SEOUL — North Korea’s latest test-firing of new short-range ballistic missiles and guided rockets are capable of inflicting damage to key South Korean and U.S. military installations, including an air base that will house stealth fighter jets in the South, military sources and analysts said.
On July 31, the North launched two rockets off its east coast. The test came less than a week after the country test-fired two short-range ballistic missiles identified as KN-23 missiles, modeled on Russia’s SS-26/Iskander, amid the continued stalemate in negotiations over the North’s denuclearization.
The ballistic missiles, launched July 25 off the eastern waters of the peninsula, flew about 600 kilometers at an altitude of 50 kilometers, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. The July 31 rockets flew some 250 kilometers at an altitude of 30 kilometers.
North Korea’s state media said the rockets were a new variant that could expand the country’s ability to strike major facilities across the South, including American military bases.
According to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw the guided rockets launch. “It would be an inescapable distress to the forces becoming a fat target of the weapon,” Kim was quoted by the KCNA as saying.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, which had originally identified the weapon as the KN-23, confirmed the trajectory of the rockets proved the so-called pull-up maneuver in the dive phase. “In the reentry phase, the projectile pulled up to fly horizontally and then dived to a target with a near 90-degree falling angle, an apparent move to help avoid interception,” a Joint Chiefs of Staff source told Defense News on condition of anonymity.
The KN-23 was twice tested in May, with one of the missiles flying about 420 kilometers. Compared to liquid-fueled Scud missiles fired at launch sites, the new missile uses solid fuel, which makes it easier to transport and quicker to launch. The new missile is launched on mobile trucks and could carry a nuclear warhead with up to 500 kilograms.
How is the F-35 related?
Some weapons analysts believe the new missiles and rockets were developed for targeting a base for F-35As being delivered to the South Korean Air Force. The North has called the fifth-generation jets “extremely dangerous.”
“The blurred photos revealed by the North show the multiple-launch rocket system is a larger caliber than the existing 300mm MLRS, and it resembles the Chinese-made 400mm, guided WS-2 MLRS,” said Kim Dong-yub, an analyst with the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University, Seoul.
“If the new rocket has a feature of passive homing guidance like the WS-2, the range, accuracy and power of the rocket would be improved to a greater extent,” he added. “Furthermore, the guided rocket could evade radars at key air bases, including the F-35 base in the mid-part of the South.”
South Korea bought 40 Lockheed Martin F-35As under a 2014 deal. Four have been delivered to the Air Force, and the remainder is set to arrive by 2021. The Ministry of National Defense plans to purchase 20 more.
The radar-evading stealth fighters are located at an Air Force base in Cheongju, about 130 kilometers south of the capital Seoul.
Before the KN-23 missile tests, North Korea already slammed Seoul’s deployment of F-35As, warning it would respond by developing and testing unspecified special weapons of its own to destroy the American-made aircraft.
“Seoul’s purchase of the U.S. jets was meant to please the United States, their master,” an unidentified research director affiliated with the North’s Foreign Ministry said on KCNA. “North Korea has no other choice but to develop and test the special armaments to completely destroy the lethal weapons reinforced in South Korea.”
An arms race
Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, said that “if ballistic missiles or guided rockets fly at a low altitude, the rate of interception would decrease, so that the South Korean military is required to bolster its air and missile defense shield.”
Indeed, the country is on track to set up the low-tier Korea Air and Missile Defense system. The shield includes Patriot Advanced Capability-2 and -3 interceptors, ship-based SM-2 missiles, and locally developed medium-range surface-to-air missiles.
“The South Korean military has PAC-2 batteries in place to protect key bases, but they are unequal to the new type of North Korean ballistic missiles in the case of an emergency,” said Kim Yeon-hwan, a defense professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. “To thwart new types of threats, the military needs to beef up air defense systems.”
South Korea has deployed eight batteries of upgraded PAC-2s bought from Germany, and it plans to procure newer PAC-3 missiles by 2020.
In a move to better detect signs missile launches from transporter-erector-launcher vehicles, or TEL, the South Korean military plans to acquire four Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System aircraft. Raytheon, Boeing and Israel Aerospace Industries are competing for the project, valued at about $1.7 billion.
North Korea is known to have some 800 ballistic missiles and operate about 100 TELs.
Meanwhile, a newly constructed North Korean submarine would be capable of carrying three submarine-launched ballistic missiles, according to analysis from the South Korean Ministry of National Defense. On July 23, North Korean state media unveiled photos of North Korea’s leader inspecting a new sub.
“There is a possibility that the new submarine is slightly larger than a Gorae-class submarine,” said Rep. Lee Hye-hoon, chief of the parliamentary Intelligence Committee, according to a report by the ministry. The Gorae-class submarine falls into the 2,500-ton class.
Lee added that the North may have revamped an old-fashioned 1,800-ton Romeo-class submarine imported from the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
Jeff Jeong was the South Korea correspondent for Defense News.