The North Korean Kh-35: A Closer Look

When I was tipped off to a report about a Kh-35 (SS-N-25 Switchblade) anti-ship cruise missile in the DPRK’s arsenal, I had no idea how obsessed I would become in tracking it down.

Initially, I wanted to just check out the story by Chosun Ilbo. Prior to my interest in the Korean peninsula, my academic fascination had turned towards the Indian subcontinent. So imagine my surprise when, lo-and-behold, the Chosun Ilbo story used an image of an Indian ship firing off the Kh-25 anti-ship cruise missile to illustrate the report. I voiced my initial skepticism at the story, because Chosun Ilbo did not carry a caption saying that the image was a stock photo, and it seemed as if Chosun Ilbo was passing it off as a screenshot of a North Korean military propaganda video.

So, I headed over to YouTube and found a North Korean “documentary” about the video. I quickly skipped around the video and caught an unusual-looking missile being fired from some dark corner, but I didn’t have time to go back and figure out where I was in the video or closely examine it, so I grabbed the URL and sent it out into the Twitter universe so I could find the video later, as well as alert others to the existence of the video. Kyle Mizokami also watched the video and found the Kh-35 a few minutes before me (I was distracted by a few North Korean military officials that seemed to have the same hair cut as Kim Jong Un). Unbeknownst to me at the time, several other people hunted down the video and identified the missile, notably Jeffrey Lewis.

I also examined the footage and compared and contrasted it against several videos and photos of the Kh-35U (The “U” is an abbreviation for the “Uran,” the ship-borne variant of the missile). And, the missile shown by the North Koreans did in fact highly resemble the Russian Kh-35U anti-ship cruise missile. On Twitter, I learned that Jeffrey Lewis had also come to the same conclusion as myself.

After several days, Lewis published an analysis of the North Korean Kh-35 on 38North. He referred to the missile in the video as “externally identical” and stated his position that the United States should attempt to constructively engage Pyongyang given that refusing to engage in substantive talks until the DPRK take serious denuclearization steps wasn’t preventing the regime in Pyongyang from developing its military capabilities.

Then came Chad O’Carroll, the founder of NK News, arguing that the missile may not even be in North Korea because the North Koreans are notorious users of Adobe’s Photoshop, often manipulating photos to boost visual depictions of the Korean People’s Army’s military prowess or remove disgraced North Korean officials from photographs. Then, he turns his focus to Lewis’ argument that Washington should more seriously engage Pyongyang, arguing that Lewis says this only because of the alleged cruise missile. In Lewis’ defense, he specifically mentions that engagement and talks has been his past position and that the cruise missile did not alter his beliefs.  O’Carroll’s disagreement with the analysis spilled over onto Twitter.

Lewis responded with further analysis of the North Korean Kh-35 on 38North. This was a great analysis and I largely support Lewis argument that the North Koreans have the missile even though I attempted to provide critical analysis of features of the North Korean video.

Unfortunately, save for a few of us dorks, the interest in the story has puttered out. And, some of the analyses and the stories that I’m seeing are not examining closely enough the ability of North Korea to acquire the missile. Thus, I’d like to explain why I believe Lewis and those who support the idea of a North Korean Kh-35-like cruise missile are correct. I hope to do so by supplementing Lewis’ analyses with additional commentary and critiquing criticism of his analyses. At the same time, I hope to also point out any shortfalls in my own thinking.

Probably the best place to begin with is the launch system. The Kh-35 canisters in the North Korean propaganda video are cleaner and smoother than those exported by Russia to India, as Lewis notes in his second piece.

Kh-35 transport launch containers shown in DPRK propaganda film. As the missile is flies away from the TLCs, the light reveals the lids to the TLCs are smooth.

Kh-35 transport launch containers shown in DPRK propaganda film. As the missile is flies away from the TLCs, the light reveals the lids to the TLCs are smooth.

Rosbornoexport, the Russian state-owned corporation tasked with exporting Russia’s military systems and hardware, publishes catalogs for foreign buyers.  The Kh-25 launch system, according to Rosbornoexport, is the 3S-24E (other sources identify it as the “KT-184”).  The transport launching canisters (TLCs) are identified with the “3C-34” Russian call sign or “3S-34” in English.

The 3S-24E (Russian: 3C-24E) launching system seems to have undergone modifications in recent years, as evidenced by the newer, smoother-looking Vietnamese Kh-35 transport launching canisters (TLCs).  (On a side note, if you have or know of a photograph of Vietnam’s HQ-381 BPS-500 (Ho-A) missile ship, please send it to me! This ship was also equipped with the un-improved Kh-35 when it first arrived in Vietnam, but is being upgraded.)

Kh-35 Uran launch tubes on the Vietnamese Gepard-class frigate HQ-012 Lý Thái Tổ. In the distance, is another Vietname frigate, the HQ-011 Đinh-Tiên-Hoàng.

Does this mean that the TLCs used by Vietnam were smuggled into North Korea?  Not necessarily.  If they had been, it would be reasonable to assume that the North Koreans would have used racks similar to the Vietnamese. It’s clear that the launch tube racks that Oryx Blog noticed and Lewis referenced in his second 38North analysis, are not being used by Russia or Vietnam. But, then again, we don’t actually see the racks that supported the Kh-25 missile launcher in the North Korean video.  Thus, it might be a possibility, but I think circumstantial evidence is stacked against this possibility.

What should be made of the “nozzle” that Jeffrey Lewis points out in his response to Chad O’Carroll? Lewis diligently acknowledges that the nozzle could be a publicly unknown Russian or Vietnamese modification since there seems to be an agreement for the Vietnamese to produce a Kh-35 variant known as the Kh-35UV or X-35UV.

DPRK Kh-35U Nozzle

A nozzle on the Kh-35 Uran shown in the DPRK propaganda video.

Much of the photographs that are available of the Kh-35 focus on the front of the missile or its profile, showing few details of the missile’s tail and those that do show some details of the tail are generally older.

However, this amazing photograph provided courtesy of Vitaly Kuzmin shows the tail of the Kh-35 at the MAKS 2009 Air Show. It’s clear, assuming that the missile is a demonstrative model of the then-contemporary Kh-35 cruise missile, does not have a nozzle. This currently leaves three options: either the nozzle was added after the MAKS 2009 Air Show by the Russians, the Vietnamese have added the nozzle, or the North Koreans are trying to replicate the Kh-35 and added a nozzle for whatever reason.

Kh-35 Uran tail

Photograph by Vitaly Kuzmin of the tail of the Kh-35 Uran taken at the 2009 MAKS show.

The former option seems to be unlikely. According to a Russian-language press release from the Tactical Missiles Corporation, the company that manufactures the Kh-35, the Kh-35 displayed at MAKS 2009 was the improved version of the Kh-35. This improved version saw its engine replaced. Previously, the Kh-35 was powered by the Ukrainian-built P95-300 turbojet engine, but is now equipped with the Russian-produced 36МТ engine by NPO Saturn (НПО Сатурн). The new engine allowed the missile’s designers to enlarge its fuel tank, apparently doubling its range.

Kh-35 Uran

The Kh-35 Uran at IMDS-2011 in St. Petersburg in June 2011. Photo by Alexander Karpenko.

A photo generously provided by Alexander Karpenko further backs up this assessment. Taken at the IMDS-2011 in St. Petersburg in June 2011, the photograph shows the Russian-designed Kh-35 did not possess a nozzle as of mid-2011.

So, what about a Vietnamese variant? The Vietnamese have negotiated a license to produce a local variant of the Kh-35. Finding an open-source photograph from the Kh-35 produced in Vietnam is not an easy task. In fact, one may not exist, so it’s not possible to definitively rule out the possibility that the Kh-35UV (The “V” stands for Vietnam) would have significant design modifications.

That said, it’s unclear whether or not production on the Vietnamese Kh-35 variant has actually begun. Vndata suggests that Vietnam may have achieved production capacity in December 2013. And, even if Vietnam has begun developing the Kh-35, one has to question whether Vietnam or another actor would secretly smuggle the missile to North Korea so shortly after opening the factory lines. Even if the Kh-35UV has design modifications, it would be even more perplexing if the North Koreans had the ability to so quickly reverse-engineer the missile. Based on this, it would be relatively safe to assume the missile that the North Koreans have is neither a Kh-35UV nor a copy of the Vietnamese variant.

I do believe, based on currently-available information, that the nozzle is a North Korean re-design.  The nozzle could possibly explain the North Korean TLCs.  If the North Koreans did in fact add the nozzle, as we suspect, the TLCs in the North Korean video might be indigenously designed to conform to the peculiarities of the North Korean Kh-35.

Oryx Blog and Lewis both suggest that North Korea has begun exporting the DPRK missile to Burma (or Myanmar).  I’m open to this possibility, because the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which monitors the arms trade, doesn’t have any reported sale of the Kh-35 or launch systems to Burma in recent years (SIPRI uses open-source materials, so there may be an unreported sale by another state).  And, the F11 Aung Zeya ship in the Burmese navy was built in Burma with Chinese assistance.  So, it does seem a bit strange to opt for a Russian-designed Kh-35 when the Chinese are helping to build your navy.  Furthermore, Oryx Blog has established it pretty well that the Kh-35 canisters on the F11 Aung Zeya very closely resemble the smooth-looking lids to the Kh-35U canisters in the DPRK video, as does the rack that supports the Kh-35U TLCs on the F11 Aung Zeya.  And, it is known that senior-level officials in the Burmese government have visited North Korean missile factories in recent years.

A newer analysis claims that the Kh-25 shown by the DPRK, would probably be incapable of possessing a 260-kilometer range, but doesn’t explain why this range is “unlikely.” To the author’s credit, he did create fantastic maps detailing different possible ranges for the missile and included the 260-kilometer range. Nonetheless, after having spent the better part of a week looking into videos, photographs, translating Vietnamese and Russian articles and press releases (so much so that I’m now receiving Russian- and Vietnamese-language ads from Google and YouTube), I would like to know why this is “unlikely.”

I’m inclined to believe that the missile could travel much further than 130-kilometers. As I previously mentioned, the Tactical Missile Corporation switched engines in the Kh-35 Uran in 2009, doubling the missile’s range to 260-kilometers. On top of the strategic benefits of changing the engines (i.e. increased range), the reason behind the change seemed to have been mostly political (with unbelievable political foresight). A Ukrainian firm produced the previous Kh-35 and Russia had been keen to lessen its reliance on Ukraine’s industry to provide it with critical elements of defense systems.

If the missile shown by the DPRK is a reverse-engineered Kh-35, it would stand to reason, that the North Koreans would want to follow suit and opt for a smaller engine and increase the fuel tank for the missile, giving it a better range.  Nonetheless, it could be that the DPRK isn’t able to produce a Kh-35 that is equal to or rivals the Russian-manufactured design.

I fully believe in the ability of the North Koreans to acquire this technology. For a country that most people write off as an economically-backwards joke, the Kim regime has certainly invested significant resources in smuggling and developing nuclear weapons technology. And, the Chong Chon Gang incident last year confirms the DPRK has the resources to at least attempt to smuggle missiles (even if they are “obsolete” and are supposed to be returned to the country of origin). I don’t believe it’s beyond the realm of possibility for the North Koreans to have acquired and reverse-engineered the technology.

Thus, for the time being and based on the evidence currently available, it does appear that the North Koreans have copied the Kh-35. Lewis describes the North Korean missile as “externally identical.” I would like to pay some special attention to this, because it seems to have been overlooked by some who have commented on his initial 38North piece. Neither Lewis (or so he assures me) nor I have any special X-Ray-like ability to see through the video and into the internal mechanics of the missile, so it could be that this is a very clever ploy by the North Koreans, but taking together the abnormalities of the Kh-35 shown to us by the North Koreans and its weapons development history, there’s a good chance that we are onto something.

Note: I will be publishing more on the North Korean Kh-35 Uran as information becomes available and is verifiable.