Move Aside Iskander-M: The North Korean-Supplied KN-23B is Now Russia’s Top Tactical Ballistic Missile

On January 4 White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby confirmed that the U.S. intelligence believed Russia was using North Korean ballistic missiles in its ongoing war effort in Ukraine. While not elaborating on the exact missile class used, confirmation that the missile had a 900km range strongly indicated that it was the KN-23B – an asset which it was speculated since mid-2022 that Russia could seek to acquire for its own forces. The only other North Korean missile with such a range, the Hwasong-9, is an advanced Scud derivative from the mid-2000s which is thought to have been developed primarily for export to Syria and built in limited numbers, and was long since considered to have seen production ended despite its many unique and innovative features. The KN-23B is a serious contender for the title of the world’s most capable class of surface-launched short range ballistic missile – a category which includes all surface-to-surface ballistic missiles with ranges under 1000km. 

Following the service entry of the original KN-23 in 2019, the KN-23B was developed as a larger variant with an extended range and enlarged warhead. It was first test fired on March 25, 2021 under supervision of the Academy of Defence Science. The state run Korean Central News Agency reported that the academy had concluded after the test: “the reliability of the improved version of the solid fuel engine was confirmed through several engine ground jet tests and their test firing processes, an that the irregular orbit features of low-altitude gliding leap type flight mode already applied two other guide projectiles were also re-confirmed.” Due to its larger size the new missile system uses a ten-wheel transporter erector launcher where the original KN-23 and the Iskander both used eight-wheel launchers. While the original KN-23 was widely compared to the Russian Iskander-M short range ballistic missile system, the former had significant advantages most notably its 700km engagement range – where the Iskander’s 9K720 missiles could only engage targets 500km away. Notable differences included the Korean missile’s approximately 20 percent larger size than its Russian counterpart, its smooth base, and its much larger cable raceway indicating a far greater fuel capacity. These advantages are significantly greater for the even larger KN-23B. 

A central similarity between the KN-23 and the Iskander-M is that both use missiles with semi ballistic depressed trajectories with apogees of around 50 km and with the ability to conduct extensive in flight manoeuvres throughout their entire flight paths. This not only makes their missiles extremely difficult to detect or track, but also allows them to use their fins to manoeuvre much better than missiles on standard ballistic trajectories. These capabilities proved sufficient that the American AEGIS anti missile system proved unable to even detect KN-23 missile launches – which was confirmed by South Korean sources after a test launch in October 2019. The KN-23B retained these features, but provided an extended range of 900km and was reported to deploy a 2500kg warhead, compared to the Iskander-M 9K720 missile’s warhead weight of up to 700kg. This means each missile will be capable of doing considerably more damage to targets ranging from infantry formations to fortifications. 

Acquiring the KN-23B not only provides Russia with a significant increase to its capacity for launching highly precise and reliable missile strikes on Ukrainian targets, adding much of the capacity of North Korea’s very large missile industry to its own, but it also provides a missile capable of engaging targets an area 324 percent as large as the Iskander can from the launch point. The KN-23B will thus allow Russian units to strike targets far further behind Ukrainian lines than the Iskander-M could, as demonstrated on December 30 and again on January 2, and provides options for engaging a much wider range of targets from each launch site. Furthermore, while Russian units have taken to launching multiple 9K720 missiles from Iskander systems at Ukrainian frontline units to maximise casualties, the KN-23B’s much larger warhead could allow comparable amounts of damage to be achieved much more efficiently. The KN-23B can thus be considered the most capable asset of its kind in the Russian arsenal by a significant margin, and one which the Russian Armed Forces could conceivably be seeking to acquire as fast as North Korean industry is able to supply them.