Hwasong-14 ICBM: Conjectures and Refutations

A little bit more detail, and a little bit more controversy, has emerged regarding the comparative analysis of the Hwasong-14 test one (July 4) and Hwasong-14 test two (July 28).

First, the detail. Ankit Panda writing at The Diplomat has received interesting information from US government sources, and that of a quantitative nature which always, naturally, is handy. The data on the second stage performance doesn’t make much sense, but that on the first stage is interesting

According to U.S. officials with knowledge of the test who spoke to The Diplomat, North Korea achieved the demonstrated trajectory by burning the missile’s liquid-propellant-based engines, which were configured differently in the second stage, for a different amount of time each than in the July 4 test.

In the July 28 test, the missile’s first stage burned for 151 seconds, a slight increase from the 145 seconds observed during the July 4 test…

…During the second Hwasong-14’s flight, the first stage engine was cut off at an altitude of 130 kilometers. The first stage reached an apogee of 703 kilometers before separating

So, one of the key differences is that an earlier first stage engine cutoff for the July 4 test contributed to a flight at less than maximum range (for a highly lofted launch).

The 4 vernier engines for the second stage I have discussed previously, and will leave that aside for this post.

The controversy revolves around the RV. According to Michael Elleman, and supported by John Schilling (kind of), the amazing video footage of the Hwasong-14 RV as it reentered not far off the Japanese island of Hokkaido shows that the RV broke up.

One of the main items of evidence that Elleman points to in support of his thesis is the glowing and dimming of the RV as it descends. However, critics of this thesis make a potentially telling point namely that although US Minuteman III RVs do not glow and dim in this fashion, Russian RVs do prior to reaching their designated test targets.

See this video of Russian MIRVs glowing as they descend toward their designated targets

This kinda reminds me of the Vela double flash. The issue is important to the extent that it indicates to us how much progress North Korea has made toward achieving a truly reliable ICBM capability, and how much North Korea still needs to do in order to demonstrate a reliable ICBM capability.

Either way I don’t think the timing difference is all that significant. I’m especially interested in the video of the RV from an accuracy perspective. Reports suggested that the July 4 Hwasong-14 test landed in Japan’s EEZ, and there isn’t any doubt about the second.

I rather suspect that North Korea didn’t want that to happen. There’s analysis of a map of planned flight trajectories on a desk of Kim Jong Un’s, but it seems to me more plausible to assume that North Korea didn’t want to be so provocative as to target Japan’s EEZ.

If so, that means the RV is not as accurate as North Korea would like it to be. That’s important because both tests were highly lofted and so thereby were over short ranges. Accuracy errors accumulate. Consider the Soviet SS-19 ICBM, in the news of late because of its relation to the planned new Russian Sarmat ICBM (more on that later).

The testing programme for the SS-19 proceeded upon a tight schedule and that led Soviet scientists to miss a flaw with the missile, namely that it lost accuracy when launched at full range. There are uncertainties in accuracy estimations between test ranges and operational ranges even for Russian and US ICBM tests, and they aren’t strictly up and down affairs like the two Hwasong-14 tests.

We need to know more about the relationship between throw weight, warhead yield and operational accuracy for the Hwasong-14 and further subsequent analysis by myself will tend to focus on this matter. For example Schilling in the article linked above argues a 500 to 600 kg warhead makes the Hwasong-14 operational range limited to US West Coast targets. That also means that any coming hydrogen bomb needs to be delivered by an ICBM with a higher throw weight than the Hwasong 14.

I leave aside that side of things for now, but the big fucker is yet to come.

Jeffrey Lewis, in an interesting article for The New York Times, argues that North Korea basically is already there regarding an ICBM for a first generation nuclear weapon. I think we can divide our estimates of North Korean capabilities into two distinct periods, let’s call it the Scud and post Scud era.

During the Scud era North Korea was reverse engineering and augmenting Scud derived technology, but that had inherent physical limitations. So during the Scud era analysts recognised, when it came to long range missiles, North Korea’s programmes had inherent limitations and official Government sources, hawks, neocons, missile defence advocates and so on were over-estimating North Korean missile capabilities.

But from 2012 onward North Korea was showing evidence of moving into the post Scud era, for example we saw R27 or SS-N-26 derived technology and, ultimately, the Pektusan or March 18 Revolution engine. During this period, the era of “strategic patience,” quite curiously matters tended to be reversed. The official line tended to downplay growing North Korean capabilities, we even saw tales about hacking attacks undermining North Korean progress, yet despite that we are now where we are.

I rather suspect that for BMD the Scud era was great, but that the real threat BMD faces actually is a really breathing and firing North Korean ICBM because it lowers the scope for bullshit.

The reasons behind the post Scud era down playing of North Korean capabilities is well explored in the above linked article, but that just deals with the post Scud period. A fuller picture is reached when both periods are analysed holistically, and BMD needs to be added into the picture.

Naturally, the question that readily comes to mind is; what enabled North Korea to cross the threshold from the Scud to the post Scud era? A conjecture consistent with the post Scud downplaying thesis is that the threshold was crossed because of North Korean access to Soviet post Scud missile technology and know how. The North Koreans themselves have claimed that the threshold was crossed through indigenous effort, a claim made especially with regard to the Pektusan engine.

In regard to the latter when North Korea statically tested the Pektusan engine on March 18 KCNA carried a statement that included a line whereby Kim Jong Un stated that progress had been made because of the dispensing of “conservatism, dogmatism and formalism” in its missile programme. I tend to think that this might explain the crossing of the threshold a little bit, to what extent I’m not so sure.

During the US ICBM programme, which was accelerated, development proceeded upon the basis of “concurrency” where major systems were not tested individually but rather concurrently. Though this increased risk it accelerated development. Perhaps the post Scud era of spectacular launch failures but accelerated development is reflective of concurrency, an hypothesis consistent with Kim Jong Un’s statement regarding conservatism and dogmatism.

An hypothesis well worth exploring.