There is growing support for the idea that the short-range ballistic missiles fired by North Korea recently are copies of Russia’s Iskander missile system, otherwise known as the 9K720 or SS-26. The Iskander is a highly accurate short-range ballistic missile system that is designed to evade current-day air defense systems and accurately hit its targets.

Experts are studying the trajectory of the recent North Korean launches to see if the ballistic trajectory of the unnamed North Korean missile parallels the performance of the Iskander.

Iskander was designed to evade Western air defense, especially the US Patriot system. Patriot is deployed in South Korea alongside the US THAAD missile defense system, that is primarily designed to counter heavier and longer-range ballistic missiles. Both Patriot and THAAD operate against ballistic missiles mainly in the terminal phase – the last seconds before the incoming missile impacts its target. Most modern missiles at the end-phase of their flight are flying primarily on kinetic energy, with their rocket motors previously expended.

‘Too fast’ for Patriot system

What appears to make the Iskander different is that it operates at relatively high altitude, around 25 miles (40 km) above ground level and then dives to its target, suggesting that it is under power through most of its flight trajectory, if not all. It is flying at Mach 6 to Mach 7 in its terminal phase, making it for all practical purposes a hypersonic weapon, generally defined as above Mach 5. This is much faster than Patriot was designed for, and it likely means that the Patriot system would have difficulty getting a fix on and destroying an incoming Iskander-type weapon.

The Russian Iskander is a nuclear-capable missile, but it comes in two basic types and can support a wide range of warheads.

The two basic types are the Iskander M, which is probably what the North Koreans launched, and the Iskander K, which launches rockets that carry cruise missiles of different types, such as the Kaliber-NK, which is also deployed on Russian submarines and ships and can now apparently be launched by an Iskander rocket, and the KH-101, which is a longer range nuclear-capable cruise missile (some think with a range up to 4,500 km). Both cruise missiles, if launched by an Iskander missile, would penetrate enemy airspace and then drop down to a tree-top level to evade radar tracking, making cruise missiles very difficult to track and kill.

The Iskander M development started in the late 1990s and the missiles were first deployed with Russia’s armed forces in 2006. In 2016 the Iskander was “modernized.” The Iskander-M has an electro-optical terminal guidance system and can be controlled from land or by aircraft or drones. It is said the missile’s trajectory can be modified in flight and some report that the Iskander may be able to hit moving targets as well as fixed sites and locations.

Iskander-M is widely deployed with Russia’s military forces, especially in Crimea and the Kaliningrad Oblast (administrative region) which is Russian territory, and an enclave between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. It features an ice-free year-around port at Balitysk for Russia’s Baltic fleet.

Iskander was used in the Georgia war in August 2008, although it is not clear how effectively it performed. Russia also used the Iskander in Syria where the missiles are at the Khmeimim Air Base and may have been used in the battle around Idlib in February 2017, apparently aimed at rebel forces and fired along with less accurate SS-21 Grau (Tochka) missiles, a system that will be phased out by 2020.

Wide range of warheads

The Iskander can be equipped with a wide range of lethal warheads aside from nuclear and cruise missile variants. It can have a cluster munition warhead, principally aimed at tearing up troop formations, a fuel-air explosive, a fragmentation warhead to cause maximum damage to equipment such as radar sites, a bunker buster warhead which attacks underground fortifications or hardened aircraft structures at airfields, and even an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) warhead that can knock out radars and other communications.

What types of warheads Russia could have supplied to its export customers isn’t clear. To date, Iskander missiles and systems have been sold to Armenia and Algeria.

South Korea itself has a short-range missile that looks quite a lot like the Iskander called the Hyunmoo-2 (“Black Warrior”).  There are two variants, the Hyunmoo-2B and Hyunmoo-2C, which have a range of roughly 800 km at the price of a reduced size warhead. Hyunmoo-2 can be equipped with a bunker buster warhead, which appears to be its main purpose. Some experts believe that Russia and South Korea cooperated on the Hyunmoo design, just as Russian fingerprints appear to also be on the North Korean missile. The Chinese DF-12 [M-20] also seems to be a copy of the Russian Iskander.

What is the significance of North Korea’s new Iskander-type missiles?

The missiles could be used against US forces in South Korea, or against South Korea’s airfields, radar sites and other military bases and installations. It would seem they would be effective against the existing missile defense provided that North Korea has enough of an arsenal to carry out a significant attack.

But right now these are just the first tests and a demonstration of the North Korean missile system and it would appear that the main North Korean objective is to show it can take out very high-value military installations in the South in the near future.

Food crisis

North Korea is not only pressuring the United States with its missile tests but trying, in fact, to convince South Korea to separate itself from US policy and proceed toward economic and political cooperation with the North, and to disregard the current sanctions.

It is not very likely this North Korean strategy will achieve a positive result, as the missiles are the only pressure point open to the North.

But the West will have trouble maintaining its economic sanctions with North Korea on the cusp of a major food crisis. The food crisis could topple the Kim regime or at least force him back to the bargaining table fairly quickly, simply to preserve his regime and assure his survival.

Given the food crisis in North Korea, the missile launch seems a furtive and dysfunctional – if not quite foolish – ploy to try to get President Trump’s attention, or at least convince Moon Jae-in to cooperate with the North independently of the United States.