North Korea’s test of a Hwasong-14 ICBM on Friday showcased an increased range, but evidence suggests the missile’s warhead- the re-entry vehicle- did not survive its journey through the earth’s atmosphere intact.
On Friday night, a weather camera on the roof of a Hokkaido-based affiliate channel of Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, caught images of the burning re-entry vehicle hurtling earthward in a fireball before splashing into the sea about 200 kilometres from the coast.
Re-entry vehicles are called so because they must survive re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere after a missile falls from its apogee in space.
As the vehicle crashes through the atmosphere at six kilometres per second, it generates immense heat and slows down. When the superheated North Korean re-entry vehicle was about five kilometres above sea level, it appeared ‘to be shedding small radiant objects’ and was ‘trailed by an incandescent vapor’ according to missile expert Michael Elleman.
A missile payload that begins to disintegrate at that altitude would not be a viable. Ankit Panda, an editor at The Diplomat noted that a ‘30 kiloton nuclear airburst — a common estimate for the boosted fission device North Korea is thought to have tested in September 2016 — would require a reentry vehicle to survive to approximately an altitude of 1 kilometer.’
Elleman concludes that if his assessment of a disintegrating payload is correct, ‘North Korea’s engineers have yet to master re-entry technologies and more work remains before Kim Jong Un has an ICBM capable of striking the American mainland.’
Tracking the test
North Korea launched the Hwasong-14 at 11:11 pm local time on Friday. About 47 minutes later it plunged into the waters off Hokkaido, a thousand kilometres away.
As with the first launch on July 4, Friday’s missile followed a steep trajectory to avoid Japanese airspace. The Hwasong-14 reached a maximum altitude of 3,700 kilometres- about 9.25 times the height at which the International Space Station orbits the earth. In contrast, the missile launched on July 4 reached a maximum altitude of 2,800 kilometres, perhaps indicating the North Koreans did not test it at its highest performance parameters the first time around.
On a more conventional trajectory, Friday’s missile would have had a range of nearly 10,000 kilometres.
North Korea’s decision to launch the ICBM at night appears to be an attempt to test it under more realistic conditions. A statement from the country’s official news agency said the test proved ‘the capability of making surprise launch of ICBM in any region and place any time.’
North Korea’s boasting notwithstanding, the test did not surprise US intelligence. Ankit Panda of The Diplomat reported that a government source told him the launch site had been watched for weeks and preparations for the imminent launch were obvious in the hours preceding the missile test.
However, as North Korea operationalizes its missiles, detecting launch preparations will become harder. As its ICBM technology matures, North Korea could do away with the need for paved launch pads and separate firing tables. It could then mount the missiles on highly mobile (and hard to spot) transporter-erector-launchers. It is also likely to develop a solid fuel version of the Hwasong-14, which is currently liquid-fuelled and probably requires upwards of an hour to be prepared for launch. Finally, as North Korea builds more ICBMs, tracking them all will stretch South Korean and US resources.
Two days after the ICBM launch, the US conducted a missile test of its own. On Sunday, a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery fired a missile that rose high above the earth and intercepted a medium range ballistic missile (MRBM) target. In another test earlier in July, a THAAD battery successfully intercepted an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM). MRBMs typically have range of 1,000-3,000 kilometres while IRBMs can fly 3,000 to 5,500 kilometres. North Korea currently fields both types of missiles.
Sunday’s test was the 15th successful THAAD intercept in a row, giving the system an impressive 100% success rate since testing began in 2005.
On Saturday, South Korean president Moo Jae-in ordered his officials to negotiate the stalled deployment of four additional THAAD batteries. Two THAAD batteries are already deployed, but a section of the voters that brought Moon Jae-in to power remain vociferously opposed to it.
THAAD cannot intercept ICBMs and may not even be able to intercept IRBMs launched at a steep trajectory. Furthermore, South Korea will probably need even more THAAD systems to destroy the submarine launched ballistic missiles North Korea is presently developing.
However, Moon Jae-in’s decision to hasten the THAAD deployment is also being interpreted as being an attempt to pressure China- North Korea’s most important patron. China has been opposed to THAAD from the start. While the system does not, by itself, threaten Chinese ICBMs, the PLA fears its powerful radar will give the US a key early warning advantage and ultimately erode China’s nuclear deterrent.
The peninsula’s arms race
In another related development over the weekend, South Korea announced it will renegotiate its bilateral treaty with the US to allow it to develop ballistic missiles with one-tonne payloads instead of the current half-tonne limit.
South Korea, Japan and the US held joint military exercises over the weekend, and two American B-1 bombers flew over the peninsula. Separately, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense released footage of one of its tactical missile systems destroying a simulated bunker in a test. South Korea’s war plans reportedly involve unleashing a torrent of ballistic and cruise missiles at North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and its leadership. The arms race between a North Korea looking to maintain a survivable arsenal and a South Korea-US alliance looking to develop effective counterforce and missile defence options, is set to intensify.