North Korea Claims It Successfully Tested A New ‘Hypersonic Gliding Warhead’

North Korea’s lust for hypersonic glide vehicle weapons makes perfect sense, but can it overcome huge technological hurdles?

byTyler Rogoway|
North Korea photo


North Korea has posted an image of what it says was a test of a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle that occurred yesterday. North Korea had claimed to have first tested a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle last September, and it showed off what appeared to be the same weapon, dubbed the Hwasong-8, at an elaborate arms expo that took place in Pyongyang last October. This latest test is of another new missile that was displayed at that show for the first time and that North Korean officials say has a different glide vehicle design. All of this underscores that Kim Jong Un's regime appears to be seriously intent on developing a hypersonic weapon capability.

Speculation that the latest North Korean test launch was of a hypersonic weapon system came shortly after news came that it occurred. The location of its origin and target area were similar to those observed in the September test.  

North Korea state news furnished the following release along with the image of the launch, it states in part:

In the test launch the academy reconfirmed the flight control and stability of the missile in the active-flight stage and assessed the performance of the new lateral movement technique applied to the detached hypersonic gliding warhead. Having been detached after its launch, the missile made a 120 km lateral movement in the flight distance of the hypersonic gliding warhead from the initial launch azimuth to the target azimuth and precisely hit a set target 700 km away. The reliability of fuel ampoule system under the winter weather conditions was also verified. The test launch clearly demonstrated the control and stability of the hypersonic gliding warhead, which combined the multi-stage gliding jump flight and the strong lateral movement.

North Korea provided a remarkable amount of detail in its statement and in doing so claimed a high degree of mastery over hypersonic boost-glide vehicle technologies. How much of it is true is very much up for debate without having access to classified intelligence collected by South Korea, the U.S., and Japan. Regardless, hypersonic weapons technology is extremely challenging, both from an aerospace design and material science point of view. That being said, while it may seem quite reaching that North Korea could realize a successful hypersonic boost-glide vehicle capability any time soon, it's worth remembering that those that discounted the regime's race to realize an ICBM were proven quite wrong and in relatively short order.

It's also worth noting that the glide vehicle used in the January 5th, 2021 test is significantly different from the one shown in the September 2021 test and later at the arms expo a month later. This one is cone-shaped (conical), while the other was more of a wedge-shaped lifting body design. The latter of the two shapes have been used by China's DF-17 and Russia's Avangard systems. The U.S. Army and Navy, on the other hand, have largely focused on a common conical-shaped vehicle to accelerate the delivery of hypersonic boost-glide vehicle capabilities, with the idea that it would continue to develop more challenging wedge-shaped designs and procure them at a later date. 

North Korea's Hwasong-8 wedge-shaped hypersonic boost-glide vehicle weapon as seen at the Pyongyang arms expo in October. , KCNA

There is also a possibility that this conical vehicle is actually just an advanced maneuverable re-entry vehicle, or MaRV, of some kind. MaRVs are typically defined as having a much lower degree of maneuverability than a true hypersonic boost-glide vehicle and as being more locked into a broadly ballistic trajectory. Their motion in the terminal phase of flight is often referred to as a “porpoise” or “skip-glide" trajectory and involves at least one pull-up maneuver, creating one or more downward "steps." These irregular movements can still present challenges for defenders, as well as be used as a way to make course corrections for greater accuracy and potentially extend the range of the warhead. Most importantly in the context of North Korea's description of this test, a MaRV is traveling at hypersonic speeds at the endgame point in its flight.

Beyond the warhead, that this missile is said to be liquid-fueled and has a so-called "ampulized" rocket booster are significant details. Ampulization is a Soviet-era term that refers to liquid fuel rocket motors that are sealed at the factory and are therefore much easier and safer to handle. They can also be kept in a fueled state for protracted periods of time, unlike typical liquid-fueled designs, making it simpler to deploy and fire them relatively quickly, reducing their vulnerability to pre-emptive strikes.

Whatever the true capabilities of this new missile might be, hypersonic boost-glide vehicles, including those with limited range, are ideally suited for North Korea's strategic needs. The hypersonic boost-glide vehicle is immune to any air and missile defenses deployed to the South, or in the entire region, for that matter. As such, they could strike high-value targets with impunity, at least for now. Still, the idea of acquiring this capability is one thing, overcoming the major technological hurdles and paying the large costs needed to do so is another. On the other hand, a MaRV would be more attainable, but less survivable. 

Regardless, Pyongyang seems quite serious about developing a hypersonic weapons capability and it is an area that draws less international alarm than continuing to refine its ICBM capabilities via test flights. Time will tell if they can actually achieve it. 

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