Submarines: North Korean SSB And SLBM Development

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May 5, 2016: On April 23rd off the east coast of North Korea an attempt to launch a ballistic missile from underwater failed although the missile did better than an earlier test. This came ten months after North Korea released a video clip showing another SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile) test happening behind leader Kim Jong Un. This was to prove that North Korea now had a submarine that could launch a SLBM. Up until then it was believed that North Korea was building a 1,200 ton SSBs (ballistic missile diesel-electric submarines) called the Simpo that might be able to fire an older type SLBM. As for the SLBM, North Korea was believed to have one or more 1960s vintage Soviet SLBMs but had not yet successfully copied the technology because there were not yet any tests of such a missile. Thus a careful examination of the May 9 video showed it was faked. The most likely scam was to rig an underwater launch tube close to the surface, show it near a surfaced submarine and then launch a missile that would not go very far, just far enough for a photo to be taken.

The North Korean missile firing sub has been spotted at sea (mostly using satellites) and it appears locally built but based on 1960s Russian designs. The latest video used this sub that has one or two silos built into its sail. Nevertheless aspects of the April test could be considered a “successful failure” as it showed a missile successfully reaching the surface and igniting its main engines but then went out of control and plunged back into the ocean seconds later (and 30 kilometers away). In now appears that there may have been a third test in late 2015 that also failed and did some damage to the Simpo.

What was not faked in was the fact that North Korea obtained all or parts of a Russian R-27 SLBM in the 1990s. The R-27 is 1960s vintage tech that was replaced in the 1970s by more modern designs. But many of the unused R-27s produced were recycled for scientific research until 1990. Some 500 R-27s had been launched with an 87 percent success rate. It was believed that all or much of at least one missile was illegally sold as “scrap” to North Korea in the 1990s. This was deduced from the fact that after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 North Korea bought a lot of discarded Russian weapons for scrap (none of which was supposed to be operational stuff) and it was later discovered that some of the scrap was remilitarized by the North Koreans. Thus it was no surprise that the new North Korean Musudan ballistic missile looked a lot like the R-27. There are pictures of the Musudan mounted on a large truck (that serves as transport and launcher) not a submarine. So far there has been no evidence of a Musudan test. Typically a SLBM is tested from land facilities before it is tested from a submarine. The new North Korean SLBM is being called KN-11 and appears similar to the R-27 (a 14 ton, 8.9 meter long 1.5 meter in diameter, liquid fueled missile with a range of 2,400 kilometers).

North Korea also received ten decommissioned Russian Golf class SSB in 1993, to be turned into scrap. The Golf class boats used the 16 ton R-21 SLBM, which is thinner and longer than the R-27 that replaced it (in the first Russian nuclear powered SSBNs) in the 1960s and 1970s. Foreign intelligence agencies have been watching North Korea carefully for signs that North Korea was working on an SSB but the only possibility found was one new submarine under construction. It did not look like a copy of the Golf class boats but did have a sail that might have held an R-27/Musudan type SLBM. In any event this boat is still under construction. The scrapped Golf boats would have enabled the North Koreans to examine the first generation SLBM launch equipment, in which SSBs fired missiles from an elongated sail structure that contained three SLBMs.

 


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