Latest Musudan Missile Test: North Korean Island Hopping?

On Friday North Korea conducted a, failed, test of the Musudan (Hwasong-10) Medium Range Ballistic Missile, and informative analysis is slowly emerging given the paucity of data. The Musudan is widely seen as being based on Soviet SS-N-6 “Serb” technology (i.e. not Scud). The Musudan has been lengthened to carry more fuel than the SS-N-6 in an endeavour to increase its range beyond the SS-N-6.

The New York Times reports that the Musudan exploded shortly after lift off, although US Strategic Command reports that it exploded “immediately” after lift off.

Speculation exists as to what the latest test means.

Schilling argues

Assuming it is a Musudan, the noteworthy difference for this test is the location. North Korea’s previous Musudan launches have been from sites associated with their Musudan-ri test facility…

… One possibility is that a west coast launch allows the North Koreans to achieve a longer range without overflying other countries. Previous tests from Musudan-ri were limited to 400 kilometers or so to avoid Japanese airspace; the North Koreans were able to partially compensate for this by using a lofted trajectory, but probably did not demonstrate the missile’s full performance in an operationally realistic manner.

That seems to make sense to me.

For a while, especially in the early days, it was commonly assumed that the Musudan was a propaganda missile, if you will, or part of a wider experimental programme dedicated to moving beyond Scud technology, but that it wasn’t really meant to be an operationally deployed road mobile MRBM.

That view is changing, given the number and frequency of testing; seven this year, it seems. Schilling observes

Let’s review the scorecard. Four tests of the original Musudan configuration, all failed. Two tests of a new configuration with stabilizing grid fins, conducted with full engineering support from Musudan-ri, with one success and one partial success. And now one test in the field, a complete failure. Seven launches in seven months–a rate greater than most US strategic missile programs. After a decade of keeping it on the back burner, the North Koreans are clearly committed to the Musudan

I’m going to build on this, and add some speculation into the mix.

Estimates vary as to the range, but let us follow Wright’s lead

Assuming the Musudan missile was made by lengthening the SSN-6 by 2.5 meters and adding propellant leads to these range/payload estimates:
2,700 km/ 1,000 kg
3,000 km/ 750 kg
3,200 km/ 650 kg
3,500 km/ 500 kg

Earlier this year the North tested the Musudan on a lofted trajectory at a range of 400km, which seemed to support this estimate

That calculation shows that the Musudan’s range would be about 3,000 km on a standard “minimum-energy” (MET) trajectory, assuming the same payload as the lofted test.

Now, as Wright states, he still has a range estimate of 3,000km at a 750kg payload and 3,500km at a 500kg payload. Why a lofted trajectory? Avoiding Japanese airspace is a consideration but so may be, Wright observed, RV experimentation

The lofted trajectory allowed North Korea to test the missile’s guidance and control system, and also to test the reentry heatshield under conditions similar to those the missile would experience during reentry on a standard 3,000 km range trajectory

That is important. 3,400km brings US military capabilities at Guam under threat. During the cold war the US forward deployed nuclear weapons at Guam, however these have been withdrawn. Nonetheless, as an August bomber exercise demonstrated, Guam is envisaged, in part, as a base to project power during a conflict or crisis on the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang probably thinks or calculates that it might, in such a circumstance, be used to project strategic power.

I *speculate* that the Musudan programme and the recent nuclear testing are connected. In an early analysis Schiller and Shumacker observed,

North Korea has to use an indigenous warhead on its Musudan. The displayed Musudan warhead looks different than the displayed Nodong warhead. This raises the question why North Korean engineers would take the effort to design a new warhead for the Musudan, and not use the available warhead of the Nodong – it should be much easier to mount an existing warhead on a missile than to design a new one.

It should be, but not if you want it to fly to Guam.

Kim Jong-un, prior to the fifth nuclear test, stated

“The nuclear warheads have been standardised to be fit for ballistic missiles by miniaturising them,”

Let us take comrade Jong-un at his word. The North Koreans are testing nuclear weapons because they want to develop lighter nuclear warheads for the Musudan MRBM, and they thereby seek to develop an operational capability to strike Guam. Take a good look at the image above.

Pyongyang, if you will, is island hoping General MacArthur style; Japan, then Guam, then…

There is a sense in which we should be concerned about Guam. Targeting Japan, or the continental United States for that matter, makes sense from a countervalue strategic perspective. Guam is another matter. There is no point developing a nuclear tipped MRBM to hit an island with no large population centres. Guam is more a counterforce target, and that would bring an element of strategic instability into the strategic equation.

The Musudan, to target and destroy US capabilities at Guam, needs to be fired first, prior to significant strikes into the Northern hinterland, otherwise it is pointless. That is before the US could surge strategic capabilities at Guam, or after it had done so in a crisis situation that had not yet escalated toward war, Pyongyang would seek to deny the US the military capabilities that Guam affords it.

Say the North targets Guam in a conflict. The US can easily retaliate, but would it risk Tokyo (or assuming a North Korean ICBM), a major US city (or two) because of a counterforce attack on military bases in Guam?

That is a real dilemma. We know a bit about Pyongyang’s missile engines, missile fuels, RVs, nuclear test yields, plutonium and uranium enrichment production capabilities, but we know little of its nuclear strategy. When the US was developing ballistic missiles and regularly testing warheads back in the day strategic institutes and specialists thought long and hard about nuclear strategy.

Surely, the North Koreans are doing the same. We need to know what they are thinking.