In this occasional series, we will bring you up to speed on the biggest national security stories of the week.
On Wednesday, North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that may be capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. The regime is calling it the Hwasong-15, which translates to “Mars” in Korean. North Korea’s state media marked the launch by showing video images of the missile blasting off, as a newscaster proclaimed that it could carry a “super large heavy warhead.”
The missile flew 10 times higher than the International Space Station and 500 miles higher than previous missile tests of its kind. It was in the air for about 50 minutes, flying eight minutes longer than previous tests before crashing into the Sea of Japan. Analysts say that its range was more than enough to reach the United States if the missile traveled on a flatter trajectory. In general, experts agreed that the launch was a significant step forward in North Korea’s missile development.
After the launch, President Trump called China’s President Xi Jinping and vowed to impose more sanctions on Pyongyang. Yet North Korea has defied all previous rounds of sanctions, conducting 20 missile tests this year alone. On Thursday, Trump criticized the Chinese envoy to North Korea as having “no impact on Little Rocket Man” and vowed to “take care of it.” Trump has previously threatened that North Korea will be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” However, North Korea experts say that any military option would result in massive casualties.
What do we know about the launch?
The test was conducted just before 3 a.m. local time on a cold night just outside the capital, an unusual time since nighttime launches are rare. Previous tests have typically occurred between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Shea Cotton, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said North Korea has favored mid-mornings because “they have a full day of sun to try and collect the pieces” if something goes wrong. However, no one knows for sure how North Korea makes its decisions. Analysts say another possibility could be that North Korea wanted to show how unpredictable it can be to rattle its neighbors.
What’s new about the Hwasong-15?
North Korea released photos of the ballistic missile a day after its launch. The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield did a complete breakdown of the missile, but here are the basics:
– North Korea claims the transporter erector launcher — the vehicle used to move the missile — has one more axle than the previous version. Analysts believe they are modified Chinese trucks.
– The nose cone is much blunter than on previous versions, indicating that the missile was designed to slow as it flies and protect the warhead as it comes back down.
– The missiles likely carried a small payload, allowing it to fly farther. If outfitted with a more standard payload, the missile would “barely reach Seattle.”
– There were likely two additional engines that gave the missile a higher altitude.
– North Korean analysts were surprised to see more advanced steering of the missile via gimbaling. “This is a sort of maneuvering which is pretty fancy. You lose the least thrust that way,” said Scott LaFoy, an imagery analyst for NK News.
What can the U.S. do about this?
The boost phase for an intercontinental ballistic missiles is about three to five minutes, allowing it to climb quickly. Missile defense systems are particularly vulnerable to its speed and the ability to travel long distances. An ICBM has a minimum range of 3,400 miles, but experts estimate that the Hwasong-15 had a maximum range of 8,100 miles. North Korea’s capital and Washington, D.C., are about 6,800 miles apart.
The United States has several options, but the main deterrent is the ground-based midcourse defense program. Trump has previously claimed that the system can knock out an ICBM “97 percent of the time” — but that’s not the case. In testing the system, the Pentagon concluded that it has only limited defense capabilities. Before it shot down a mock ICBM over the Pacific, the system failed seven times in 17 tests. It uses a five-foot-long “kill vehicle” to shoot down an incoming warhead.
The head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency said the Pacific test proved that the system worked effectively under a “realistic” test. However, some experts have questioned the statement and pointed out that they are performed in a controlled environment.