A quick update on activity in North Korea
WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG: In our last episode, I promised that my next article would be on the “find and fix” phases of the kill chain. The recent news coming out of North Korea compels me to interrupt that plan. However, these new developments seem to fit the proposed topic well, especially at the tactical level. So, let’s throw-in a quick update on Kim Jung Un’s (KJU) latest malfeasance and how our intelligence systems and people are involved.
On 4 July, the North Koreans launched the Hwasong-14, their first long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). By military classification, ICBMs have a range of more than 3,400 miles. Prior to this launch, all previous tests involved lower class missiles: SRBMs (short range ballistic missiles with a range of about 620 miles or less), MRBMs (medium range ballistic missiles with a range 621 to 1864 miles), and IRBMs (intermediate range ballistic missiles with a range of 1,865 to 3,400 miles). KJU said that the new ICBM was “…a gift to the American bastards…” on our Independence Day. We’ll get into the details of this new missile in a moment.
If you read the news reports, you are left with the impression that this latest launch caught our U.S. military and intelligence groups by surprise. That is not the case. In January 2017, intelligence satellites detected suspicious activity at the Chanjin Missile Factory, just south of Pyongyang. In March, the North Koreans ran several tests on a new rocket engine that could power an ICBM, and our intelligence systems detected and identified those activities. In June, they ran another test on that rocket engine, and the activity was again monitored. Our intelligence analysts could put the January and March intelligence together and know what was going on: the North Koreans were developing a new longer-range ICBM-class missile. Analysts concluded that the new engine was different than the old lower-thrust failure-prone Musudan engines used on previous Hwasong-10 and Hwasong-12 missiles, both IRBMs. Just look at the exhaust plume volume, the IR image (infrared heat signature) of the engine exhaust, the scorch mark patterns on the test pad after the test, stuff like that. The news media were the only people surprised by the launch.
The site for the July launch was near the Panghyon Aircraft Factory, a location never before used for launches in the past. But, that’s not unusual. The North Koreans don’t use fixed missile launch facilities: they are too easy to find, fix, and destroy in a war. So, they use a mobile TEL (transporter-erector-launcher) for their missiles. Previous mobile launchers, for their Musudan IRBM series, had six axels (12 wheels). But DPRK-distributed propaganda photos showed a new 8-axel (16-wheel) TEL. These vehicles are really trucks designed for hauling timber. Our intelligence guys knew that the North Koreans bought six of them from a Chinese company, Wanshan Special Vehicle Co., in 2011 and promised that they were for civilian use only. Photos of these trucks in Pyongyang parades show they were painted with camouflage colors, carrying mock-ups of larger missiles. Certainly the compression of the tires on the vehicle in the photos, from the top of the sidewall to the bottom flat tread on the road, and the length of that flat tread segment on the road, would tell us something about the weight of the missile onboard. Look at the height of the truck body, relative to the top of the tires. A cursory analysis of the photos suggests that the missiles on display were hollow empty painted metal tubes. Think of this observation like Navy guys looking at ships on the ocean: if an observed tanker or cargo ship is riding high in the water, it is empty. So, our intelligence analysts knew that the North Koreans had a new 8-axel/16-wheel TEL, for transporting heavier ballistic missiles than we had previously seen, but they didn’t have the real missiles. Extrapolate that intelligence logically, and you know what they are working on, long before they launch it.
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Now, let’s look at the forensics of the missile itself. The North Koreans have been building copies of Russian liquid-fueled missiles since the 1950s, but this one is different. The Hwasong-10 was a copy of the Russian SS-N-6, with one main engine and two vernier engines for steering, using N204 as the oxidizer and UDMH (Unsymmetrical DiMethyl Hydrazine) as the fuel. This mixture is highly volatile, and could explode if jostled around on the TEL. The Hwasong-12 had one main engine with four vernier steering engines using IFRNA and UDMH, so it was more stable in transport. The Hwasong-14 probably used the new IFRNA/UDMH mixture and the four vernier steering engines, according to reports. More details on the new missile are here. <http://breakingdefense.com/2017/07/this-is-not-the-icbm-you-are-looking-for-detailed-analysis-of-north-korean-missile/>
Why include the chemistry of the highly volatile and flammable rocket fuels here? I am reminded of what Sun Tzu said in his book, “The Art Of War”: “If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by.” According to this video, KJU was walking around the Hwasong-14 before launch, smoking a cigarette within 10-20 feet of all that volatile fuel. <http://www.businessinsider.com/kim-jong-un-smoke-cigarrette-icbm-north-korea-2017-7> With any luck, he will blow himself up at the next launch.
Now, let’s look at the performance, what the missile did. It flew to an apogee (height) of 2,802 kilometers (1741 miles) and travelled a distance of 933 kilometers (580 miles), with a total flight time of 39 minutes. Obviously the launch angle was very shallow, something like 10-15 degrees from vertical, to create such a high-peaked parabola. Now, if you know the launch angle, the apogee, and the distance travelled, there is a formula to derive the maximum range of the missile at a 45 degree launch angle. That turns out to be about 4,000 miles, not enough to reach the Hawaiian Islands or the U.S. mainland, but it could hit Alaska. And the range also depends on the weight of the warhead. This missile carried no warhead, so its range would be less if armed. From my reading, U.S. miniaturized nuclear warheads have a weight of 1,000 pounds or less. The best figures I have found is that the present North Korean warheads might weigh 1,500 pounds or more. That is the weight of the Russian SS-N-6 warhead yielding a 15 kiloton explosion, a bit more than previous North Korean nuclear tests have yielded. KJU posed for a photo with his new miniaturized “disco ball” warhead back in 2016. That volume fits the 1,500 pound (650kg) weight estimate. Now, if he showed-off his hollow and empty ICBM missiles on the 8-axel TEL in 2011, but it took six years to launch one, and showed-off his new miniaturized “disco ball” warhead in 2016, what does that say? Intelligence sources don’t believe North Korean has yet mastered miniaturization.
Russian intelligence people claim that their radar tracked the Hwasong-14 to an altitude of only 332 miles, a distance of only 316 miles, and a flight time of only 14 minutes. They claim that the North Korean missile is, therefore, not an ICBM but an SRBM and nothing to be upset about. Looks like the Russians need to calibrate their radar systems again.
On 14 June, a North Korean soldier walked through the minefields on the DMZ and defected. On 18 June, another man claiming to be a North Korean soldier swam across the Han River and defected. On 23 June, another soldier walked through the minefields on the DMZ and defected to South Korea. North Korean soldiers on the DMZ are considered the most disciplined and toughest of their troops. Preliminary reports say the defectors were underweight and malnourished. If North Korean soldiers get fed first, before the civilians, then conditions on the DMZ must be very tough.
Finally, I have saved the best for last. On 4 July, our IMINT satellites had KJU in their crosshairs for 70 minutes, as he walked around the Hwasong missile before the launch, smoking cigarettes. Our imaging analysts were watching him in real time: they could positively identify him in the images. But, military and civilian authorities chose not to take him out. However, intelligence sources did release the tracking information, showing how vulnerable he is.
George Santayana (1863-1952) once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” On 6 August 1945, the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb, named “Little Boy”, on Hiroshima. On 9 August 1945, the second atomic bomb, named “Fat Man,” was dropped on Nagasaki. Both names are appropriate appellations being used for KJU today. Are these names just a coincidence? No, I think Santayana was prescient.
This information should give you a basic idea of what is going on in North Korea and what our intelligence systems and people are doing. Next time, we’ll go deeper into the find and fix phase of the kill chain.