The Russian Air Force’s successful operation to destroy a Patriot missile system guarding the Ukrainian capital Kiev on May 16, using MiG-31K strike fighters armed with Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missiles, represents the first serious modern suppression effort against Western long range air defences. The engagement for the first time put to the test decades old arguments regarding the vulnerability of these assets against modern ballistic missile types, with systems such as the Kinzhal, the surface to surface Iskander-M system on which it is based, and even the Soviet OTR-23 Oka which the Iskander was developed from, all long seen to be effectively impossible to intercept for new Western air defence assets. The missiles are particularly survivable in flight due to a number of features including their semi ballistic depressed trajectories, which have apogees of 50 km, the ability to conduct extensive in flight manoeuvres, and their hypersonic terminal speeds of close to Mach 9 – all far outside the parameters of a system like the Patriot to intercept. The Kinzhals’ ability to destroy the Patriot, and to evade 32 rounds of surface to air missiles intended to intercept them, thus indicates that the expectations for the near invulnerability of these kinds of missiles have likely been realised. This has serious implications for Russia’s much larger arsenal of Iskander-M systems that forms the backbone of its tactical strike capabilities.
The capabilities of the Kinzhal have highly positive implications not only for Russia, and foreign clients for the Iskander-M Algeria and Armenia, but also for North Korea which has since 2019 deployed a very fast growing arsenal of missiles with highly similar capabilities to the Iskander. The KN-23 system in particular closely resembles the Iskander-M, but with key differences including a much longer range and a much greater diversity of launch vehicles including wheeled, tracked, rail based and even submersible launchers – where Iskander’s all use the Belarusian MZKT-7930 wheeled vehicle. As observed by expert on East Asian security A. B. Abrams: “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… fly at hypersonic speeds throughout their trajectories and are considerably more difficult to track or intercept than even missiles like the Kinzhal.” Abrams observed that North Korea has been developing means of increasing its missiles’ survivability for decades, including through development of manoeuvring re-entry vehicles for its first generation Scud-type missiles which were notably exported to Syria specifically to counter Israel’s deployment of American Patriot missiles.
Regarding the significance of the ability to reliably penetrate Western built air defences, Abrams observes: “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.” Having previously detailed how investment in systems like the KN-23 provided a key means of countering growing deployments of F-35 fighters to Korea – namely by providing the capability to strike their airfields – he reiterated this point as an example of how modern surface to surface systems were used to compensate for the country’s lack of a modern Air Force. Regarding the potential role of missiles like the KN-23 to facilitate more effective strikes by other classes of missile like the less survivable Scud types, Abrams observed: “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.” The success of the Kinzhal system, and multiple prior successes using the Iskander-M, are thus highly promising signs for North Korea that its investments could have vital asymmetric value to deter and if possible counter a U.S.-led assault, which has been the leading objective of its armed forces for decades. This continues to be seen as particularly important as the United States not only rapidly modernises its forces across East Asia, but has also repeatedly come close to launching attacks on its adversary which in some cases have included plans for mass nuclear strikes.