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Reach of North’s ICBMs growing fast, says expert

July 12,2017
North Korea’s Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), when fully developed, has the potential to deliver a nuclear warhead to targets along the U.S. West Coast, with enough accuracy to destroy a naval base in San Diego, according to an American missile expert.

U.S. aerospace engineer John Schilling noted that the Hwasong-14 has an estimated range of 9,700 kilometers (6,027 miles) with a 500 kilogram (1,102 pound) payload in a report published Monday on the 38 North website, which is run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. This puts the U.S. naval base in San Diego in range.

Schilling pointed out that the Hwasong-14 missile test on July 4 was launched at a “very high angle, lofted trajectory to avoid overflying Japan,” and that if it had been launched on a maximum-range trajectory, it might have reached a distance of 7,000 to 8,000 kilometers. According to his analysis, “it can probably do a bit better than that when all the bugs are worked out.”

With a year or two of additional testing and development, Schilling wrote, it will likely become a missile that can “reliably deliver a single nuclear warhead to targets along the U.S. west coast, possibly with enough accuracy to destroy soft military targets like naval bases.”

In another five years, North Korea may also be able to incorporate a modest suite of decoys and penetration aids to challenge U.S. missile defenses, according to his technical evaluation.

Schilling pointed out that most of North Korea’s long-range missiles have been topped with a triconic re-entry vehicle (RV) capable of holding a single nuclear warhead. The Hwasong-14, he says, has a detachable payload shroud estimated to be 2.5 meters (8 feet) long with a diameter of 1.3 meters.

The payload shroud is a hollow aerodynamic fairing or nose-cone at the missile’s tip, which can enclose multiple payloads or a single warhead and an assortment of decoys and penetration aids designed to defeat the U.S. missile defense shield. It is usually jettisoned as soon as the missile has left the atmosphere.

The usual triconic re-entry vehicle won’t fit inside this shroud he says. So it is likely that North Korea is using a blunt-body re-entry vehicle, like the United States did in its preliminary ICBMs.

“In the short term, that’s probably all there is to it - a streamlined fairing over a blunt-body RV,” he said, which would be capable of delivering a 500 to 600 kilogram nuclear payload “with limited accuracy to targets on the U.S. West Coast.”

But he said that there may eventually be more than just a single warhead under the shroud, though he doesn’t expect multiple warheads for at least a decade.

A more urgent priority for North Korea may be developing a system of decoys and penetration aids to deter U.S. missile defenses.

North Korea’s ICBMs wouldn’t be able to outnumber U.S. missile defense interceptors, Schilling writes. “But if they can put a dozen or so effective decoys on each missile - that might be enough to maintain a credible deterrent.”

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) on Tuesday confirmed that the North’s ballistic missile test on July 4 had the range of an ICBM. NIS director Suh Hoon reported to the National Assembly’s intelligence committee that the top spy agency does not believe, however, that Pyongyang has mastered re-entry technology yet.

Rep. Yi Wan-young of the Liberty Korea Party, said that the NIS, according to its tentative analysis, determined the ballistic missile to have an ICBM-level range, and was a modified version of the KN-17, which was successfully tested by the North on May 14. A KN-17 is an intermediate-range, single-stage, liquid-fueled Scud-type missile. ICBMs have a range of more than 5,500 kilometers.

The NIS, according to Yi, said it has not been able to confirm successful re-entry yet, and taking into consideration North Korea does not have testing facilities, it concluded that Pyongyang “has not yet secured that technology.”

Pyongyang last week claimed that the Hwasong-14 was capable of carrying a “large-sized heavy nuclear warhead,” adding the launch had successfully tested atmospheric re-entry technology.

The NIS concluded, according to Yi, that this launch was also an expression of Pyongyang’s discontent with the summit between President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump and the international community’s sanctions. It also was meant to publicize leader Kim Jong-un’s strong command of his country.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]