It is hard not to laugh at North Korea’s seemingly bumbling military apparatus. Kim Jong Un’s Bond villain parallels and bad haircut only amplify the cartoon-like feel. But the Hermit Kingdom is no longer hiding behind theoretical capabilities. Instead, they have rapidly moved to testing their most terrifying weapons in order to make them actually operational. The recent launches of BM-25 Musadan intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), long considered an unproven design more suitable as a parade prop than a plausibly effective weapon system, is proof of a concerning shift in North Korea's weapons development strategy.
The Musadan missile system is likely a development of the '60s-era Russian R-27 Zyb liquid-fueled IRBM. Its first appearance—or at least an elaborate mockup of one—was in 2010, during the Korean Worker’s Party 65th anniversary parade. The BM-25 was shown riding on the back of a large off-road capable transporter erector launcher (TELs), and it set off alarms among defense and arms-proliferation analysts. The BM-25 is believed to have a range of 1,500 to 2,500 miles and is capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. That is, if it could fly.
In the half decade that has passed since that parade, North Korea’s Musadan missile capability was questioned by many analysts, who could find no evidence the missile had ever been flight tested. In essence, it was a phantom capability: maybe a propaganda tool, maybe a real weapon, or a mix of both.
This uncertainty among the analysts changed suddenly just weeks ago.
The North Koreans conducted no fewer than three consecutive BM-25 Musadan missile tests—on April 15, 27, and 28—and each one failed, according to South Korean and US governments. Pyongyang, which for years seemed content in to use the missiles as saberrattling props, has suddenly moved to verify their combat capabilities in a startlingly aggressive manner.
Another intermediate range ballistic missile test, this one a submarine launched weapon, occurred on April 23. By all accounts, it was successful at “cold launching” the missile from a vertical launch tube—to the point of ignition and fly-away. The missile only traveled about 17 miles before exploding, according to South Korea officials, but the test represented a significant leap in North Korea’s ability to launch such a weapon successfully. Whether the launch originated from a submersible test barge or North Korea’s Sinpo Class submarine remains unclear.
Analysts are uncertain if this new submarine-launched ballistic missile, dubbed the KN-11 by North Korea, uses solid or liquid propellant. The latter is used in the Musadan missile, and is the mainstay of North Korea’s rocket capabilities—at least for now. This greatly limits its strategic effectiveness, especially when it comes to road-mobile liquid-fueled ballistic missiles, since they can't be transported while fueled. To launch, they have to stop, configure upright, and only then fuel up for ignition. This process can take hours and exposes the missiles and their support crews and vehicles to preemptive attack.
Since the SCUD hunts of Desert Storm, the United States has become more adept at detecting and targeting ground-mobile ballistic missiles. This capability is only improving as advances in radar technology, aided by faster and faster computer processing power, evolves in exotic ways.
Liquid-fueled submarine-launched ballistic missiles, however, are a different story. Cruising beneath the surface, submarines can prepare for a launch virtually undetected, are not exposed to the same amount of jarring while submerged as road-mobile variants. Still, their propellants are highly volatile, a reality that led to the loss of the Russian submarine K-219 in 1986, Also, the fuel sloshes around during the violent ejection from a submerged launch tube, putting extreme loads on the missile’s structure and propulsion components.
Ballistic missiles that use a solid-fuel based propulsion concept can be stored for long periods of time with little maintenance requirements and can take much more abuse while remaining mission capable. Most importantly, they can be launched much faster than their clumsy liquid-fueled counterparts. However, the propulsion technology behind solid-fueled missiles is much more challenging to master.
It is known that North Korea has been testing solid fuel rocket engines. If one of these adolescent engines was fitted to the submarine-launched missile that was tested recently, it is possible it's flight was short because the limitations of this early iteration of a solid fuel propellant and motor. If this is the case, it's likely that the goal of the test was proving launch capability, not downrange flight capability. The weak thrust of a new solid-fuel motor may have limited the amount of fuel that could be loaded onto the missile. By loading less fuel, the thrust-to-weight ratio required for the missile to fly off after being "cold launched" from its underwater missile tube could be achieved.
If the KN-11 submarine-launched ballistic missile fired late last month had a new solid-fuel based propulsion system, we should be concerned. If North Korea has moved to this more promising but complex rocket technology, it will have repercussions across each of their ballistic missile and rocket programs. Once mature, this technology would signify a giant leap in reliability and quick-launch capability for Pyongyang, and it would align with its stated goal of creating a credible nuclear deterrent as quickly as possible. It could also mean that the deployment of nuclear armed ballistic missiles on future North Korean submarines is entirely plausible.
Once again, the fact that most of these recent ballistic missile launches have failed is beside the point. The takeaway should be that North Korea is now moving away from the far easier and cheaper route of putting forward “supposed capabilities” to risking that psychological deterrent in order to make their ballistic missile dreams a verified reality. Through each consecutive launch, failed or otherwise, North Korean rocket development teams are learning and becoming one step closer to success.
This is a dark development for the region. With North Korea’s possible miniaturization of a nuclear warhead, it seems now to be rushing headlong towards a credible medium-range nuclear delivery system. Once it has tested a miniaturized warhead (which could be very soon) and have a credible rocket to fly it on—even eventually one that even uses solid fuel and can be launched quickly—the strategic equation in Asia and beyond will change significantly.
At the very least, expect other countries in the region to invest in ballistic missile defense systems, which are hideously expensive and often unreliable. Also, count on the international community jacking up the pressure on China to curb the North Korea threat. China has already signed on to crushing sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear arms development program and general misbehavior—a move that deviates from decades of Chinese support for the Kim regime and interfering with international efforts to punish it through harsh sanctions. Still, China has incredible leverage over North Korea: it is the impoverished nation's main trading partner and often exclusive supplier of everything from energy to iron ore.
Still, North Korea will have to prove that its budding ballistic missile nuclear delivery systems work and that a nuclear warhead can separate, reenter and fuse with some accuracy and reliability. These initiatives will likely come to pass in the next decade, at which time North Korea will pose a real-deal nuclear-ballistic missile threat to its neighbors, and in some circumstances, to America’s interests in the West Pacific, Alaska and possibly even part of the west coast.
The good news is that North Korea has played their hand publicly. Since the recent crescendo of test flights, we have a better picture of its weapons programs. The US and the global community—especially China—have some time to deal with the issue. But the clock is ticking louder and faster now than ever before.
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