Jeffrey Lewis writes: it is important to understand that 7,000 km is the range that North Korea demonstrated. It is minimum. Those of us who study proliferation are now in the process of modeling the missile to determine its maximum range. And I don’t like what I see.
The new missile appears to share a lot of common characteristics with the new missile, called the Hwasong-12, tested on May 14. My colleagues at the Middlebury Institute, along with friends at the Union of Concerned Scientists, have been modeling this missile very carefully. We measured its length and width, located the weld lines that showed where the propellant tanks are located, estimated its weight by analyzing the crane that lifted it into place, and determined the power of its engine by tracking the missile’s acceleration down to the tenth of a second.
We concluded that this missile is larger than most experts initially thought. Moreover, it has a much better engine and more efficient airframe than anything North Korea has ever built.
The Hwasong-12 was large. The Hwasong-14 is larger still. It appears to be wider than the Hwasong-12, and has a second stage—a missile on top of a missile—that extends its range. Although it is too early to offer a definitive judgment about the full capability of the Hwasong-14, a two-stage missile of this size and sophistication should be able to deliver a nuclear weapon-size payload much farther than just Alaska, to targets throughout most of the continental United States.
It is possible that North Korea’s Hwasong-14 underperformed. But it is more likely that North Korea simply did not test the missile to its full range, wanting to bring it down into the sea. That is fairly straightforward for rockets that use liquid fuel, where it is possible to simply stop the engine to reduce the range.
China, for instance, conducted several reduced range tests of its DF-5 ICBM before conducting a full-range test in 1980. Another test fell short because the second stage engine turned off a few seconds too soon. Whatever happened, the capabilities demonstrated this week are probably not the full capability of the missile.
The bottom line is that there is no reason at this point to conclude that the Hwasong-14 has a range of “only” 7,000 km or that it is just Alaska that is within range. The technologies on display in the Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 suggest that the latter is much more capable. And there is no reason to think that North Korea cannot build an ICBM that can reach anywhere in the United States.
That isn’t a reason to panic. But it is a reason to face squarely the reality that North Korea is a nuclear-weapons state that can target the United States. [Continue reading…]