Joe Cirincione writes: The Hwasong-15 ICBM tested by North Korea on Nov. 28 is a monster. Many compare it to the Titan II, deployed by the United States to carry our largest, multi-megaton hydrogen bombs to targets halfway around the globe. Missile expert Mike Elleman at the International Institute for Strategic Studies calls it “a significant improvement in North Korea’s ability to target the US.” Even applying conservative assumptions about the missile’s engines, “it now appears that the Hwasong-15 can deliver a 1,000-kg payload to any point on the US mainland,” he writes at 38 North. “North Korea has almost certainly developed a nuclear warhead that weighs less than 700 kg, if not one considerably lighter.”
The test was conducted at night, using a mobile missile launcher, “simulating the operation conditions North Korea would actually use in a wartime scenario,” notes Harvard scholar Mira Rapp-Hopper in Defense One. “In short, North Korea’s missiles are increasingly sophisticated, increasingly survivable, and functionally capable of putting the entire U.S. homeland at risk,” she concludes. But “from a strategic perspective, this latest test is not a game-changer.”
That might be true if you are just looking at its longer range and more powerful engines. The first North Korea ICBM test, on July 4, flew the equivalent of over 4,000 miles and put Hawaii and Alaska within range. The second, on July 28, could fly more than 6,000 miles, bringing the West Coast and Midwest within range. This latest test demonstrated the ability to fly more than 8,000 miles. Washington is less than 7,000 miles from Pyongyang. (Mar-a-Lago is about 7,500 miles away.) By these numbers, the Hwasong-15 represents an increased threat, but more symbolic and psychological than strategic.
It’s the front end of the missile that changes everything. [Continue reading…]