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North Korea Built The Largest Rocket Artillery Ever

January 13, 2023

Via North Korean media.

As 2022 drew to a close Kim Jong Un visited a state-owned factory to hail its production of a massive tracked launcher for short-range ballistic missiles. Although some may split hairs over the differences between large diameter rocket artillery and SRBMs the munitions shown at this event from December 31 are clearly missiles: they have dimensions and external characteristics for long distance flight paths guided by precision targeting. A tarpaulin above the podium where Kim delivered his prepared speech provided another important detail. This weapon system carries missiles with a 600mm caliber or each missile’s airframe is 600mm’s wide. For perspective many Cold War vintage SRBMs on either side of the Iron Curtain–the MGM-52 Lance and the Tochka come to mind–had nearly the same caliber but this North Korean missile stretches longer and is loaded in multiples rather than singles.

The substance of Kim’s rhetoric at these events might not matter to the outside world but the hardware certainly does. The existence of a new 600mm large diameter rocket/SRBM with North Korea’s ground forces was known since 2019 but it was in 2021 when the same munitions were found on different vehicles. The large wheeled transporter known as “KN-25” had two siblings; one had five tubes on the same wheeled transporter and the other is based on a tracked chassis with a pivoting launcher for six missiles loaded inside six round containers. The tracked chassis is employed in the coastal defense role as well carrying eight cruise missiles. If the usefulness of these immense tracked launchers looks counter-productive it’s worth remembering North Korea’s armed forces invests a lot to maintain numerical superiority–at least on paper–in its “long-range fires” and is now applying the same for its missiles.

An inert 600mm missile on display at the event. Via North Korean media.

While the size and range of North Korea’s tactical missiles could appear perplexing since these weapon systems have no parallel in the West a sensible rationale for them is putting South Korea’s critical infrastructure within range. It’s suspected each of these 600mm missiles reach targets from 300 to 400 kilometers away. At the December 31 ceremony up to 20 tracked launchers were counted but North Korean media reported 30 were displayed in two columns for the occasion. Whatever the real number this is a substantial effort that pays off when the army’s artillery units together with the separate “rocket force” branch add hundreds of fresh targets for their wartime contingency plans. The volume of these missiles, along with other SRBMs, compensates for North Korea’s deficiencies in air power and the marginal offensive threat it poses.

Very large diameter rocket artillery is now common in Asia; China and South Korea’s military-industrial sectors have factories to mass-produce these munitions with a caliber exceeding the popular 300mm used by many armies. South Korea’s Hanwha Defense offers accurized 400mm rockets for its Chunmoo rocket artillery system that’s based on an 8×8 truck. As many as four of these rockets can be loaded inside the Chunmoo’s box launcher and, depending on the end user’s requirements, their warhead type is optional as well. Norinco, on the other hand, has a selection of accurized “King Dragon” munitions it doesn’t always advertise but is export approved. India and Pakistan field their own locally made large diameter rocket artillery with superior accuracy and range compared with existing 300mm munitions. The same goes for Iran where the IRGC field the “Fath-360” that crams six large diameter munitions on the bed of a truck. This weapon system saw extensive use in 2022 when scores of its missiles were launched on Northern Iraq.

The wheeled and tracked variants for North Korea’s 600mm SRBMs at the Self Defense 2021 exhibition. Via North Korean media.

But in the case of Türkiye the state-owned manufacturer Roketsan has yet to develop a long-range munition between its TR/TRG/TRLG 300mm rocket artillery and the Bora SRBM. There are signs, however, that an intermediate caliber is forthcoming as the vehicle for transporting its launcher is available. Going back to North Korea, whose economic difficulties will remain a constant this decade, its intent and obsession with pursuing a conventional arms race versus its neighbors is clear for all to see. Beyond the regional threat posed by its 600mm SRBMs is a capacity for transferring its homegrown weapons abroad on a for-profit basis. Pyongyang maintains a close-knit circle of friends and sanctions and their various enforcement mechanisms have never hindered its arms trafficking.

North Korea rebuilt its rocket artillery systems in the 2010s and these are now understood to form three classes. The first are the “legacy” calibers such as the 107mm, 130mm, and 122mm rockets that have been mass-produced since the 1960s. The second are the heavier calibers such as the 240mm and 333mm rockets, along with a new 300mm munition and the vehicle to go with it, that were successfully exported to some countries like Iran and Myanmar. The third and last are tactical SRBMs that may fall under the category of “nuclear-capable” but are meant for a regional conflict against another ground force. The mass-production of 600mm missiles hailed by Kim on national media belong to this third class.

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