On March 9 North Korea and Russia both conducted the largest launches of hypersonic ballistic missiles on record, the former as part of a show of force into the Yellow Sea in response to major U.S.-led military exercises near its borders, and the latter into Ukraine as part of its ongoing war effort in the country. In both cases the missiles fired represented the respective countries’ most capable classes of tactical ballistic missile – both with semi ballistic trajectories and high manoeuvrability designed to be near impossible to intercept. In North Korea’s case the missile in question was the KN-23, a design first unveiled in 2018 shortly after the United States deployed THAAD missile systems to South Korean territory.
The KN-23 has consistently played a central role in its shows of force since 2019, and is prized for its use of a semi ballistic depressed trajectory with apogees of just 50km and for its the ability to conduct extensive in flight manoeuvres throughout its entire flight path. This was described by North Korean state media as “irregular orbit” with “low-altitude gliding leap type flight mode,” and otherwise as a “peculiar mode of guiding flight,” which makes missile far more difficult to detect or track, while also allowing them to use their fins to manoeuvre. The missile has proven undetectable for one of the most capable Western anti-missile systems the AEGIS which is deployed extensively in South Korean waters. At least six KN-23s were fired on March 9 under the 8th fire assault company, with the scale of launches carried out over the last two years being far larger than those North Korea was able to pursue before the late 2010s. This has been taken as an indicator of the scale of the country’s missile stockpiles, with its arsenal of KN-23s estimated by some sources to be several hundred strong and growing at a rate of dozens per year.
The Russian barrage on March 9 was conducted using the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air launched ballistic missile, which was first introduced into service in 2017. Like North Korea six missiles were launched, indicating a major escalation, with Russia having refrained from using the high value munitions in large numbers in the Ukrainian theatre in the past. The missile has proven well beyond the capabilities of Ukrainian forces to intercept, although in this regard it is one of many with several much lower costing and widely used missiles. The air launched Kh-22, the ground launched Iskander, and even surface to air missiles from systems like the S-300 used in surface-to-surface roles, have all proven similarly impossible to shoot down due to the limitations of Ukrainian air defences.
Russian government sources announced after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine that the Kh-47M2 was seeing its scale of production expanded, with the missile speculated to be produced on the same lines as the surface launched Iskander due to the significant similarity between the two. The Kinzhal is estimated to have four times the range, however, and is carried by MiG-31K and new MiG-31I strike fighters and Tu-22M bombers. The MiG-31I was first unveiled in 2022, and is expected to form all future MiG units carrying Kinzhal missiles. The Russian missile class saw its first ever use in the Russian-Ukrainian War, when it was launched on March 18, 2022 to neutralise facilities near Ukraine’s Polish border. Only two other uses of the missile have been reported since. Considered ‘overkill’ for the Ukrainian theatre due to the short distances involved and limited enemy air defence capabilities, the launch of six Kh-47M2s is almost certain to have been intended primarily as a show of force to Kiev’s Western supporters rather than because it was considered the most operationally efficient means of neutralising the targets.
Both Russia and North Korea have seen their conventional capabilities, and particularly their combat aviation capabilities, decline considerable relative to those of their adversaries since the early 1990s, with both for very different reasons having seen their economies contract significantly that decade only to slowly partially recover in the 2000s. Hypersonic ballistic missiles with depressed trajectories have been one of multiple key asymmetric assets which both countries have invested heavily in since then – providing a much less costly and in many ways more reliable and survivable means of engaging enemy targets, including its air power through strikes on airfields, than investments in combat aviation. The two countries are both among the United States’ four designated ‘great power adversaries’ alongside Iran and China, and are considered second and third among U.S. adversaries in terms of overall military capabilities after China. North Korea is speculated to have received Russian support for developing the KN-23, which bears some resemblance to the Iskander and the Kh-47M2. The Korean missile is larger than its Russian counterpart and has a significantly longer range, which was extended further still with the entry into service of the KN-23B variant from 2021. It has been deployed from a wider range of launch vehicles including wheeled, tracked, sub surface and rail based launchers, where the Russian Iskander has used road mobile wheeled launchers exclusively.