Analysis – North Korea’s ICBM program is reaching new heights in the largest test yet

FILE PHOTO: General view during test firing of a North Korean man, according to state media
FILE PHOTO: General view during test firing of what state media reports is a North Korean “new breed” of ICBM, in this undated photo released March 24, 2022 by North Korea’s Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS/File Photo

March 25, 2022

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s resumption of long-range missile tests, including a flight of its biggest weapon ever, brings it closer than ever to a reliable possibility of placing multiple nuclear warheads anywhere in the United States, analysts say.

North Korea reported that its most recent launch was the Hwasong-17, a huge new ICBM, which was launched Thursday in a test that leader Kim Jong Un said was intended to demonstrate the power of its nuclear power and any US military moves scare off .

It was the first full ICBM test launch since 2017. There were two launches in February and March that US officials said were preliminary tests of the Hwasong-17.

Some analysts said discrepancies in images released by North Korea suggested it might be hiding details about the launch, and South Korean media reported officials are checking whether the missile was in fact a Hwasong-17.

With a range the Japanese government said is likely to exceed 15,000 km (9,320 miles), the missile launched Thursday could hit targets anywhere in the world, outside of a few countries in South America and parts of Antarctica.

That range and massive size suggest North Korea plans to arm it with multiple warheads that could hit multiple targets or use decoys to confuse defenders, analysts say. North Korea’s smaller Hwasong-15 ICBM, tested in 2017, can reach any part of the United States but cannot carry such a large payload.

“Since there are no good targets further away, this missile is likely carrying more weight — in the form of multiple nuclear warheads,” said Melissa Hanham, a researcher at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). “This makes it even more difficult to achieve US ballistic missile defenses.”

Along with other new weapons such as hypersonic missiles, smaller nuclear warheads and drones, North Korean leader Kim has set his sights on deploying an ICBM with a range of 15,000 km and multiple warheads.

“The offensive arithmetic will soon fall in your favor; they may be able to keep up with advances in American defenses,” said Ankit Panda, senior fellow of the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

US officials have predicted such advances and last year selected Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to compete to build a Next Generation Interceptor (NGI) designed to launch missiles from “rogue states” like North Korea and Iran, said Thomas Karako, who Director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“This (new missile) gives North Korea more options,” he said, noting that the longer range could also allow it to be launched at the United States in more indirect flight paths, potentially confusing defenders.

South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol has vowed to step up missile defenses to fend off North Korean weapons and has hinted that developing a pre-emptive strike capability may be the only way to avert a missile attack.

“Credible Deterrent”

North Korea’s “loft” tests, which send missiles high into space and not far away, are helping to confirm some elements of the system, such as: But other elements, such as the accuracy and survivability of reentry vehicles, which would carry a nuclear warhead, remain less verifiable in such tests, said Joseph Dempsey, a defense researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“Typically, there are dozens of partial and full flight tests over a full range of operational parameters before a system is accepted and mass-produced for service,” he said, noting that North Korea faces diplomatic and geographic restrictions on long-range testing. “However, even marginally successful tests can still provide a sufficient minimum credible deterrent value.”

For example, loft testing subjects reentry vehicles to much more heat and stress than a normal attack trajectory, meaning they may not survive or function as designed. North Korea said it launched the missile “in a vertical launch mode” on Thursday to ensure the safety of neighboring countries.

Rachel Minyoung Lee of the Washington-based 38 North program, which oversees North Korea, said Pyongyang’s goal appears to be to increase its influence so that it can convert denuclearization talks into talks on reducing nuclear energy.

“The message of North Korea’s announcement of yesterday’s ICBM launch is clear: North Korea will continue to develop its nuclear arsenal,” she said.


The Hwasong-17 had already been unveiled at military parades and defense exhibitions, giving experts a good idea of ​​what to expect.

However, Thursday’s launch showed for the first time that the Hwasong-17 was launched directly from its massive 11-axle TEL (Transporter, Erector, Launcher) vehicle.

Previous North Korean ICBMs were carried and lifted by such vehicles, but then typically launched from detachable platforms. TELs make it easier to conceal missiles until deployed for deployment, but Panda said the Hwasong-17 is so large that there could be serious concerns about its practicality.

“There’s a reason no other country has ever chosen to deploy a liquid-propelled missile of this size on a road-mobile launcher: it’s unsafe and cumbersome to operate,” Panda said, while noting that North Korea seems to accept the risk . “A silo, which might make more sense for a missile this size, would be strategically worse for the North Koreans as it is vulnerable to immediate preemption.”

The next step for North Korea would be to build solid-fuel rockets, which are more stable and can be launched with almost no warning or preparation time.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Nick Macfie) Analysis – North Korea’s ICBM program is reaching new heights in the largest test yet

Bobby Allyn

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