N.K.’s new rocket launcher to further complicate S. Korean artillery, missile defense tasks

SEOUL-- The "new super-large multiple rocket launcher" that North Korea claimed to have successfully test-fired last week marks a key evolution of its tactical weapons system and could challenge South Korea's anti-artillery and missile defense capabilities, experts said Wednesday.

In the latest in a series of weapons tests in recent months, North Korea fired what it dubbed a "newly developed super-large multiple rocket launcher" off its east coast on Saturday under the guidance of leader Kim Jong-un.

Kim praised the system as "a great weapon," and the country's official Korean Central News Agency claimed that the country "made a miracle" by developing "the world's strongest super-large rocket launcher of our style."

The multiple rocket launcher could be the fourth new weapon that North Korea showed off through a series of test firings since May. The three others are: the North's version of Russia's Iskander ballistic missile; its version of the U.S.' Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS); and "a new large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system" presumed to be a 400-millimeter one.

Photos released after the latest test show that the super-large launcher bears outward similarities to the large-caliber rocket system launched on July 31 and Aug. 2, experts said, pointing to its length and the shape of canards, or small wings on the forward fuselage.

"Given that their flight features, such as the range, altitude and speed, were different, chances are that this 'super-large' launcher could be an upgraded version of either its existing artillery system or the large-caliber launcher," Kim Dong-yup, a professor at Kyungnam University's Far East Institute, said.

According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the two projectiles fired on Saturday flew around 380 kilometers at a maximum altitude of 97 km and the top speed of Mach 6.5, while the projectiles test-fired on July 31 and Aug. 2 flew around 220 to 250 km at a maximum altitude of 20 to 30 km with the top speed of Mach 6.9.

Currently, North Korea deploys a 300-mm diameter KN-09 rocket system which has a range of around 190 km and the top speed of around Mach 5.2.

"The rocket launched last week looks larger in its diameter than the previous ones, and it appears to be around 500 mm. If confirmed, it would be a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) with no precedent in the world, which has little difference from missiles," said Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense Security Forum in Seoul.

While Pyongyang blurred out major parts of the weapons when releasing photos following the previous tests, it did not make any modifications to its images this time, which indicates North Korea's confidence in this new launcher system, Shin added.

From a technical standpoint, some pointed out that the new super-large launcher does not appear to warrant much attention, as it can be in a similar category to Iran's short-range missiles.

"I am not so sure why North Korea actually is doing something like that because they already have that range category," German missile expert Markus Schiller told the Voice of America (VOA), adding that the new launcher can be categorized as similar to such Iranian short-range missiles as Zelzal and Fateh-110.

Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at The RAND Corporation, also said that it is less menacing due to its traditional ballistic trajectory, according to VOA.

But this kind of rocket artillery systems is considered one of the most efficient tactical weapons for North Korea to attack South Korea under the operational circumstances of the Korean Peninsula, others experts said.

"The MLRS can be very effective for North Korea as it is capable of making multiple artillery launches in succession in a short period of time, making it hard to detect and intercept," Kwon Yong-soo, a missile expert and former professor at Korea National Defense University, said.

"North Korea may replace its scud-type short-range ballistic missiles with the MLRS to secure a means of attack that is cheaper but easier to manage and as powerful as missiles," Kwon added.

The flight range of the new super-large launcher, which is about double the length of the KN-09 rocket system, based upon the JCS data, means that it is capable of reaching most parts of the Korean Peninsula.

If launched from near the inter-Korean border, rockets from the launcher could reach South Korea's key Air Force base in Cheongju, the South Korean military's Gyeryongdae complex near the city of Daejeon where major military facilities are located, and the Seongju base in North Gyeongsang Province, where the U.S. advanced missile defense system of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery is deployed.

"This will subject incrementally more U.S. and ROK targets to attack ... , increase the North's opportunities to choose between multiple launch rockets and 'real' short-range ballistic missiles in tailoring some attacks and further complicated the task of U.S. and ROK missile defenses," Vann H. Van Diepen, a former U.S. State Department and intelligence official, wrote on 38 North.

In response to evolving threats posed by North Korea's multiple launcher rocket system, South Korea seeks to beef up its corresponding assets while strengthening its missile defense system by introducing additional early warning radars and reconnaissance satellites as well as deploying improved versions of interceptors, according to the defense ministry.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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