The fact that the Patriot both failed to intercept the Kinzhal strike, and was subsequently neutralised by it, has wide ranging security implications that go far beyond Eastern Europe
Weapons systems put on display during North Korea’s military parade on October 10, 2020. (Rodong Sinmun – News1)
On May 16, as part of a series of Russian missile strikes on the Ukrainian capital Kiev Russian Air Force, MiG-31K strike fighters launched Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missiles against Patriot air defence systems recently delivered by the United States and Germany. Having begun to arrive in the country in mid-April, less than a month before the strike, one of the two Patriot systems was neutralised. The Patriot is the Western world’s premier ground-based long range air defence system, and has been widely fielded not only by NATO members the United States, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania and Spain, but also by key East Asian security partners including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The Kinzhal missile strike was confirmed by Western sources to have disabled the targeted Patriot system, with Russian sources reporting that the radar and command vehicle and five launch batteries were neutralised after firing 32 surface to air missiles to attempt to stop the incoming strike. The fact that the Patriot both failed to intercept the Kinzhal strike, and was subsequently neutralised by it, has very wide ranging security implications that go far beyond Eastern Europe. Most significantly, the success of the attack potentially vindicates investments by both Russia and other Western adversaries in developing new generations of missiles that are very difficult to intercept as a means both of countering advancing enemy missile defences and asymmetrically threatening high value targets.
The Kinzhal is an air-launched derivative of the 9M723 ballistic missile from the Russian Iskander-M ground based system, which is itself very closely based on the Soviet OTR-23 Oka system that entered service with revolutionary new capabilities in the 1980s. Many of the new features the Iskander introduced are similar to those of the enhanced Oka-U variant which was ready for flight testing in 1987 but never completed for political reasons. Introduced into service from 2006, the Iskander-M’s capabilities have consistently caused considerable concern in the West. Swedish Military Intelligence and Security Service chief Gunnar Karlson, for example, in 2019 described his country as unusually fixated on the missiles, with analysts at Svenska Dagbladet highlighting that they introduced a “completely new military capacity.” “The trajectory of the missile is not quite a ballistic one; [it] can manoeuvre, but it is unable, say, to rise if it is already falling to the ground… The Iskander can reach very high speeds when the missile is directed downwards, some 2-3 kilometres per second [Mach 5.8 to 8.7]. To be able to shoot down a missile at such speeds, a very advanced air defence missile is required. Also, the missile must be very close to the target,” they elaborated. Thus, what the Kinzhal achieved, the much more widely fielded Iskander-M can almost certainly also do, albeit at shorter ranges.
Analysts have long warned that the Iskander-M and Kinzhal could leave the Patriot system effectively obsolete, as the missiles’ trajectories, manoeuvrability and hypersonic terminal phases all remain far outside the air defence system’s known performance parameters. Doubt regarding the Patriot’s viability against new Russian missiles has also been based on its highly troubled performance record, from multiple reports on early variants’ failures during the Gulf War, despite the very limited capabilities of Iraqi ballistic missiles, to more recent revelations regarding the performance of newer variants against both makeshift Yemeni ballistic missiles and Iranian drones. Nevertheless, an actual demonstration of what relatively modern ballistic missiles with capabilities like those of the Kinzhal could achieve not only against targets under the Patriot’s protection, but targeting the system directly, represents an important landmark in the race between advancing missile and missile defence capabilities that has arguably proved many of the leading arguments which have been made for decades.
The success of the Kinzhal in neutralising Patriot batteries partly vindicates not only Russia’s massive investment in missile systems such as Iskander-Ms, but also North Korea’s placing of an even more extreme emphasis on these kinds of assets. The country has for decades invested heavily in improving the survivability of its ballistic missiles, with a notable early landmark being its development of manoeuvring re-entry vehicles in the 2000s which were exported to Syria to enhance its Scud-derived missiles specifically to counter Israel’s deployment of the Patriot system. A greater and more recent landmark was the development of a new generation of solid fuelled missile systems which began intensive flight testing in 2019 – the most notable of which was the KN-23 first seen in February 2018. Bearing a close resemblance to the Iskander-M, its missiles use similar semi-ballistic depressed trajectories with apogees of just 50 km and the ability to conduct extensive in flight manoeuvres throughout their entire flight paths. North Korean state media described this as a “peculiar mode of guiding flight,” and otherwise as an “irregular orbit” with “low-altitude gliding leap type flight mode” – making missiles much harder to detect while allowing them to use their fins to manoeuvre much better than missiles on standard ballistic trajectories.
The KN-23 was unveiled 11 months after the U.S. made its first deployments of Terminal High Altitude Air Defence System (THAAD) units to South Korea, and its missiles quickly proved capable during flight of evading detection by one of the most capable Western anti-missile systems the AEGIS. Using an engine likely derived from that of the Pukkuksong-1 submarine launched ballistic missile, the KN-23’s missiles are approximately 20 percent larger than their Russian counterparts from the Iskander-M system, with their much larger cable raceways indicating a far greater fuel capacity. This partly reflects the fact that the Korean missiles are not affected by the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty – which limited Russian and U.S. tactical surface to surface missiles like those of the Iskander to ranges of 500km or less. The Korean missile has an engagement range of approximately 700km on a depressed trajectory when performing in flight manoeuvres, and could likely reach targets over 1000km away using a standard ballistic trajectory. An enlarged variant with an even longer range and massive 2.5 ton warhead was first flight tested in March 2023. North Korea has notably invested in a much wider range of launch vehicles for the KN-23, including wheeled, tracked, rail based and even submersible launchers, in contrast to the Iskander-M which has been deployed only from the Belarusian MZKT-7930 wheeled vehicle.
The Kinzhal’s neutralisation of Patriot systems in Kiev indicates that North Korean KN-23s could very likely do the same against Patriot, THAAD and other Western systems deployed in South Korea and Japan. The fact that missiles which are only hypersonic in their terminal stages have this capability also bodes well for the potential of hypersonic glide vehicles – which North Korea first unveiled in September 2021 on longer ranged missiles such as the Hwasong-8. These fly at hypersonic speeds throughout their trajectories and are considerably more difficult to track or intercept than even missiles like the Kinzhal. The ability to get past American and allied missile defences is if anything far more important for North Korean security than it is for Russia’s, due not only to the fact that such defence systems are much more concentrated in the Pacific than they are in Europe or the Arctic, but also because the country relies much more on ballistic missile capabilities for its defence than Russia does. The country’s total lack of a modern fighter fleet, for example, is heavily compensated for by its investment in assets like the KN-23 designed to neutralise enemy air bases in a war’s early stages, which is much more likely to be achieved should Korean missiles be consistently capable of passing through enemy air defences. With the Kinzhals serving as effective force multipliers by destroying the Patriot early on, and thus facilitating a higher success rate for strikes using larger arsenals of less advanced or subsonic missiles, North Korea can potentially similarly use the KN-23 neutralise enemy air defences and thus leave targeted territories much more vulnerable to its wider arsenals.