On November 29th North Korea launched yet another new ballistic missile design; the Hwasong-15 (HS-15). This comes after the July 3rd launch of the first Hwasong-14 and a second Hwasong-14 launch on July 28. North Korea described both tests as successful and proof that North Korea had a working ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) design. None of that was true. What North Korea did do in 2017 was to launch the two-stage Hwasong-14 (HS-14) ballistic missile that went higher (2,800 and 3,700 kilometers) than an ICBM normally goes (about 1,200 kilometers) but did not have enough momentum to go very far and the second stage (or what was left of it) came down in the ocean 930 kilometers from where it was launched. To be a working ICBM Hwasong-14 would need rocket motors in the first and second stages that could fire longer (carry enough fuel or be efficient and reliable enough) to keep it going at that orbital (where low orbit satellites regularly operate) altitude long enough for a third stage to separate and use a reliable guidance system and re-entry vehicle able to handle the heat of high-speed descent to the surface.
The Hwasong-15 seemed to deal with some, but not all, of these problems. Hwasong-15 was a similar but enlarged Hwasong-14 design that went up to 4,400 kilometers but still did not demonstrate any evidence of a guidance system that would take a third stage (carrying one or more warheads) accurately to a target. The U.S. said its sensors indicated the Hwasong-15 missile broke apart as it fell back to earth. It is unclear if that was deliberate because the North Koreans know the South Korean are able to retrieve wreckage of North Korean missiles that falls into the ocean. This debris is analyzed and has revealed much about North Korean capabilities.
North Korea is, as usual with its many recent long-range ballistic missiles, missing a lot of key components but managing to keep the media spotlight on the few features that did work and imply that the missing capabilities will appear in due course. Like many North Korean assurances (about their economy, their ability to feed their population and much else) “due course” actually means; “eventually but not yet and maybe never.” North Korea knows that this is not a popular subject for the mass media and has been able to get away with this sort of thing for decades. Looking at the North Korean ICBMs from a historical perspective provides a more accurate, less scary and more humorous take on the North Korean ICBM threat.
For example Hwasong-15 was not new tech but similar to the American Cold War era Atlas SM-65. This was one of the last U.S. liquid fueled ICBMs and the last one the U.S. Army was allowed to operate. SM-65 was a 117 ton, two stage liquid fueled missile with a max range of 9,000 to 14,000 kilometers (depending on the version}. Only 350 of the SM-65 were built and it was retired as an ICBM in 1965. Twenty SM-65s were converted to satellite launchers and later versions of Atlas were built to just launch satellites and continued doing so into the 21st century.
The point is that the HS-14/15 technology is 60 years old (or 50 if you are Russian and 40 if you are Chinese). The difference is these three countries had far more human and material resources than North Korea ever will. In addition North Korea has to operate under growing economic sanctions and a crumbling economy. In addition what North Korea has shown off so far is, from an engineering perspective, the easy part. Getting a multistage liquid fuel rocket to go straight up was first demonstrated a century ago and by the 1960s the early designs were being replicated by eager high school students. What is not easily duplicated are technologies for controlled re-entry (into the atmosphere), heat shields to protect the entry vehicle (carrying one or more nuclear weapons), flight controls for the reentry vehicle to hit the target area (or multiple targets if more than one warhead is carried in the reentry vehicle). Finally you need nuclear bomb components that are miniaturized and sturdy enough to continue operating reliably in a vacuum, under intense gravity and temperature variations as well as intense vibrations. This applies to the mechanical and electronic components of the nuclear explosive itself as well as the reentry vehicle control and guidance system.
North Korea said their HS-15 could reach all of the United States and that is true if it has the missing technologies (especially the guidance system) capable of handling that. But ICBM missile tests so far indicate that North Korea was continuing to spend a lot of money on ballistic missiles that provide spectacular photos for the media but never evolve into something that consistently works as an actual weapon. The North Korean approach is scary and you don’t have to show much progress to get the foreign news organizations interested. North Korea has been exploiting this for all of 2017. For example on May 14 they conducted a ballistic missile test involving what they described as a Hwasong-12 (KN-17) IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile) in its first successful test. This missile apparently used a rocket engine similar to the one used in Hwasong-14 and was tested six times in 2017, only two of them successful. Hwasong-12 is a single stage SCUD (liquid fuel) type ballistic missile that has long been in development. It is used on a tracked mobile launcher and is rumored to have a warhead with a guidance system capable of hitting a large, moving ship (like an aircraft carrier) at sea. There is no proof of that at all, but makes for great headlines. In theory the Hwasong-12 could have a max range of over 4,000 kilometers but the last test in September took the missile out to about 3,700 kilometers. Since then, nothing. All attention switched to the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15. In large part that was because of the use of gimbaled engines and similarities with the Russia RD type liquid fuel engine.
To create a fully functional HS-14 or HS-15 ICBM North Korea would need more than a dozen test launches to ensure the missing technologies were now present and working. The missing techs are the more difficult ones that require more engineering and scientific resources than the basic multi-stage rocket. Nothing as exciting as rockets blasting off when it comes to reentry vehicle and its contents. Until North Korea succeeds in that last endeavor and conducts multiple tests that obviously work will there be any hope of a serious threat. But then comes yet another challenge.
Even with a reliable Hwasong-14 or 15 ICBM North Korea would need more than a dozen of them, launched simultaneously, to have any chance of getting past the existing American GBI (Ground Based Interceptor) anti-missile missiles based in Alaska. The 22 ton GBI anti-missile missiles have already proved more reliable than anything North Korea has shown off. In addition American intel analysts know that to do a successful attack North Korea would have to make a massive effort to prepare (load fuel and the like) that many missiles for simultaneous launch. That effort would be difficult to hide and if discovered would risk triggering a preemptive attack. The fact that North Korean artillery and rockets could do a lot of damage to the South Korean capital Seoul which is within range of thousands of North Korean big guns and rockets may scare the South Koreans into a state of perpetual hesitation. But if North Korea makes a serious threat of nuclear attack against the United States, Seoul is no longer much of a deterrent. The North Koreans know all this and they also know they don’t have to create a credible ICBM threat against the United States to get what they want. The North Koreans are basically running an extortion effort. In effect the North Koreans are demanding cash and commodities to keep their fragile economy (and rather more robust police state) operating. In short, the offer is, “pay up and we will tone it down.” Even that outcome is doubtful as North Korea has reneged on all the similar peace deals it has made since the 1990s.
North Korea has never been known to deploy a long-range missile that had not been successfully tested. What is catching headlines has been a series of demonstrations featuring larger and larger missiles that function as media events but not systems that can reliably launch a satellite or deliver a functioning warhead (conventional or nuclear) to a distant technology. This scan sort of works because it hasn’t actually paid off yet. None of the potential marks (victims expected to pay) has offered to make any deal that exchanges cash and other assets got North Korean promises to behave. The only response North Korea has gotten is South Korea and Japan increasing their defense spending, especially when it comes to anti-missile systems. Worse, South Korea and Japanese are seriously considering the need to develop nukes themselves. Both these nations are in a much better position to do so and quickly. Both nations already have reliable ballistic missiles and South Korea is building more while Japan can easily modify its satellite launchers to deliver a warhead. The North Korean threat works both ways and while the North Koreans can pretend to ignore that, the reality is still there and more reliable and effective that what North Korea is promising someday, eventually and so on.