Russia’s Iskander Tactical Missile Outdone By Its North Korean ‘Cousin’ the KN-23: Defence Scholar A. B. Abrams

Since world’s first ballistic missiles were developed by Nazi Germany and employed for strategic bombardments of enemy cities, technological advances have made these assets increasingly versatile with drastic improvements in precision guidance in particular during the Cold War making the use of such missiles for tactical purposes increasingly viable. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 tactical ballistic missiles were among a number of asymmetric assets which were invested heavily in by countries seeking to deter the then-unchallenged military power of the United States, and provided the capability to counter larger military forces at a relatively modest cost. The most famous post-Cold War tactical system by far has been the Russian Iskander-M which entered service in 2006, was combat tested against Georgian forces two years later, and has since been exported to Algeria, Belarus and Armenia. Some of the capabilities which make the Iskander particularly outstanding and unique were highlighted by defence and international security scholar A. B. Abrams on October 13, who also observed how Russia’s neighbour North Korea developed a very similar but more capable missile. 

The capabilities of the Iskander are widely known, including its restriction to a 500km range and its high precision, use of an advanced semi ballistic trajectory, extreme manoeuvrability, and abnormal hypersonic Mach 5.8-8.7 terminal speed which makes it very difficult to intercept. What is less well known is that North Korea unveiled an Iskander-like missile in 2018, which following the collapse of talks with the United States in February the following year it proceeded to test multiple times and in several variants beginning in April-May the following year. Regarding its capabilities, Abrams observed regarding this sister system to the Iskander and the great significance its development had for Korean security: 

“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 50km 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 their common features, Abrams stressed that there were very notable differences between the KN-23 and Iskander-M including the former’s approximately 20 percent larger size, its smooth base and a much larger cable raceway indicating a much greater fuel capacity. The missile’s engine is also thought to be derived from that of the Pukkuksong-1 submarine launched ballistic missile, and it notably boasts an engagement range of approximately 700km when on a depressed trajectory and performing in flight manoeuvres – compared to just 500km for its Russian counterpart. Abrams highlighted that this meant that although Western sources widely referred to the Iskander-M as the world’s most capable tactical ballistic missile system, its larger Korean counterpart was very likely a much more formidable asset. He added that North Korea did a lot more with its own ‘cousin’ to the Iskander than the Russian Military had with the original, stating regarding Russia’s lack of investment in new variants of its missile despite its much larger defence budget and longer time in service:

“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.”

Abrams was critical of Russia’s defence sector in its lack of innovation for the Iskander system compared to the diverse ways North Korea has used it, stating: “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.” He added regarding the similarities in both countries’ rationales for pursuing such missile programs that: “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.” 

While the two missiles are expected to remain central to both respective countries’ defence planning, it remains uncertain whether Russia will over 25 years after the first test launch from the Iskander begin to find new applications for the missile. This is particularly relevant as the centrality of such assets to tackling even lower end threats such as the Ukrainian Military has been highlighted by the recent Russian-Ukrainian War. For North Korea, meanwhile, the KN-23’s sudden appearance leaves U.S. air defence assets deployed in Northeast Asia such as the AEGIS and THAAD systems at a much greater risk of failure – something not lost on South Korean analysts who have highlighted repeatedly both THAAD’s lack of potency at low altitudes and the failure of the AEGIS to even track KN-23 launches due to the missile’s very abnormal trajectories.