The media has been waiting with bated breath for North Korea to test another ballistic missile or to detonate another nuclear device. Yesterday, the Kim regime did one of those things, firing off a ballistic missile in defiance of the world. What followed were an avalanche of reports that varied widely concerning the details of the launch, the nature of its results, and even what missile was fired. The mismatching of missile types, their supposed range classes, and their potential capabilities were an omnipresent component of this instant tidal wave of raw speculation.
It quickly appeared that the media had largely settled on the idea that the missile fired was a KN-17—the Scud/Hwasong/Nodong derivative that appeared to have a maneuverable warhead vehicle—resulting in bold claims that North Korea had tested its "carrier killer" missile to intimidate the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group now operating in the region.
Wow, that escalated quickly, right?
The truth is we only know a handful of facts about the launch. This is PACOM's official statement:
The missile was supposedly launched on an extremely steep trajectory. South Korea says it reached an altitude of 44 miles, flying for roughly 15 minutes while only traveling about 22 miles down-range before blowing up. Many outlets and pundits turned the missile's failure to reach the sea into a laughing matter.
First off, we have no idea at all if this launch was actually a failure. With anti-ballistic missile capable American and Japanese Aegis destroyers on high alert in the region, and with tensions very high, North Korea may have decided to execute the test within their own territorial boundaries, opting for a very steep parabolic trajectory instead of cross-range performance. The missile's abrupt end could have been a command destruction, not an inadvertent failure.
As for North Korea's little "carrier killer," well we really don't know if the KN-17 was actually the missile tested, and it is highly doubtful it is anywhere near capable of actually engaging a surface vessel at this time. It is more likely that the missile, if it indeed exists as a real concept that North Korea is actually testing, will be designed to maneuver dynamically during its terminal phase of flight to make interception more challenging. Considering that THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system is now coming online in South Korea, accelerating development of a short-range ballistic missile with such a capability makes sense. But making a warhead vehicle travel erratically during its terminal phase of flight is a far cry from striking a moving and highly defended aircraft carrier far out at sea.
To use a similar technology to attack an aircraft carrier or other large ship, North Korea would have to master a cocktail of challenging technologies. These include the ability to reliably provide initial and possibly mid-course targeting of the naval target via some sort of secure, over-the-horizon data-link, and a sensor platform that can detect and track a carrier and survive doing so.
Land-based over-the-horizon radar may be able to provide some detection and tracking of ships far out to sea, but they are extremely vulnerable to attack and they wouldn't likely provide precise enough coordinates for an anti-ship ballistic missile like the notional KN-17 to leverage effectively.
Not to mention that North Korea doesn't seem to even possess such a radar system.
The missile's maneuvering payload vehicle would also need a form of terminal homing, like an infrared or radar seeker that can survive extreme thermal loads and be effective even when advanced countermeasures are deployed. This is very high-tech equipment for North Korea to build, successfully test, and put into operation in a reliable format. China has spent years and billions of dollars working to develop and field a similar capability, with elaborate testing done against carrier-like silhouettes in the country's desert frontier. There is no doubt that North Korea has shown high interest in this type of naval area-denial weapon system in the past, but just because they can mock something up that looks the part for a parade doesn't mean they can actually implement such a capability at this time, even for testing purposes.
Considering the DF-17 is basically a Scud/Hwasong/Nodong missile with a maneuvering warhead section/reentry vehicle, why couldn't yesterday's test just have been of one of these standard short to intermediate range missiles instead of a DF-17? In fact, this is a far more probable explanation and we have no real evidence that a maneuvering warhead vehicle was present on the test missile in question.
The missile's launch location, near Pukchang, is also somewhat odd. Roughly 50 miles from the North Korea's western coastline, and 70 miles from its eastern coastline, it is a strange place to test a ballistic missile. Although there is a handful of large airfields nearby that are known for their fortified underground bunkers, using the area as a ballistic missile test launch complex seems odd. But if the goal is to keep a test missile within the bounds of North Korean territory, the location makes quite a bit of sense. In the past month, two other launches attributed (probably falsely) to the KN-17 occurred at Sinpo, which is appropriately located on North Korea's central eastern coast. But these launches occurred before a phalanx of anti-ballistic missile capable destroyers moved into the region, and just as the Trump administration's rhetoric was heating up.
When you look deeper to find any hard evidence that the DF-17 has ever been tested you can't find anything more than reports based on a few undisclosed sources. That's not to say that the missile hasn't been launched, but there is little proof that it actually has, and especially multiple times in succession. Considering it was one of the "stars" of North Korea's April 15th "Day of the Sun" parade, and giddy defense reporters began extrapolating elaborately from there, it seems that any Scud-like short to intermediate range missile test is now attributed to the DF-17 with no real facts to back it up.
All this isn't that surprising as the media has been hyper-focused on events on and around the Korean Peninsula since the Trump Administration began giving hard indications that a military intervention of the Kim regime's missile and nuclear programs was imminent. In the end these threats proved to be hollow, and thankfully the White House has made an about face and is now publicly seeking a diplomatic solution to the standoff, with military action being once again reserved as a defensive measure.
So with media big and small still on what seems to be a sugar high supplied by the daily North Korean headlines streaming out of Washington, they are quick to label any North Korean military activity as either a laughable failure or an ominous sign of an impending attack. As we stated a year ago when Pyongyang began changing its missile development strategy, the truth is that even in failure, North Korean scientists learn more about their various missiles in development or about ones already deployed. With this data they can continue to tweak their designs, making existing missiles more reliable and capable of longer range or of carrying heavier payloads, or improving designs being tested so that one day they may become operational.
Another area of hyperbole surrounding North Korea's missile program is that now every missile seems to magically use solid propellant—even liquid fueled Scud derivatives like the KN-17. In fact, many media sources state that the DF-17 is solid fueled, when there seems to be no indication of that being true. If anything its the opposite way around, with all indications being that the missile relies on liquid fuel just like its progenitors.
North Korea is still in the early stages of solid-fuel missile development, and has had some success, most likely with its submarine-launched KN-11 and its land-based KN-15 derivative. But just because these programs seem to be leveraging solid fuel technology, it doesn't mean that overnight Pyongyang's entire missile arsenal has been re-designed and re-deployed to do the same. That's simply not how it works.
In the end just be careful what you believe when reading, watching or listening about any shadowy new weapon emanating out of the Hermit Kingdom. Often times even major NGOs will be wrong about some aspects to some missile programs that defense bloggers are right on, and visa-versa. In other words, nobody has the entire picture—not even US or South Korean intelligence agencies—and those who seem quickest to "bring you all the details," and speak definitively about any of these questionable programs, are often the least accurate at doing so.
In the meantime, no our carriers are not sitting ducks for North Korea's fantasy missiles, and just because a missile blew up after being aloft for 15 minutes it doesn't mean that such event was unplanned or that the test was a failure. And no, not every short-range ballistic missile that is fired off from North Korean territory going forward is a "KN-17." If anything else, this all shows how successful North Korea's propaganda machine, and its great missile parade, has been at brainwashing the western press.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com