North Korea tested a brand new intercontinental ballistic missile last week — and it’s big. The Hwasong-15 is larger and more powerful than the Hwasong-14 that scared the beejezus out of everyone when they tested it over the July 4 weekend. That missile appeared to be able to reach at least some parts of the mainland U.S. The new missile can reach all of it.
What the Hwasong-15 Can Do
According to a North Korean government announcement after the test, the Hwasong-15 is capable of “carrying [a] super-heavy warhead and hitting the whole mainland of the U.S.” Analysts think that’s more or less true.
Like the Hwasong-14, the new Hwasong-15 is a liquid-fueled two stage ICBM, meaning that it jettisons its launch stage after its fuel is spent and continues on with a lighter second stage. The Hwasong-15’s first stage is powered by two engines rather than the Hwasong-14’s single engine. The new missile also boasts a larger second stage as well. Judging by its size, think-tank 38 North estimates that the new missile’s second stage contains 50% more propellent.
“Taken together, and applying conservative assumptions about the second-stage propulsion system, it now appears that the Hwasong-15 can deliver a 1,000-kg payload to any point on the US mainland,” 38 North says. “North Korea has almost certainly developed a nuclear warhead that weighs less than 700 kg, if not one considerably lighter.”
Other enhancements may include a capability to steer the warhead after the boost phase, allowing improved targeting precision and potentially the capacity to carry countermeasures, such as decoy warheads, designed to fake out U.S. missile defense systems. The Hwasong-15 will require additional testing, but paired with the thermonuclear warhead North Korea tested in September, this new missile will give Kim Jung Un the ability to threaten any U.S. city.
With the addition of the Hwasong-15, North Korea now has everything it needs to mount a serviceable nuclear deterrent. Following the launch, Kim Jung Un proclaimed, that his country has “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.” Some have interpreted this to mean that this will mark the end of North Korea’s provocations. That is wishful thinking. The Hwasing-15 represents only the completion of the first generation of North Korea’s missile force. It will surely continue to develop it further.
What Comes Next
By American standards, the North’s shiny new ICBM would have been obsolete a half century ago. North Korea’s ICBM’s are liquid-fueled rockets, which require a lengthy fueling process that leaves them vulnerable to attack. Solid-fueled rockets, first introduced in the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the early 1960s, don’t have this problem.
North Korean is likely to continue to develop more advanced rockets, including solid-fueled designs. North Korea is also actively developing a submarine launch capability. Recent satellite imagery indicates that a submersible test stand barge it has been building is nearly complete.
In a nuclear conflict, U.S. missile defense systems have a decent chance of destroying a North Korean missile. Still, missile interception is a tricky business. Current U.S. missile defense systems can be overwhelmed by multiple incoming warheads or decoys, a vulnerability North Korea is keen to exploit.
The U.S. is working to strengthen its missile defense capabilities. North Korea is likely working just as hard to develop countermeasures designed to foil them. These may include decoy warheads and multiple-warhead payloads. Substantial investment in missile defense technology will be required to stay ahead of the threat.
Begging for War
All this comes as U.S. F-22 stealth warplanes arrive in South Korea for exercises. A spokesman for North Korea’s foreign ministry reacted with characteristic bellicose hyperbole, saying that the U.S. was “begging for nuclear war” and branding President Donald Trump a “nuclear demon,” whatever that is.
The F-22s, America’s most advance air superiority fighter, is a potent reminder that despite North Korea’s advances in its missile program, America’s military capabilities are still light-years ahead. The U.S. has advanced stealth warplanes, the North Korean military still has a substantial number of biplanes in operational service. It would rapidly crumble against the full might of America’s military.
However, between its missiles and the sheer size of its fighting forces, North Korea is perfectly capable of inflicting substantial pain on American and allied countries in the meantime.
History suggests that a long-range nuclear missile force only emboldens rogue actors. North Korea is developing a nuclear capability precisely so it can act more freely without fear of retaliation. Recent advancements in the North’s nuclear capability give it leverage to achieve its long-term goals. The threat of a nuclear strike against the U.S. homeland will significantly constrain the options available to the U.S. to counter potential future North Korean aggression against South Korea and other American allies in the region.
We should be under no illusion that Kim is the least bit interested in negotiating this away. There is little chance the North Korea problem is going away anytime soon.