North Korea’s latest missile test has demonstrated new capabilities and leaves little doubt about the country’s ability to strike its arch-nemesis, the United States.
At 3 a.m. local time (12 a.m. IST) on Wednesday, the new Hwasong-15 ICBM shot into the skies from somewhere in or around the town of Pyongsong. As with previous tests, the missile was launched on a lofted trajectory, covering a much smaller distance than it would on a more flat wartime trajectory when headed towards enemy target.
North Korea said the missile soared to an altitude of 4,475 kilometres. (For perspective, the International Space Station orbits the earth from a height of 408 kilometres.) After some 53 minutes in the skies, it fell into the Sea of Japan, some 950 kilometres away from the launch site.
The Hwasong-15’s maximum range is generally estimated to be about 13,000 kilometres. In July, North Korea tested its first ICBM, the Hwasong -14 twice. That weapon had an estimated range of about 8,000 kilometres.
A South Korea early warning aircraft reportedly detected the Hwasong-15 launch within one minute. Missile defence radars on South Korean warships then began tracking the ICBM. Minutes later, the South Korean military launched a barrage of missiles from land, sea and air. While these missiles harmlessly splashed into the waters off the Korean peninsula, they were intended to send a clear message to Pyongyang: Its tests were being watched and its launch sites could be targeted at any time.
American reactions to the test were along expected lines. With characteristic flippancy, President Donald Trump simply said ‘It is a situation that we will handle.’ Secretary of state Rex Tillerson condemned the test but added that the US remained ‘committed to finding a peaceful path to denuclearisation’. America’s defense secretary, Jim Mattis indicated he was concerned by the progress North Korea appears to be making in its ballistic missile programme.
‘The bottom line is, it’s a continued effort to build a threat — a ballistic missile threat that endangers world peace, regional peace, and certainly, the United States,’ Mattis said.
A new and improved missile
Details about the liquid-fuelled Hwasong-15 are likely to come in over the next few weeks, as analysts pour over available information, but we can surmise a few things about the missile.
For one, the new ICBM is taller and wider than its predecessor, the Hwasong-14. ‘This isn’t just a big missile for North Korea this is a big missile in general,’ non-proliferation analyst Michael Duitsman told CNN. The Hwasong-15 has a greater range and might pack a greater punch. North Korean state media boasted that the missile was ‘capable of carrying a super-heavy nuclear warhead.’
At least some analysts concur. North Korea’s ‘monster missile’ might be large enough to accommodate a thermonuclear warhead, according to MIT professor and expert on nuclear strategy Vipin Narang.
‘They wouldn’t have to miniaturize much,’ Narang told NPR.
One caveat is that Wednesday’s test missile likely did not carry a heavy payload- it probably had little more than a few diagnostic instruments. Replacing those with a bulky nuclear device will inevitably shorten the range of the missile, though it isn’t clear by how much.
There also remain doubts about the whether Kim Jong-Un’s scientists have mastered re-entry technology. For instance, Michael Elleman, a senior fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and a long-time observer of North Korea’s missile programme believes a ‘handful of additional flight tests’ will be needed to ‘ensure the warhead survives the rigors of atmospheric re-entry.’
Besides its size, the Hwasong-15 also distinguishes itself from its predecessor by using what appears to be a new engine system. The missile seems to lack the supplementary thrusters used by the Hwasong-14 for course adjustments and instead appears to use a gimballed system for its two engines.
With the North Koreans having to perfect their re-entry technology and gimballed engine system, we can expect more tests in the near future.