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North Korea Massively Improved Its Air Defenses

October 27, 2021

The new long-range SAM displayed at “Self Defense 2021” on October 12. Via North Korean media.

Regardless of its present difficulties a full-blown technological revolution is sweeping North Korea’s armed forces. This was abundantly clear during a rare exhibit held in Pyongyang on October 12 that Kim Jong Un attended along with his cabinet. The “Self Defense 2021” arms show reflected the ethos of its organizers–bold and brash but still cut off from the outside world. Heavy on in-your-face symbolism, a next-generation main battle tank was parked next to the stage where Kim delivered a typical address for his audience, the entire venue was crowded with the latest weapon systems manufactured by the domestic military-industrial sector, including nuclear-capable missiles.

As a display of martial strength that wasn’t a parade “Self Defense 2021” succeeded in advertising the North Korean armed forces’ cutting edge weapons. There were so many, in fact, that scrutinizing each proves laborious and time consuming. However, an understated presence at the event were the mobile air defenses lined up in a corner behind the intimidating ICBMs. Thanks to generous coverage from North Korean state media there’s now public evidence of a long-range or theater level SAM in use with the air defense branch. North Korea’s rivals, especially Japan and the US, can’t let this go unnoticed. It’s now clear the four main rivals of US-led hegemony–China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia–are pushing the envelope when it comes to their air defense capabilities.

North Korea’s armed forces introduced a long-range SAM in the 2000s that was labelled the “KN-06” but its appearance inspired a lot of skepticism. This was due to its transporter, which looked like a repurposed trailer truck with three launch tubes on its bed, and doubts surrounding its true origin. For years there was no definitive proof that the KN-06 was a Chinese, or perhaps a Russian, SAM system the North Koreans purchased and then adapted for their own use. Besides the KN-06 the rest of the North Korean military’s air defense branch maintained Soviet vintage SAMs like the SA-2, the S-200, the S-125, and a variant of the Strela tracked short-range SAM. North Korea’s military-industrial sector is known to manufacture three generations of MANPADS as well.

The long-range SAM shown at “Self Defense 2021” is a complete departure from the KN-06. A formation of these SAMs were first revealed at a military parade in October 2020 and participated in another parade in January the following year. The transporter is heavier, utilizing a ten-wheel chassis, and the cab is fully armored. There’s no indication Russia supplied parts of its S-300 SAM for this North Korean air defense system. But it’s interesting how the actual munitions for this long-range SAM were displayed below the trailer. They resemble the Russian-made 9M96-series of modular SAMs for the S-300, S-350, and S-400. The 9M96-series are available in medium and long-range variants for ground-based and naval applications. The 9M96M2 missile in particular reaches a flight altitude of 35 kilometers and has a maximum range of 150 km. What’s missing from the display of this North Korean long-range SAM are its ancillary vehicles–these comprise a high frequency tracking radar, a fire control radar, a command vehicle, and of course the additional transporters for reloading the launchers.

What was seen at “Self Defense 2021” is a single model of this long-range SAM and another air defense system on an elongated trailer that resembled the Russian-made Tor-M2KM. North Korea’s enthusiasm for upgraded air defenses is understandable in the face of overwhelming South Korean air superiority that’s well-supplied with US-made precision guided ordnance. Since the North Korean military’s posture is focused on deterrence versus a US-led attack in the near future so many weapon systems are now being introduced to give the armed forces a fighting chance before the nuclear option is considered.

North Korea’s development of a homegrown long-range SAM, whether or not it had inputs from foreign suppliers, is an achievement in itself. The impoverished nuclear-armed rogue state now joins a collection of Asian countries–Iran, Israel, Taiwan, and soon Turkey–who are manufacturing advanced air defenses that are driving down the steep costs associated with acquiring these high tech weapons.

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