Hwasong-14 ICBM Test, Ballistic Missile Defense, Nuclear Strategy.

The intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 is seen during its test in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, July, 4 2017. KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.

John Schilling has provided a technical analysis of the Hwasong-14 limited range ICBM, essentially concluding that the Hwasong-14 is a modification of (what previously) was referred to as the KN-14 ICBM. Furthermore, naturally, the single test does not demonstrate that North Korea has a reliable combat ready limited range ICBM, Schilling concludes.

I seek here also, in addition to discussing the Schilling analysis, to make some comments regarding Ballistic Missile Defense and the currently evolving political context.

Interestingly enough Schilling states that the missile might actually have a range greater than 6,700km

David Wright, who provided the 6,700 km figure, acknowledges that his early analysis did not include the effect of the Earth’s rotation and the performance would probably be higher if the missile were launched in an easterly direction

A missile fired from North Korea at the US would be fired in an easterly direction. The targeting upshot of this analysis is that

Fired from North Korea, it probably couldn’t reach the contiguous United States, but Hawaii and Alaska would be within reach

The gold standard for North Korea remains the capability to strike US urban targets with a nuclear warhead across the entire continental United States.

The Hwasong-14, according to Schilling, is a modified KN-14 with a single, March 18 revolution, engine, a new second stage and a new, less blunt, RV.

On the booster engine

The new single engine is very similar to one used in last month’s test of the Hwasong-12 (a.k.a. KN-17), and is likely a new North Korean design

That’s the March 18 revolution engine.

Another key difference is that the upper stage and particularly the reentry vehicle have been reshaped. The original blunt reentry vehicle of the KN-14 has either been redesigned, or enclosed in a hollow payload fairing

That’s a reference to the new second stage engine North Korea spoke of in its KCNA press release accompanying the Hwasong-14test. So, essentially, we have a modified KN-14. Schilling’s analysis is pretty similar to that which I presented in my previous post.

A key difference with the KN-14 lies in the first stage. The KN-14 appeared to have a two engine cluster

The missile, which North Korea calls the Hwasong-14, is very similar to a liquid-fueled missile first displayed on parade in late 2015 and later identified as the KN-14. One key difference is that the KN-14 used a dual first stage engine, while the missile just tested used a single main engine with four smaller verniers for control. The dual-engine configuration was probably never more than an interim design, depending on a limited supply of Cold War surplus Russian hardware

Perhaps, but as Schilling states the Hwasong-14 in its current configuration cannot strike the contiguous United States so it may well be possible that North Korea will cluster the March 18 revolution engine in a two engine first stage configuration for a long range, liquid fuelled, ICBM.

Schilling goes on to point out that a first test, albeit successful, is conducted under experimental conditions. Developmental missile tests are scientific experiments not combat readiness tests. North Korea needs to conduct more tests to demonstrate that it has a reliable missile able to strike Alaska and Hawaii under combat conditions.

Notice Schilling’s comments regarding accuracy of the warhead. The Hwasong-14 dummy warhead landed, reportedly, in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. It’s reasonable to assume that North Korea would not have wanted the warhead to land in Japan’s EEZ, in which case Schilling’s comments have added relevance.

The United States did not attempt a Ballistic Missile Defense intercept of the Hawsong-14. The previous, Obama era, Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, at the tail end of the Obama administration stated that the US would attempt an intercept of a North Korean ICBM if it appeared to threaten the United States *or* its allies, especially Japan.

The Hwasong-14 reportedly landed, as noted, in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. That, seemingly, meets Carter’s criteria for an intercept. Not long after Carter made the intercept threat, he did kind of back away suggesting that the US would rather monitor a North Korean ICBM test in order to gather information. However, Trump tweeted away stating that he wouldn’t allow a North Korean ICBM test to occur, which opened the prospect of an attempted BMD intercept presumably on Carter’s initial criteria.

Well, no such intercept was attempted. Indeed, US sensors initially misclassified the missile leading Pacific Command to state that the Hwasong-14 was an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile test.

As stated by Schilling, and as I had noted in my preliminary analysis and tweets, the RV of the Hwasong-14 is nowhere near as blunt at the KN-14 ICBM RV. A blunt RV poses less of a challenge for BMD. Schilling notes in his analysis that the Hwasong-14 RV can pack a nuclear warhead and some penetration aids, such as warhead decoys (although not a lot).

In June, the US reputedly intercepted an ICBM using the Ground Based Midcourse BMD system, however this was not an intercept of an ICBM that would be targeted at the contiguous United States. Such a missile would travel at 7km/sec and the June intercept, though of an ICBM was timed and configured such that the velocity of intercept of the target was less than 7km/sec. Furthermore, the simulated intercept did not feature decoys.

As noted, the initial US assessment was that North Korea had tested an IRBM not an ICBM so, presumably, if the launch were an attack, and not a test, GMD would, it seems, have been alerted with a, unspecified, delay.

Regarding the political context, the Trump administration has stated, in the wake of the Hwasong-14 test, that it would use military force if it deemed it to be necessary and the US commander in South Korea has stated that “self-restraint” is the only thing preventing the US from launching military strikes against North Korea.

The latter is false. The US is deterred, rather than self restrained, by North Korean military capabilities including mass artillery on the North-South border.

Thus far the emphasis, in regard to a response to the Hwasong-14 test, has been on the usual US position consistent with long standing policy inherited from the Bush and Obama administration; more sanctions, possible more BMD deployments this time THAAD in Japan, and diplomatic isolation. In other words, more of an abjectly failed policy.

Interestingly, Russia has stated that it won’t support more sanctions or other more forceful measures at the UN. This is consistent with their claim that the Hwasong-14 reached an apogee of 550km, so really wasn’t an ICBM. Russia tends to understate technical data like this when It looks as if it won’t support US initiatives at the UN.

Regarding what a potential nuclear conflict might look like on the Korean peninsula, the New York Times has an interesting take coming from rational choice or game theory.

The North has warned that it would immediately retaliate by launching nuclear missiles. But predicting how Mr. Kim would actually respond to a limited attack is an exercise in strategic game theory, with many analysts arguing that he would refrain from immediately going nuclear or using his stockpile of chemical and biological weapons to avoid provoking a nuclear response from the United States.
Assuming Mr. Kim is rational and his primary goal is the preservation of his regime, he would only turn to such weapons if he needed to repel a full-scale invasion or felt a nuclear attack or other attempt on his life was imminent, these analysts say

This is basically intra-war deterrence which effectively is what rational choice or game theory served to underpin during the cold war. Intra-war deterrence, essentially, is the idea that the deterrence relationship between nuclear powers can be extended even after the threshold of war has passed.

If that’s what US strategic planners think, then we should be concerned.

The Soviets stated that they would not play the game of intra-war deterrence. That is, any limited US strike would be met with an overwhelming strategic nuclear response. I think the North Koreans will adopt the same approach. Any US strike, even if limited, will escalate to full scale, nuclear, war so the North Koreans won’t play by the game theory play book.

If the US thinks that they will, then heaven help us.

Update. The CSIS Missile Defense Project states of the Hwasong-14;”It is presently uncertain whether the Hwasong-14 configuration tested on July 3, 2017 is meant for production and deployment. It is perhaps more probable that this missile represents a technology demonstrator that will undergo additional testing and upgrades to further increase its range before the missile goes into serial production. Such upgrades may include the addition of a third stage.”

That’s a good point. I wonder, however, whether third stage would be the upgrade. Firstly, a three stage liquid fuelled ICBM is not optimal. A two stage design is better. Secondly, the dimensions wouldn’t fit the TEL used for the Hwasong-14.