Strategic Weapons: Russia And The North Korean ICBM

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December 30, 2015: At the end of 2015 the U.S. revealed that it believed North Korea was continuing to work on the KN-08 ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) in an effort to make it work. Getting this missile redesigned, reliable and ready for successful testing is expensive. That is a sign the North Koreas are quite serious about this project. The KN-08 is meant to threaten the United States while the North Korean nukes threaten all the neighbors.

The KN-08 first appeared in public during a 2013 military parade. It had long been known that North Korea was trying to develop a ballistic missile that could reach the United States. Until the appearance of the very large KN-08 the longest range North Korean seen in actual use (during tests) were the Nodong series. These are based on the old Russia SCUD and had been scaled up to the point that they had a max range of over a thousand kilometers. Out of this came the even larger Taepodong missiles which were officially satellite launchers. Taepodong 1 was tested in 1998. North Korea had been working on Taepodong since the early 1990s. While the Taepodong 1 had a range of about 1,500 kilometers the larger Taepodong 2 went twice as far in 2009. A 2006 Taepodong 2 test barely got off the ground before crashing. The KN-08 was a different shape missile, obviously for military use and using different technology.

In 2005 there were indications that North Korea had obtained more advanced ballistic missile technology from Russia and the KN-08 may be the result of that. The Russian tech was the SS-N-6, a 1960s vintage ballistic missile known in Russia as the R-27. NATO called it SS-N-6. This was Russia's first true submarine launched ballistic missile, and sixteen of them were carried in Yankee class SSBNs (missile carrying nuclear submarines.) The R-27 had a range of 2,800 kilometers. After the R-27 was replaced by more modern missiles in the 1970s, the missile continued to be used for scientific research until 1990. By that time, 492 R-27s had been launched, 87 percent of them successfully. It would be very embarrassing for the Russians if someone had illegally exported SS-N-6/R-27 missiles to North Korea. It is more likely, and was reported in 2001, that someone in the Russian organization that designed the R-27 had illegally sold the plans to North Korea. This was supposed to have happened sometime in the 1990s and the main reason for the deal was for the North Koreans to obtain the missile guidance technology. The Russians kept improving the guidance system of the R-27 through the 1980s and the North Koreans have always been desperate for better missile guidance technology. But North Korea may have obtained useful information on longer range ballistic missile design and construction as well. That would explain the appearance of the KN-08.

During that first KN-08 appearance there was ample opportunity for Western visitors to take detailed photos and it was later concluded that these were mockups but very detailed and convincing ones. It was also discovered that North Korea had illegally converted Chinese lumber transports into TELs (Transporter Erector Launchers) for its KN-08 ballistic missiles. These TELs were not designed to be used more than once. When first scrutinized in 2013 is was believed that KN-08 was a large enough missile to have a range of over 4,000 kilometers. That estimate has since been revised upward. The 16 wheel TEL was carrying what appeared to be a three stage ballistic missile similar to older Russian models.

North Korea has never been known to deploy a long-range missile that had not been successfully tested. Some thought KN-08 was a fake, just something to make the cold, hungry, and broke North Koreans feel better about themselves. Markings on the TEL identified it as “Hwasong-13 Self-Propelled Launcher.” There are two other North Korean Hwasong missiles, both of them short (up to 500 kilometers) range liquid fuel rockets. These two were called Hwasong-5 and Hwasong-6. Defectors from North Korea indicate that the official name for all North Korean ballistic missiles is Hawsong and that indicates that a missile named Hwasong-13 could be the latest one.

KN-08 could have a range of 9,000 kilometers or more depending on the efficiency of the rocket engines. KN-08 appears to be a liquid fuel missile but the design could accommodate the more efficient solid fuel if the North Koreans obtained the technology to build rocket motors that large. Reports from defectors and other sources indicate that North Korea is putting a lot of scarce resources into the KN-08 and new technologies needed to make it work. North Korean leaders have long been obsessed about having a weapon that could threaten the United States directly.

 


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