N. Korea's latest firing drill triggers debate about Russia's Iskander ballistic missile

Lim Chang-won Reporter() | Posted : May 10, 2019, 14:53 | Updated : May 10, 2019, 14:53

[KCNA / Yonhap]

SEOUL -- The test launch of what North Korea called "tactical guided weapons" triggered conflicting assessment among experts, although U.S. and South Korean leaders characterized them as short-range missiles. Some said North Korea has tested a version of Russia's ground-to-ground ballistic missile, Iskander.

Two missiles fired on Thursday traveled about 420 kilometers (260 miles) and 270 km, respectively, before falling into the sea, according to the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). The Pentagon characterized them as ballistic missiles while South Korean President Moon jae-in said it's still premature to say so.

Citing a JCS report, Ahn Gyu-baek, a ruling party legislator who chaired a defense committee meeting on Friday, said North Korea appeared to have tested the same type of projectiles twice on May 4 and 9 in different places.

Similar missiles were unveiled in a military parade in February last year in Pyongyang, Ahn said, reserving judgment until a more detailed analysis is given. "We need to carefully analyze their shape and whether they are Iskander-class."

Transporter erector launchers (TELs) carried crude mockups of a missile like Iskander at the parade in Pyongyang, Michael Elleman, an expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), said in his article published by 38 North, the website of a U.S. think tank. He said the new missile fired on May 4 outwardly appeared to be Iskander which has a range of about 280 km when carrying a warhead of up to 500 kg.

[EPA / Yonhap Photo]

Iskander flies on a flattened trajectory, never exceeding an altitude of about 50 km, the expert said, adding that the missile can alter its flight path after the boost phase, and over its entire trajectory, with defenses unable to precisely predict its flight path.

When aided by satellite-navigation, it can make course corrections and reliably land within 20 to 50 meters of its designated target, he said. "Such accuracy allows Iskander to destroy targets dependably when armed with a conventional warhead, making it a very effective military weapon."

More likely, North Korea may have imported Iskander from either Russia or a third party, Elleman said, casting doubt on a third theory that North Korean engineers either acquired technical documentation for Iskander or copied its design for indigenous production with or without foreign technical assistance.

[KCNA / Yonhap]

In view of the North's ability to produce the prototypes of solid-fuel medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, it would not be too surprising if its engineers ventured to develop a smaller, shorter-range missile resembling Iskander, but there are no reports of development activity for such a missile, the expert said.

"Iskander is a very sophisticated missile that would require years of development and testing. The missile tested last week, if domestically designed and produced, even with extensive foreign assistance, would be in an early development phase, years away from operational deployment, and years removed from being a precision-guided missile."

Regardless of its origin, the appearance and testing of North Korea's new missiles provide convincing evidence that Pyongyang continues to seek greater military and strategic capabilities because Iskander can exploit gaps in South Korean and American missile-defense coverage.

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