U.S. military intelligence has identified and designated a new type of North Korean short-range ballistic missile (SRBM). The missile is assessed to be a modification of North Korea’s existing Scud-B missiles, U.S. government sources with knowledge of the latest U.S. intelligence assessments on North Korea tell The Diplomat.
Three units of the ballistic missiles in question, which have been newly designated the KN21 by the United States, were tested on August 26 in quick succession from North Korea’s missile launch site at Kittaeryong.
North Korea launched those missiles at a depressed trajectory intentionally, a source told The Diplomat. Two of the missiles — the first and third — were observed to have successfully flown to a range of approximately 250 kilometers. One missile — the second — exploded shortly after launch.
As The Diplomat discussed last month, the missiles had first been incorrectly assessed by U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) to have all failed. PACOM later revised its assessment.
South Korean intelligence misidentified the missiles as projectiles from a KN09 multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) — an assessment likely based on the fact that these were unitary, non-separating Scuds with an unusual trajectory.
Coincidentally, the launches came shortly after South Korea launched one Hyunmoo-IIB and two Hyunmoo-IIC SRBMs of its own in an undisclosed test series over two days.
South Korea ultimately released footage of those tests after North Korea flew an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) over Japan on August 29.
Nevertheless, U.S. intelligence sources who spoke to The Diplomat said it was unlikely that North Korea’s test was a response to the South Korean SRBM tests given that Pyongyang would likely have been unable to detect the launches.
Additionally, the launches on August 26 were not a true near-simultaneous salvo launch like a launch in March 2017 that involved five Scud 2s. Those launches were not developmental, but a military drill for the Korean Peoples’ Army’s Strategic Forces.
Given that the August 26 launches were of three projectiles launching exactly 10 minutes apart, it appeared likely that the test was for developmental purposes.
According to one source who spoke to The Diplomat, the SRBMs that were tested had “similar guidance capabilities as the KN18.” The missiles are distinct from the KN18 in that they were unitary, non-separating Scuds with terminal maneuverability. The KN18, based on the Scud-C, has a separating warhead.
North Korea has not released any imagery of its August 25 SRBM launches, but the missiles are thought to also possess control surfaces (fins) on the warhead, like the KN18.
U.S. military intelligence detected the KN21 transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) prior to the August 26 launches, the source added. It is unclear if the new transporter-erector-launchers resemble the tracked and integrated TELs in use with the KN18, or North Korea’s older Scud launchers.
The KN18 is the SRBM with terminal maneuverability that North Korea first flight-tested in late-May 2017. That missile was first seen at the April 15, 2017 military parade in Pyongyang, it was initially and erroneously assumed to have been an anti-ship ballistic missile.
Following that test, North Korea described the missile as an “ultra-precision” variant of its existing SRBMs.
The Scud-B, or Hwasong-5 in North Korea’s appellation, is thought to be the very first ballistic missile to have arrived in North Korea’s inventory in the late-1970s.
Most accounts of North Korea’s ballistic missile program place its start at that time, when North Korea received a transfer of Scud-B missiles from Egypt and proceeded to reverse engineer and later mass produce them.
Today, North Korea is thought to possess in the range of 900 SRBMs, which include Scud-Bs, but also newer Scud-C and Scud 2 missiles (also known as the KN04, or extended range Scud).
This year’s introduction of the KN18 and KN21 suggests that North Korea’s missile engineers are making important upgrades to the country’s considerable existing inventory of older Scuds to make them more useful war-fighting tools.
Between the KN18 and the KN21, North Korea has now shown itself capable of converting its less accurate, older Scuds to what appear to be considerably more precise systems.
In any future conflict, these sorts of comparatively more precise Scuds would be useful in targeting U.S. and South Korean military positions and command/control nodes on the Peninsula with nuclear and conventional payloads.