expanding missile defence networks. These much more costly systems did so at a strategic rather than a tactical level, however, leaving the Iskander with a still very unique role in service.
Where Russia’s Iskander-M became more widely recognised as the country was involved in more conflicts and tensions between it and the Western world grew, the weapon’s capabilities are not entirely unique with North Korea deploying a less well known sister system that was prioritised for development for many similar reasons. Facing an increasingly unfavourable balance of power from the 1990s particularly in the air and at sea leading it to invest heavily in a range of asymmetric assets, namely mobile ballistic and cruise missiles, air defence systems and nuclear weapons – this description is apt for both Russia and North Korea explaining the many parallels that can be drawn in their investments.
The North Korean Iskander-like system, the Korean designation of which is unknown, has come to be known in the West as the KN-23. It was first seen in February 2018 at a parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army when six new launch vehicles between them carried twelve new missiles. Unveiled on the heels of the country’s first three successful ICBM tests, including the first in November that could strike America’s East Coast with thermonuclear warheads, as well as the development of an effective ‘Guam Killer’ missile in the form of the Hwasong-12, the KN-23’s appearance heralded the beginning of a greater focus on more tactical ballistic missile types. Rather than engaging the U.S. Military’s chain of military bases across the Pacific or targeting its cities, these missiles were intended for fighting a war on the Korean Peninsula itself engaging targets such as airfields and troop concentrations. A self-imposed moratorium on missile testing by Pyongyang in 2018 meant that the KN-23 would not be launched for 15 months until May 2019, with multiple announcements preceding this highlighting that potent new tactical weapons were being tested. This was interpreted by some analysts as a warning for the United States to return to the negotiating table after the failed February Hanoi Trump-Kim summit meeting, and a partial step towards lifting the mortarium without escalating to testing strategic missile classes. By August 2019 at least four KN-23 tests had occurred, with tests having continued into the 2020s for a range of new variants.
KN-23 Missile Systems Using Tracked Launch Vehicles, via KCNA.
The KN-23 has proven capable of launching missiles on trajectories very similar to the Iskander-M – namely semi ballistic depressed trajectories with apogees of just 50 km and with the ability to conduct extensive in flight manoeuvres throughout their entire flight paths. This was described by North Korean state media as an “irregular orbit” with “low-altitude gliding leap type flight mode,” and otherwise as a “peculiar mode of guiding flight.” Low flight not only makes the KN-23’s missiles more difficult to detect or track, but also allows them to use their fins to manoeuvre much better than missiles on standard ballistic trajectories. Indeed, this proved sufficient that one of the most capable Western anti-missile systems the AEGIS proved unable to even detect them – which was revealed after a test launch in October 2019. The KN-23’s unveiling a year after American deployments of Terminal High Altitude Air Defence System (THAAD) units to South Korea thus made a powerful statement, particularly due to THAAD’s very limited capabilities at the kinds of lower altitudes in which the KN-23 operated. These were precisely the kinds of capabilities that had previously been unique to the Iskander and led to widespread concern being expressed in the West regarding its deployments.
Despite the similarities between the systems claims that the KN-23 was a license produced derivative of the Iskander-M, and specifically that its missile was based on the 9M723K1, appear to have little substance. Notable differences include the missile’s approximately 20 percent larger size than its Russian counterpart, its smooth base, its much larger cable raceway indicating a far greater fuel capacity, and its use of an engine likely derived from that of the Pukkuksong-1 submarine launched ballistic missile. At most North Korea may have benefitted from Russian technology transfers or design support, with the KN-23 potentially representing what Russia would have wished for the Iskander had its development not been limited by the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty which reduced Russian and U.S. tactical missiles to ranges of 500km or less. The Korean missile by contrast has an engagement range of approximately 700km when on a depressed trajectory and performing in flight manoeuvres, indicating a much longer maximum range using a standard ballistic trajectory.
Any technology transfers which could have assisted in the KN-23’s development may have been intended not only to gain revenues for Russia’s defence sector, but also to strengthen North Korea’s deterrent and thereby help reduce chances of U.S. military action against it – something Moscow has consistently drawn a red line against. While Russia from August 2017 deployed a range of high-end air defence systems and other assets near the Korean Peninsula in an apparent warning against possible Western attacks as Pyongyang-Washington tensions peaked, a stronger independent North Korean deterrent can reduce the need for such actions and thus take pressure off Russian forces in the region. An example of the benefits of this came in January 2022 when Russia redeployed armaments including advanced fighters and missile systems from its Far East to its Western Military District to face NATO and Ukraine – an action was made much more possible by the presence of stronger North Korean and Chinese forces in East Asia.
Although restrictions on Russian missile development were lifted after the U.S. withdrew from the bilateral INF treaty, the country has yet to deploy a system with a comparable performance to the KN-23 which has since been adapted to a wide range of roles in the North Korean arsenal. This has included forming the basis of a rail launched ballistic missile system unveiled in September 2021, and developing an enlarged variant with an extended range and massive 2.5 ton warhead that was first test launched six months earlier. The missiles have been deployed from a growing range of launch vehicles including both wheeled and tracked vehicles, and are expected to remain at the core of North Korean efforts to modernise its tactical capabilities strike much as the Iskander-M was for Russia in the 2010s. While the numbers in service remain unknown there are multiple indicators that the KN-23 in its many variants has been produced in significant numbers indicating a respectable productive capacity. Amid reports that Russia has sought to acquire munitions from North Korea as its stocks are depleted by war in Ukraine, the ability of a friendly state to produce ballistic missiles systems comparable to or surpassing the Iskander-M in performance could potentially be of major benefit for the Russian Military by allowing it to replenish its arsenals through overseas acquisitions.
North Korea appears to have done much more with the KN-23 in under four years since its first launch than Russia has with the Iskander which first launched in 1996. This is despite Russia’s tactical ballistic missile arsenal being entirely comprised of Iskanders while North Korea deploys several complementary tactical missile classes such as the lighter KN-24. Even a tracked launcher for the Iskander suitable for off road operations has not yet materialised, with only the Belarusian MZKT-7930 wheeled launch vehicles being used. The tremendous range advantages of North Korean rocket artillery systems, which was highlighted when Russian sources indicated Korean artillery could bolster their forces in Ukraine, as well as the country’s lead over Russia in deploying a ground launched hypersonic glide vehicle with tactical applications, are further indicators that Russia could have much to learn from its small neighbour. Although both defence sectors are very heavily focused on high impact asymmetric missile capabilities, North Korean developments highlight possible ways Russia’s own tactical missile forces could evolve in future.
A. B. Abrams is the author of ‘China and America’s Tech War from AI to 5G: The Struggle to Shape the Future of World Order’ and ‘Immovable Object: North Korea’s 70 Years at War with American Power.’ He has published widely on international security and geopolitics with a focus on East Asia, and holds related Masters degrees from the University of London.