It Takes Two Baby: North Korea’s Second Iskander Like SRBM Test and Strategic Stability

On the 23rd of March I wrote a post here arguing that we’re riding an escalation ladder with North Korea, and that we have been doing so from before the Hanoi summit. Subsequent events have underscored that early analysis, and the events of the last week most certainly have done so.

At the centrepiece of the week’s events, or better still at the centre of the representations of the week’s events, has been North Korea’s operational testing of a solid fuelled short range ballistic missile, twice over it must be said, which looks an awful lot like the Russian Iskander SRBM. Henceforth I shall refer to the North Korean version as the NK-Iskander (until an agreed nomenclature is established).

Melissa Hanham, of the Datayo research project, was quoted in a Reuters report of the NK-Iskander that “missiles like these will start the war.” This is because, if the NK-Iskander is anything like its Russian original, it will be able to manoeuvre to its target and evade missile defence in South Korea so enabling following on or simultaneous missile strikes against time urgent targets.

On Saturday May 4 North Korea tested what now looks to be two NK-Iskander SRBMs, alongside the firing of multiple launch rocket systems including the new KN-09 MLRS. On Thursday May 9, to great surprise, North Korea doubled up and launched what now is reported to be three NK-Iskander SRBMs, with at least one of those from a tracked rather than wheeled TEL, again alongside the firing of multiple launch rocket systems and modernised self propelled artillery. The images of the May 9 operational test included SP artillery, and it is likely that the May 4 operational test also included SP artillery.

The North Korean test on May 4 was quickly followed by a US test of the Minuteman III ICBM. That was likely unrelated, although US officials have been quoted as not minding the coincidence and the perceptions it might engender in Pyongyang. US ICBM tests are routine, but one of the reasons why are worth reflecting upon. US strategic nuclear war planning is based on a first strike counterforce nuclear strategy, which is dependent upon very high damage expectancy criteria that need to be met by the warheads themselves and their means of delivery. US ICBMs, therefore, must be highly reliable and relatively frequent testing to ensure confidence in their reliability is partly a function of first strike counterforce. China from 1981 to 1989 did not test its DF-5 ICBM (it doesn’t have a counterforce strategy).

The Minuteman III and “missiles like these will start the war.”

On May 6 Lockheed Martin released its conception of the Hypersonic Airbreathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The HAWC is to travel in the atmosphere at speeds greater than Mach 5, that is hypersonic speeds, and will also be able to manoeuvre to the target. The HAWC will initially be powered by a rocket accelerating it to approximately Mach 5 whereupon it will be powered by a scramjet engine.  The HAWC, according to The Drive article linked above, will have “the ability to conduct game-changing short- or no-notice strikes against time-sensitive and other critical targets.” Furthermore, “hypersonics can also manoeuvre within the atmosphere, following a more unpredictable flight path compared to other traditional long-range weapons, such as ballistic missiles, making it harder for an opponent to defend against them.”

Missile like these will start the war, in other words.

According to the article HAWC is envisaged, that is budgeted in the DARPA portion of the defence budget, to be flight tested in FY 2020 which begins on October 1 2019.  The F-35 is a stealthy fighter bomber, and the HAWC concept released by Lockheed Martin seems to show that each F-35 will externally carry two HAWC missiles. That will increase the radar profile of the F-35, but it is an interesting question whether North Korean sensors are sensitive enough to pick up HWAC armed F-35s should any enter North Korean airspace. The HAWC can be fired as stand-off weapons and still reach their designated targets promptly, it must be stressed. It is doubtful whether Pyongyang’s sensors would see them coming. The F-35 plays an important role in South Korea’s “kill chain” strategy which seeks to decapitate North Korean command and control and strategic weapon systems early in a crisis, we must add and to which we must also return. Perhaps Seoul will get a slice of the hypersonic pie. The HAWC might also be carried by other air and maritime assets such as the F/A 18 Super Hornet.

Weapons like the HWAC, to the extent that they cannot be picked up by North Korean sensors prior to hitting their targets, provide planners in Pyongyang with an incentive to adopt an Operation RYaN type early warning system. It was RYaN that featured in the centre of the Able Archer ’83 war scare which, it would seem, almost inadvertently led to World War Three. Concerns about decapitation and prompt strikes, combined with a paranoid strategic expectations not unlike exist in Pyongyang, were crucial to the development of RYaN.

The May 6 North Korean operational drill involving multiple NK-Iskander SRBMs came at the same time as a US test of the Trident II D5 SLBM, which is seen as the mainstay of extended nuclear deterrence in the Asia-Pacific. As we know the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review called for the modification of some W76 warheads, one of the Trident D5 SLBMs warhead types, to a low-yield version designated as the W76-2. Reports indicate that the W76-2 will have a yield of approximately 6 KT. There’s little question that low yield nuclear weapons, fired by SLBMs from SSBNs which can patrol relatively close to their targets and fire their missiles on depressed trajectories, are meant to provide more “useful” nuclear strike options in a crisis. US nuclear war planning has long been dominated by intra-war deterrence which seeks to maintain a deterrence relationship even as the threshold of nuclear war has been crossed. Intra-war deterrence is a type of escalation control what is sometimes called “escalate-to-deescalate” when used in opprobrium against others.  Low yield nuclear weapons fit into intra-war deterrence like a hand fits into glove, and they are seen by critics as lowering the threshold of nuclear war, especially during a crisis, because their employment carries less political and strategic costs and so provides planners with relatively more rational first strike options.

What to say other than, “missiles like these will start the war.”

Despite what I have just written, it is the NK-Iskander that has dominated the world’s headlines and precisely because it is seen as a strategically destabilising weapon system. Far less attention has been given to the destabilising aspects of the Minuteman III ICBM, the HAWC hypersonic missile, and the Trident D5 W76-2 armed SLBM even though this week gave us plenty of reason to do so.

The NK-Iskander

That’s not to say that the NK-Iskander is to be dismissed with a sweep of the hand, Trump administration style. The first thing I would like to focus on is the exhaust plume. What you see in the KCNA released image below is a clear contrail implying a high quality composite of solid propellant and oxidiser.

Furthermore, the NK-Iskander, if it performs much like its Russian version (the one for domestic Russian use not just the export version) will travel at high speeds. The Iskander-M (the Russian domestic version) has a burnout speed of Mach 5.9. That’s important because, firstly, velocities along those lines give North Korea the ability to promptly strike time urgent targets throughout the theatre of engagement and throughout South Korea too, which is to say it gives Pyongyang its own version of “kill chain.” The NK-Iskander would be like the HAWC, for in addition to the above features the tracked TEL gives it robust mobility. Secondly, the high velocity means the NK-Iskander employs a highly energetic solid propellant. That’s crucial because highly energetic solid propellants are difficult to engineer and they are critical to developing an ICBM that uses solid, as opposed to liquid, propellants. As stated in my previous post on the May 4 test if 2017 was the year of the LPE 2020 might be the year of the SRB.

What’s also interesting is that the North Korean operational drills involving the NK-Iskander, especially the first one, saw a revival of the old “North Koreans are scientific and technical duds” argument. Despite everything that has happened over the last six years that thesis just refuses to die. In this case it was pointed out, through careful analysis of the imagery made available by North Korea, that the NK-Iskander looked an awful lot like the Russian Iskander so (a) North Korea somehow illicitly procured its design information at best or got key components if not an entire missile from rogue Russian elements (b) it’s looking like an Iskander does not mean it has the capability of an Iskander.

Regarding (a) it is indeed true that the NK-Iskander looks pretty much like the Russian Iskander. It also, however, looks like the South Korean Hyunmoo-2 SRBM and the Chinese DF-12 SRBM. It is not possible to conclude that the NK-Iskander was not indigenously developed because it looks like the Russian mother ship. That suggests the hypothesis that it wasn’t indigenously developed, but it cannot establish it and those who conclude that the point is established are engaged in an unsupported leap of reasoning from mere imagery alone. The NK-Iskander is envisaged to play a similar operational role to the Russian Iskander and the South Korean Hyunmoo-2 SRBM, and so the physical and engineering problems faced by North Korean scientists would be no different to their Russian and South Korean counterparts hence their solutions likely wouldn’t be too different either. To cite the physicist Julian Schwinger, in an entirely different context, “gentleman we must bow to nature” and she is the same in North Korea as she is elsewhere.

Regarding (b) although the information publicly available to us on the May 4 operational drill could only vouchsafe that the NK-Iskander looked like the Russian Iskander, the May 9 drill demonstrated that the NK-Iskander has the same flight characteristics as the Russian Iskander. That’s because the reported apogee of the missiles tested and their reported ranges were not consistent with a ballistic trajectory, but rather a pseudo ballistic trajectory involving manoeuvres in flight. Jet vanes at the base of the NK-Iskander booster further lend credence to this view, as does the appearance of external fins at the bottom of the booster. The Russian Iskander is also terminally guided, as may the NK-Iskander be which would provide relatively high accuracy.

The NK-Iskander could well be indigenously designed and developed, in which case it further demonstrates North Korea’s technical capabilities in this area and is suggestive of future potentialities (read solid fuel IRBM and ICBM), can manoeuvre in flight to evade theatre missile defences, and can promptly strike high value targets to greater precision and range than previously.

All up that makes the NK-Iskander a bit of a big deal. It gives the same capability that the Hyunmoo-2 gives South Korea, namely a prompt precision strike capability against time urgent targets like command and control, field headquarters, and missile defence. Missiles like these can indeed start the war. In the past couple of weeks we have seen media reports suggesting that some in the Trump administration, like H.R. McMaster before, think that they possess a military option against North Korea, that it cannot be ruled out and, indeed, remains an option and that provided by stealthy and prompt precision strike capabilities. The NK-Iskander should give pause to such notions, and the two drills may well be designed precisely with that in mind. The dismissal of North Korea’s technical capabilities, just like before, provides succour for those who think disarming and decapitation precision strikes are feasible.

Operational Significance and the Escalation Ladder

The operational context to the North Korean drills has not been discussed at all, with all the attention given to the NK-Iskander. Don’t forget that the NK-Iskander launches were conducted in the context of military drills involving multiple rocket launch systems and self propelled artillery and that on two distinct axes. US war planning for a second Korean war is built upon an Operational Plan (as opposed to a Contingency Plan) known as OPLAN 5027. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall that plan was less focused upon an active defence, as previously, and became more pivoted upon an air-land-sea combined arms counter offensive designed to pincer Pyongyang on three definite axes and so ending the regime.

There are heaps of maps out there that give you the gist of OPLAN 5027. Here’s one (the DMZ is the central axis).

Now of the May 4 drill KCNA stated

“The purpose of the drill was to estimate and inspect the operating ability and the accuracy of striking duty performance of large-caliber long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons by defence units in the frontline area and on the eastern front.”

Of the May 9 drill KCNA stated

“The drill for mobility and assault strike designed to inspect the rapid response of the defence units in the frontline area and on the western front successfully showed the might of the units which were fully prepared, in the flames of the practical actual exercises kindled by the Party, to proficiently carry out any operation and combat.”

The exercises featured the operational testing of the NK-Iskander SRBM, multiple launch rocket systems, and self propelled artillery fired concurrently on all three axes of the pincers of OPLAN 5027.  Those pincers would involve large concentrations of land and maritime combined arms engaged in what the Pentagon likes to call operational level warfare. Operational art and the large scale lodging and manoeuvre on distinct axes of operational level combined arms is crucial to the successful implementation of OPLAN 5027 (in so far as we know of it). It is widely regarded that in any future Korean war North Korea would lose because the Korean Peoples Army would not be able to prevent the US-ROK pincers from closing in on Pyongyang. However, the NK-Iskander might give North Korean strategic planners an option to complicate the plans of their counterparts in Seoul and Washington. The Russian version is nuclear capable, reportedly it can be armed with a 50 KT nuclear warhead. Should North Korea possess a nuclear warhead capable of delivery by the NK-Iskander or go on to test such a warhead in future, then North Korea would have the ability to strike large concentrations of US-ROK military assets so significantly complicating the implementation of OPLAN 5027. Don’t forget also that North Korea has been working to develop the KN-08, reportedly a terminally guided MaRVed version of the Scud-ER for hitting carrier strike groups and naval concentrations at sea. Whether Pyongyang’s sensors can see US carrier strike groups coming is another matter, but if not we come back to RYaN.

I wrote a post making similar points quite a while ago, in 2017 already. The United States from the 1990-91 Gulf War onward has been able to concentrate military firepower in theatre unopposed and to manoeuvre unopposed once hostilities began. The strategic planners of the KPA would want to deny both to Seoul and Washington in a second Korean war, and the two drills this week underscore this point I would argue.

What’s interesting here is that on March 7 KCNA responded in the following fashion to US-ROK drills after Hanoi (truncated it must be said but still they went ahead and are going ahead)

“South Korea and the U.S. announced that the drill Alliance is the one replacing the former Key Resolve and it will continue until March 12. As for joint military drill Foal Eagle, they said they would stage it without codename round the year in the form of small-scale field mobile drill involving units smaller than battalion.

They said that the on-going drill aims at examining wartime operation plan through computer-aided simulation of “the north’s all-out invasion of the south” and increasing the capabilities to fight a war.”

What’s been said above is that these drills are simulating OPLAN 5027.

As stated at the outset we are riding an escalation ladder with North Korea, and I put it that the events of the week should be seen in that context as well as the context of OPLAN 5027. I have argued that the escalatory dynamics come about because North Korea seeks sanctions relief to support its economic development goals, and to alleviate the food shortages that are affecting the population, and which are exacerbated by external sanctions. In return North Korea is offering what it calls denuclearisation, that is a lowering of the salience of deterrence but something less than disarmament so hence a measure of strategic stability. North Korea has an incentive to increase external perceptions of risk so long as its economy and population continues to be squeezed by sanctions. The United States, on the other hand, is the global hegemon and it is concerned, firstly, with its credibility as a global power. What matters for Washington is power and prestige. It does not want to be seen as acceding to Pyongyang’s terms just because a tin pot state, Melos like, has acquired the hydrogen bomb and the means to deliver it. Athens wants to teach Melos the facts of life.

Washington has an incentive to keep the squeeze on until Pyongyang bends to its will or appears to do so. When its power and prestige is on the line Washington has shown throughout the nuclear age that it is prepared to tolerate a high risk of nuclear war. That means Kim needs to keep strutting away until Washington starts to pay him serious attention again.

The game is irrational and dangerous, should be called out for the insanity it is, and most importantly of all put a stop to. The people of North Korea can’t do that by pressuring Kim Jong-un. The butcher’s knife awaits them if they so much as even hint at it. That means the burden falls on us.