This article was originally posted at NK News. Most of this is an update to our earlier examination of the new helicopter frigates’ capabilities. With the possible addition of a Kh-35 anti-ship missile to the arsenal, we felt a map update was necessary. The bit at the end is now a tad redundant due to our recent imagery post, but has been retained for the sake of the original article’s coherence.
North Korea’s new frigates continue to attract attention from North Korea watchers, including us, and it appears that new information about the cruise missile options available for these frigates has become available. Joseph Bermudez has suggested a possible Chinese C-802 or Iranian Ghader cruise missile upgrade for the frigates in the future, and posted two images of the frigates that do not clearly reveal any present cruise missile tubes yet installed.
The Chosun Ilbo ran an article on June 9 stating that the Korean People’s Army Navy had acquired and showed off via propaganda videos Kh-35 cruise missiles, Russian-designed missiles also sold to and built by countries such as Vietnam and Myanmar.
Zachary Keck and Jeffrey Lewis have discussed the point of origin and the capabilities of this new cruise missile. More importantly, Lewis linked the Kh-35s to the rolling out of the new frigates, meaning there is another set of possibilities for how the frigates are armed.
According to Bermudez’s imagery and analysis, there are not yet visible cruise missile tubes on the frigate. In case of a future upgrade, as with the previous set of cruise missiles, we have included a hypothetical cruise missile range ring for deck-mounted Kh-35s. In an attempt to clarify an increasingly confusing map, we have turned the range rings into polygons. The two red rings are the maximum ranges for the shortest and longest Kh-35 variant. Sources are mostly reporting 130km ranges, but we have included the 260 kilometers range as a worst-case option. The C-802 is the top burnt orange ring, with the Kh-35 130 kilometers range under it, followed by the orange Ghader, then the red Kh-35 260km range. Again, the 260 kilometers is unlikely at the moment.
This is only the two Kh-35 options. The smaller ring is the currently estimated maximum range.
Here are the respective ranges for the frigates in the East and West Sea. The frigates are positioned far from DPRK shores and are not representative of basing or known maneuver regions. The light and dark green circles are the Mi-14PL and Mi-4PL helicopter ranges, respectively. Cruise missile colors are the same as the map above.
Jeffrey Lewis emailed me a few days ago indicating that there was also a Kh-35 variant that could be helicopter launched. While the image originally posted by Chosun Ilbo and the videos that Lewis pulled together indicate a ship-launched missile, we have opted to map out the worst-case scenario again: that the helicopters launched from deck will be armed with these anti-ship cruise missiles. In this case, we opted for the longer-range Mi-14PL.
It should be noted that should the East Sea frigate push farther east, an Mi-14PL armed with a Kh-35 (130km) helicopter-launched variant could reasonably hit Japanese ships and ports.
But all of this may be irrelevant. As Chad O’Carroll has pointed out, the videos in DPRK media show the missile launch for just a split second, and the KCNA is not exactly known for its precise and realistic portrayals of the Korean People’s Army’s capabilities. While the missile in question does indeed appear to be a Kh-35, there is still some question as to whether or not the missile is active in the DPRK’s arsenal, or if the footage was recycled and reused from a Russian, Vietnamese, Indian or even Burmese source.
The videos and pictures in question do show ship-launched missiles, which, assuming the footage is from the DRPK, means either some recent modifications have been made to these frigates – which is possible – or that the Kh-35 may be rolled out on different vessels.
Regardless, this is something we’ll be watching for in the future. If these videos are from the DRPK, either the frigates are modified or other ships in the fleet have been equipped with the missiles. It will certainly be interesting for U.S.-Myanmar relations if the Kh-35s were sold anytime in the last few years.
Furthermore, the picture that the Chosun Ilbo initially posted with their story is labeled, in the English article, “A new North Korean anti-ship missile featured on a propaganda film,” implying that the image posted is a DPRK Kh-35. This lead the Diplomat to rehost same the image with the image credit listed as DPRK television, which is factually incorrect.
Why the Chosun Ilbo didn’t explicitly mark their image as an example as a Kh-35 instead of the actual DPRK Kh-35 is unknown, but it has caused the incorrectly labeled image to show up on a few sites, the Diplomat included.
This new development has a lot of interesting implications for the U.S., ROK, and Japanese navies, since the Kh-35 is a significant upgrade for the KPA Navy. The Iranian Ghader may have a longer range that the 130 kilometer-ranged Kh-35, but Russian cruise missiles don’t suffer from the same guidance issues that plague some Iranian models, meaning that the Kh-35 may be an actual accurate threat. Especially if the Kh-35 is helicopter mounted, it allows the DPRK a little more naval leverage, especially in the East Sea. Even though the U.S. and allies can counter a Kh-35, it is another expense and another capability to maintain vigilance over.