First tested in September 2021, North Korea’s Hwasong-8 tactical ballistic missile is set to provide the country with its first hypersonic hypersonic glide vehicle equipped weapon, making it the third country to field such a system only after Russia and China. Hypersonic glide vehicles use conventional boosters to gain altitude, with the Hwasong-8 using the same booster the first stage of the Hwasong-12 ballistic missile, before detaching and flying at a high speed with an unpredictable trajectory and high manoeuvrability which makes them effectively impossible to intercept. As well as improved survivability their high speed also reduces the warning time for their targets. Hypersonic missiles have been a central theme in the arms races among major powers since Mach 2018, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a range of new hypersonic weapons that were intended to enter service. Restrictions on Russian deployments of ground based medium or intermediate range tactical missiles under the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which remained in effect until 2019, has meant that the most capable Russian hypersonic tactical weapons are air and sea launched. These include the Mach 10 Kh-47K2 Kinzhal which entered service in late 2017 and the Mach 9 Zicron which joined the Russian Navy at the end of 2019. Although China also deploys its tactical hypersonic weapons, these cannot be evaluated with no data available on their speeds.
North Korea’s Hwasong-8 was reported by the South Korean Joints Chiefs of Staff to have a Mach 10 speed during its third test on January 12, 2022. This placed it in the same league as the Russian Kh-47M2 as one of the two fastest known tactical missiles in the world, although the possibility remains that the Korean missile could have an even higher speed when entering service. The Hwasong-8 is expected to have a range of approximately 5000km, which would place U.S. military facilities across the Western Pacific within range. The Russian Kinzhal by contrast has a range of only 2000km, although it benefits from being launched by high flying and fast MiG-31K Foxhound interceptors which potentially allow it to strike targets further away than the Hwasong-8 when combining the missile’s range with that of the aircraft. A number of reports have indicated that a longer range version of the Kinzhal has also been deployed by the country’s Tu-22M bombers, and can engage up to 3000km away.
The Hwasong-8 program and its three successful launches from November to January placed North Korea in a much higher league in terms of its strike capabilities, and complement prior efforts to develop a viable intercontinental range ballistic missile by providing one of the worlds most formidable tactical strike assets. It remains likely that hypersonic glide vehicle technologies will find many other applications in the North Korean arsenal after Hwasong-8 program including possibly long range anti-ship missiles and re-entry vehicles for the country’s intercontinental range ballistic missiles. North Korea and the United States have been technically at war for 70 years, and the country’s investments in military modernisation are largely aimed at deterring and if necessary fighting a war with the U.S.