New North Korean Missile a Serious Threat

One week ago North Korea introduced their latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-15 with their latest missile test since September. We have compiled a summary of the best analysis on the Hwasong-15, below. We also provide arguments for why the United States missile defense could not defend against the Hwasong-15. David Wright at the Union of Concerned Scientists outlined the capabilities of this new missile early last week.

“If flown on a standard trajectory rather than [a] lofted trajectory, this missile would have a range of more than 13,000 kilometers (8,100 miles). This is significantly longer than North Korea’s previous long range tests, which flew on lofted trajectories for 37 minutes (July 4) and 47 minutes (July 28). Such a missile would have more than enough range to reach Washington, D.C., and in fact any part of the continental United States.”

Senior fellow at New America, Suzanne DiMaggio says that “in [her] conversation with the North Koreans, they’ve been very clear that their key goal is to demonstrate they’re capable of striking the continental U.S. with a nuclear-tipped missile… This most recent launch [shown in this chart] tells us they’re well on their way to achieving that goal.”

“This was a serious step forward,” Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione told Rachel Maddow, regarding the missile’s range. “This is the third successful test. They haven’t had a failure of their ICBM, so [they] know what they’re doing.”

In addition to its range, much of the debate about this missile has revolved around its size and payload. “The Hwasong-15 is considerably larger than the Hwasong-14, and initial calculations indicate the new missile could deliver a moderately-sized nuclear weapon to any city on the US mainland,” assesses Michael Elleman for 38North. He adds that “it now appears that the Hwasong-15 can deliver a 1,000-kg payload to any point on the US mainland.” North Koreans have “almost certainly developed a nuclear warhead that weighs less than 700 kg, if not one considerably lighter,” signifying that the Hwasong-15 can carry a warhead the North Koreans can currently produce.

One detail analysts are curious about is the nose cone of the Hwasong-15. “The nosecone is huge,” observed Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review and a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “I’m particularly troubled by the excess capability in this missile. It can go much further than it needs to. That suggests that it is designed to accommodate even heavier payloads than whatever it was tested with… these two observations suggest that they may already be thinking ahead to putting multiple warheads on a single missile.”

“The upper stage [the nose cone] is... large, allowing the North Koreans to choose between outfitting it with a larger thermonuclear bomb, decoys that could help avoid defending against U.S. interceptors or multiple warheads,” says Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Elleman concurs: the size of the nosecone could also allow for “simple decoys or other countermeasures designed to challenge America’s existing national missile defense (NMD) system.”

U.S. missile defense is not reliable

“Our national missile defense doesn’t really work,” points out Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Despite widespread beliefs to the contrary, Cirincione argues that “even under ideal conditions… this system has only hit its target half of the time.”

The Hwasong-15 “could overwhelm, fool and blind the radars, sensors and kill vehicles,” agreed Cirincione, “you cannot stop this thing.” Narang put it starkly: “I wouldn’t bet New York on GMD working.”

Video and photographs of the Hwasong-15 “indicate that it is more than large enough to carry decoys/countermeasures that would be designed to put further strain on the ground based midcourse defense (GMD) system,” said Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat-reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.

Yesterday The New York Times broke the story of a missile defense failure. Saudi defense batteries, using American missile defense systems, fired five times at an incoming missile from neighboring Yemen but failed to intercept the warhead. “You shoot five times at this missile and they all miss?” asked Laura Grego, missile expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “That’s shocking because this system is supposed to work.”

Grego echoed Reif, who argued that, in countering an incoming Hwasong-15, “the current ‘shot doctrine’ would be to fire four interceptors at each incoming missile and then... Cross our fingers.”

When asked if the United States missile defense systems could defend against the Hwasong-15, Cirincione answered, “this missile potentially has enough throw weight to carry multiple warheads plus decoys, chaff, jammers and other countermeasures to defeat any known missile defense system.” Reif agrees that the U.S. missile defenses could not successfully take down the Hwasong-15: “Overall, flight intercept testing of the system has not demonstrated that GMD is capable of [reliably defending] the U.S. homeland against even a limited threat.”

-- Rose Blanchard is a research assistant and Meghan McCall a policy associate at Ploughshares Fund.

More Resources:

--“Flight crew saw North Korean missile ‘blow up and fall apart’ near Japan” by Avi Selk for The Washington Post here.

--“North Korea’s new ICBM likely broke up upon re-entry, US official says” by Barbara Starr and Ray Sanchez for CNN here.

--“Experts: Latest missile test from North Korea the most threatening yet” by Jamie McIntyre for Washington Examiner here.

--“North Korea Fires a Ballistic Missile, in a Further Challenge to Trump” by Mark Landler, Choe Sang-Hun and Helene Cooper for The New York Times here.

--“North Korea’s Third ICBM Launch” by Michael Elleman for 38 North here.

--“North Korea’s Big Frickin’ Missile” by Aaron Stein, Scott Lafoy and Jeffrey Lewis for Arms Control Wonk Podcast here.

--“North Korea releases photographs of new Hwasong-15 ICBM” by Leo Byrne for here.

--“New North Korean Missile Is A ‘Monster’” by Geoff Brumfiel for NPR here.

--“The ‘Bitter Pill’ in North Korea’s Most Powerful Missile” by Evan Osnos for The New Yorker here.

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