North Korea announced the launches on July 31 and August 2 of a “newly-developed large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system.”  Based on the extremely limited information currently available on this new system, this article will attempt to assess:
- the nature of the missile system;
- its potential role in and contribution to North Korean military capabilities; and
- the potential threat the missile system may pose to the US and its allies.
These launches—which came just five days after the launch of two probable KN-23 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) that were described by the North Koreans as a “solemn warning” to South Korean “warmongers,” and were followed on August 6 with two more possible KN-23s—obviously in part had an important political intent. But this article will only address the technical/military issues.
North Korea does appear to have launched a new, guided, multiple launch rocket system with a range of at least 250 km. While most of its characteristics currently are unknown, the new system has the potential to extend North Korea’s current 190 km-range multiple launch rocket capabilities at least another 60 km into the ROK. This will subject incrementally more US and ROK targets to attack, add somewhat to the intensity of attacks, increase the North’s opportunities to choose between multiple launch rockets and “real” SRBMs in tailoring some attacks and further complicate the task of US and ROK missile defenses.
Nature of the Missile System
Currently, the only open-source information available on the new system is the following:
- On July 31, 2019, North Korea launched two projectiles 250 km into the East Sea (Sea of Japan) at an apogee of 30 km, according to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff. The projectiles were identified by the ROK as being “a different type” of “short-range ballistic missile.”
- On August 1, KCNA reported that the launches were of a “newly-developed large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system.” It said the “new-type guided ordinance rocket” will “play a main role in ground military operations, in a short span of time according to the strategic policy of artillery modernization…” According to KCNA, “The test-fire scientifically confirmed that the tactical data and technical characteristics of the new-type large-caliber guided ordnance rocket reached the numerical values of its design, and verified the combat effectiveness of the overall system.”
- KCNA also released on August 1 a video showing a heavily pixelated still image of what appears to be a multiple launcher for large rockets and mid-distance still images of a rocket in flight.
- On August 3, Rodong Sinmun reported that two more launches were conducted on August 2. The report also states that:
The test-fire was aimed to examine the altitude control flight performance, track control capability and rate of hits of the large-caliber multiple launch guided ordnance rocket…At the fire position Kim Jong Un measured the time of combat deployment of gun carriage…The test-fire satisfactorily confirmed the altitude control level flight performance, track changing capability, accuracy of hitting a target and warhead explosion power of the guided ordnance rocket.
The above evidence is consistent with the launch of a new, guided, multiple launch rocket system with a range of at least 250 km.
- Even pixelated, the launcher in the KCNA video appears to resemble one associated with a multiple launch rocket system.
- The projectile shown in the video also resembles one associated with such a system.
- The projectile looks to have a set of small fins (canards) near the nose that is consistent with a rocket that is “guided,” just as in the case of the assessed 300 mm diameter KN-09 rocket system the North first tested in 2013, and most recently in May 2019.
- The aft end of the projectile is not clearly visible in the KCNA video, but does not seem to have tail fins as prominent as those of the KN-09. This is consistent with a system different than the KN-09.
- The six-year interval between the first identified test of the KN-09 and the first test of the new system is consistent with the evolutionary development of a “next size up” multiple launch rocket system from the KN-09.
- The projectile appears to be larger in diameter than the KN-09, consistent with the North Korean characterization of “large-caliber”; one analyst has suggested it is a 400 mm rocket. The 250 km range of the July 31 launches reported by the ROK—significantly greater than the 190 km range assessed for the KN-09—also appears consistent with a larger-diameter, and therefore new, system.
Rocket or Missile?
Some of the press coverage after the launch has focused on the difference between the North Koreans calling the system a “rocket” and the South Koreans calling it a “ballistic missile” (SRBM). This difference appears, in part, political: the North presumably wants to underscore that these tests are not contrary to its apparent “long-range missile” moratorium and are not inconsistent with United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2087’s prohibitions on “any further launches using ballistic missile technology,” while the South wants to highlight the launches as more threatening and as UNSCR violations.
From a technical standpoint, however, a “guided” rocket is a “missile” (the presence of guidance is what distinguishes a “rocket” from a “missile”), and a missile that “has a ballistic trajectory over most of its flight path” is a “ballistic missile.” The new DPRK “guided, multiple launch rocket system” qualifies on both counts, so the South Koreans are correct.
The real nub of the issue is that, with the improvement and miniaturization of guidance technology, smaller and smaller rocket systems can be equipped with guidance—making what were just “rockets” into “missiles,” and changing the traditional notion that “rockets” were small while “missiles” were large. This is part and parcel of the increasing utility of ballistic missiles (even large ones) in conventional warfare.
The US Intelligence Community tried to grapple with this increasing convergence between “guided, multiple launch rockets” and “ballistic missiles” by converting the lower portion of the traditional zone of “SRBMs” (range up to 1,000 km) into “close-range ballistic missiles” (CRBMs, with a range of less than 300 km). The author always found this quite unsatisfying in terms of accurately conveying information to consumers of intelligence for two reasons:
- it grouped together guided, multiple launch rockets with systems having much larger diameters and payloads that intelligence consumers typically regard as “SRBMs,” such as the former-Soviet SS-21, the derivative DPRK KN-02/Toksa and the US Army Tactical Missile System; and
- over time, as guided, multiple launch rockets acquire ranges in excess of 300 km, they will again become “SRBMs” under the new schema and get further confused with “real” SRBMs having much larger diameters and payloads.
Potential Contribution to DPRK Military Capabilities
The military capability of the new DPRK “guided, multiple launch rocket” is a function of a number of characteristics, most of which we currently do not have information on:
- Range: This is the only attribute for which we currently have data (at least 250 km, based on the ROK announcement).
- Accuracy: This is critical to the military effectiveness of the system, especially out to longer ranges. Although the new system appears to be “guided,” just as with the KN-09 we do not know what type of guidance is used or how good it is. For comparison, the Chinese WS-2 multiple launch rocket, with an assessed range of 200 km, is assessed to have an all-inertial accuracy of 600 m CEP (circular error probable); using the same guidance system out to 250 km would result in somewhat worse accuracy (a higher CEP), as inertial accuracy degrades as a function of range. (In addition, the DPRK’s guidance system may well not be as good as China’s.) Use of satellite-aided guidance could bring the precision of the new system down to 20-50 m CEP. Thus, the new DPRK system with all-inertial guidance could be useful against area targets in a multiple-rocket saturation attack (what multiple launch rockets were originally intended for anyway), while with satellite-aided or terminal guidance (if available to the DPRK), the new system could directly threaten a wide variety of point targets.
- Payload Size: This is currently unknown for both the new system and the KN-09. Some assess that the latter is based on the Russian BM-30 Smerch (233-258 kg payload) or Chinese A100 (200 kg payload) multiple launch rocket It is unclear whether the longer range achieved by the new DPRK system required a payload lighter than the KN-09, or whether the apparent larger diameter of the new system permitted increases in both range and payload. For comparison, the 400 mm diameter Chinese WS-2 multiple launch rocket system is assessed to have a 200 kg payload.
- Payload Types: This also is currently unknown. The North has claimed that the KN-09 can carry “fragmentation-mine” and “underground penetration” munitions.
- Number of Launch Tubes: We do not currently know how many of the new rockets can be launched from its mobile launcher simultaneously (the KN-09 launcher can fire eight), how many launchers will be in a fire unit for the new system or how many fire units the North will deploy.
- Number of Rockets: The real contribution of a multiple launch rocket system is to lay down large numbers of rockets over and over, which requires extensive reloading of the launchers. We do not know how many reloads the North will provide for each launch unit of the new system (or for the KN-09 either).
Given all of these unknowns, about as much as can be said at this point is that the new system’s apparent longer range gives North Korea the capacity to extend the capabilities the KN-09 already provides at least another 60 km into the ROK—an incremental increase in DPRK capabilities. It also could threaten the same area as the KN-09 while having another 60 km of North Korean territory within which to hide.
Potential Threat to the US and Its Allies
Longer-range, guided, multiple launch rocket systems like the KN-09 and the new DPRK system will provide a modest increase in the threat by subjecting more US and ROK targets in South Korea to saturation attack. In addition, if the new system is sufficiently accurate, it will threaten more point targets. In both cases, the North will have the ability to use multiple launch rockets to strike some targets previously only vulnerable to KN-02/Toksa, Scud and soon KN-23 “real” ballistic missiles—offering opportunities to hit more targets and for more cost-effective tailoring of weapons to some targets. The added number of rockets from the new system, which can be fired at a higher rate than “real” SRBMs, combined with the new rockets’ use of a lower trajectory than “real” SRBMs and use of guided rockets that change trajectory (presumably the “track changing capability“ referred to by Rodong Sinmun), also will increase the challenges for US and ROK missile defenses. Furthermore, the new system and its production technology potentially will be available for export, as is the case with most DPRK missile systems, raising the threat of other adversary states acquiring similar capabilities.
The Bottom Line
North Korea appears to have launched a new, guided, multiple launch rocket system with a range of at least 250 km. This is a “ballistic missile” system. Most of the characteristics of the new system relevant to its military capability currently are unknown; but it has the capacity to extend North Korea’s current 190 km-range multiple launch rocket capabilities at least another 60 km into the ROK. This will subject incrementally more US and ROK targets to attack, (including potentially more point targets), add somewhat to the intensity of attacks, increase the North’s opportunities to choose between multiple launch rockets and “real” SRBMs in tailoring some attacks and further complicate the task of US and ROK missile defenses.
“Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Guides Test-Fire of New-type Large-caliber Multiple Launch Guided Rocket System,” KCNA, August 1, 2019, http://www.kcna.kp/kcna.user.special.getArticlePage.kcmsf.
“Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Guides Test-Fire of New-type Large-caliber Multiple Launch Guided Rocket System.”
“Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Guides Again Test-Fire of New-type Large-caliber
Multiple Launch Guided Rocket System,” Rodong Sinmun, August 3, 2019, http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2019-08-03-0001.
Michael Elleman, “North Korea’s Newest Ballistic Missile: A Preliminary Assessment,” 38 North, May 8, 2019, https://www.38north.org/2019/05/melleman050819.
Jeff Jeong, “North Korea’s new weapons take aim at the South’s F-35 stealth fighters,” Defense News, August 1, 2019, https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/smd/2019/08/01/north-koreas-new-weapons-take-aim-at-souths-f-35-stealth-fighters/.
Missile Defense Project, “KN-09 (KN-SS-X-9),” Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 10, 2017, last modified June 15, 2018, https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/kn-09-kn-ss-x-9/.
Kim Tong-Hyung, “North Korea says it tested crucial new rocket launch system,” USA Today, August 1, 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2019/08/01/north-korea-says-tested-new-rocket-launch-system/1886449001/; William Gallo, “North Korea’s Latest Weapon: A Rocket or a Missile?,” VOA, August 1, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/north-koreas-latest-weapon-rocket-or-missile.
Gallo, “North Korea’s Latest Weapon: A Rocket or a Missile?”
“WS-2 Multiple launch rocket system,” Military-Today.com, http://www.military-today.com/artillery/ws2.htm.
Elleman, “North Korea’s Newest Ballistic Missile: A Preliminary Assessment.”
Ibid; Missile Defense Project, “KN-09 (KN-SS-X-9).”
“WS-2 Multiple launch rocket system.”
Jeong, “North Korea’s new weapons take aim at the South’s F-35 stealth fighters.”