North Korea’s February 2018 Military Parade: Demonstration of Missile Vulnerability or Transition?

The 2017 North Korean military parade to mark the 105th birthday of Kim Il-sung had us talking of TELs and so has the February 2018 parade on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army, although for different reasons.

According to one account, I recall reading, when a boy Albert Einstein was taken to a Prussian style military parade by his father where he reacted with aghast at the mechanical and uniform movement of the soldiers. Einstein was especially horrified by the suppression of any manifestation of selfhood, and his father, apparently, could only calm the young Albert down by promising him that he would not serve in the military. We tend to associate such military parades with authoritarian regimes, and that is no surprise as a striking feature is how the individual acts mechanically as a functional part of an organic whole. It is easy to see this aspect at work in North Korea’s parades. I was especially struck at how the overall structure and pattern of this week’s parade could not be discernible to any of the participants bar the high political and military leadership watching proceedings from above.

It reminded me a wee bit of the famous front cover of The Leviathan, depicted above.

Marxist and fascist regimes especially are fond of such parades, and that is no accident as organicist philosophical ideas arising from neo-Hegelian thought are a key underlying feature of both ideologies. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that President Trump too wants a fine military parade. Before I end this little tangent line, it is worth also noting that the same neo-Hegelian ideas underlie conceptions of corporate personhood, a highly important bedrock feature of our own societies.

But to get back to the TELs.

Some analysts, see here and here, have pointed out that the truck-trailer that was used to cart the Hwasong-14 ICBM down Kim Il-sung square demonstrates the existence of a critical vulnerability in North Korea’s strategic nuclear force, namely a limitation in indigenous TEL production.

Compare the MEL from the April 2017 parade to the TE in the February 2018 parade below.

Canisters are associated with solid fuelled missiles, but the 2018 version openly transporting the Hwasong-14 had no erector mechanism notice. That suggests that North Korea has a shortage in the number of TELs, and that it cannot mass produce TELs indigenously, relying on a small amount of imported WS51200 vehicles from China, for its ICBMs which, in turn, means that the ICBM force is not as mobile, and survivable, as many have hitherto supposed, and Pyongyang would have us believe.

It has been emphasised that only four Hwasong-15’s were on parade, and that we have never seen more than six TELs at a time. In and of itself that doesn’t mean much. In 2017 North Korea paraded six Pukguksong-2 MRBMs, as it did this week. In 2017 four ICBM MELs were paraded, February 2018 four ICBM TEs were paraded. In 2017 four 8 axel TELs (with canisters) were paraded, and this time four Hwasong-15s were paraded on a 9 axel version of the ICBM TEL. In 2017 four Hwasong-12 IRBMs were paraded, in February 2018 I saw six on parade.

Consider some of the conventional equipment as a control. In 2017 eighteen Pokpung-ho Main Battle Tanks were on parade, for this week I picked out nineteen. I saw for this week two columns of three by three MBTs. Last year the last line of the first column had two MBTs, every other line had three. Perhaps the missing MBT had a mechanical. Last year there were nine 155mm SP artillery on parade and nine 170mm SP artillery, as was the case for this week’s parade.

One ought not to read too much into the numbers per se, but the truck-trailer for the Hwasong-14 is certainly perplexing and suggestive of a TEL production limitation. However, a TEL production limitation isn’t necessarily the same thing as a strategic deterrence vulnerability. This is a critical point because certain statements and postures arising from the Trump administration have very much put “preventive” war on the radar. It is interesting how analysts haven’t drawn this link.

Let us assume that North Korea has just demonstrated that its ICBM force is potentially vulnerable, that is potentially vulnerable to a disarming US first strike. That would be fillip in the sails for anybody arguing for a preventive war with North Korea, both within and without the administration. Further, it would make North Korea jumpy especially when picking up, or perceiving, signs of an imminent US preventive attack.

Perhaps we might be concerned about that. As Joseph Bermudez has pointed out, however, a limitation in TEL production does not necessarily equate to strategic vulnerability because

While this is undoubtedly true for the massive Chinese purpose-built WS-51200 wheeled transporter-erector-launchers (TEL) it is not true for towed mobile-erector-launchers (MEL) and transporter-erectors (TE). North Korea possesses all the capabilities to produce towed MELs and TEs that it requires. Additionally, it possesses sufficient numbers of cabs capable of towing these launchers should it wish to dedicate them to its ballistic missile force…

…It is not the size of the ballistic missile launcher—ICBM or otherwise—that is the real issue here. It is the increasing number of launchers and their ability to move around the country, combined with the actual number of ICBMs produced, that presents both the challenge and the threat

This would be especially the case if, given that North Korea uses storable liquid propellants, the MELs and TEs come with a relatively low amount of ground support equipment for, in that case, Pyongyang could transport its missiles to any place accessible to a truck-trailer in North Korea without easily being picked up by US sensors.

We might recall that during the Cuban Missile Crisis four Soviet ICBMs, visible to US planners sitting on their launch pads, in addition to shorter range missiles capable of reaching US allies in Europe, wasn’t vulnerability enough for those like Generals Le May and Power to win the debate on preventive war against the Soviet Union at the time. That was fortunate for there was plenty of juicy stuff the Kennedy ExCom didn’t know about Soviet deployments during the Crisis.

MELs and TEs, much like with China’s initial “shooting a firecracker from outside the front door” deterrence strategy, provides North Korea with a measure of mobility and hence a measure of insurance against strategic vulnerability of the type spoken of by some analysts and commentators. That, combined with the capabilities to strike US allies in Northeast Asia with shorter range missiles, means North Korea is in a better position than the known (to Kennedy) Soviet position during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This needs to be emphasised more often. The Great Scud Hunt of the 1991 Gulf War, and the unscathed withdrawal of the Pristina Corps of the Yugoslav Army from Kosovo in 1999 demonstrates that banking on North Korean vulnerability to the limited use of airpower is fraught with hazards.

The engines of the Hwasong-15, Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-12 were covered up, which was a pity. Only the Hwasong-12 missile was openly paraded in April 2017, prior to the RD250 controversy, and the engine was also covered up then.

To be honest, I was looking to see whether the Hwasong-14 would even feature in this week’s parade. The debate on the capabilities of the Hwasong-14 continues still, and its absence at the parade could have meant that it was always a transitional form toward the evolution of the Hwasong-15. Some have suggested that the Hwasong-14 might be deployed in silos with the truck-trailer acting as transport to the silos for further installation, or that, as noted above, the Hwasong-14 will be made mobile by a TE. The Hwasong-14 is strategically odd given that anything it can hit the Hwasong-15 can plus more, and, moreover, the Hwasong-12 is able to reach Guam. Perhaps it really is a transitional form and North Korea is engaging in deception. We shall see.

Recall that Kim Jong-un did say during his 2018 new year address that North Korea would concentrate on the “mass production” of its nuclear capabilities so the current nuclear force, such as it is, gives Pyongyang some initial deterrence space to expand, for example, its indigenous TEL production capabilities.

North Korea did show off what appeared to be a new missile, a longer-range replacement, or perhaps upgrade, of the solid fuelled Tochka short range ballistic missile. The new, or upgraded, missile looks like the Russian Iskander missile only it features two missiles per TEL. The range is unknown, but the missile is larger than the Tochka so doubtless of greater range. North Korea also paraded, as noted, the Pukguksong-2 solid fuelled MRBM. There were no Scuds, Scud-ERs, terminally guided Scud derivatives or Nodongs all of which are liquid fuelled. Jeffrey Lewis has suggested that this indicates North Korea may be transitioning to solid fuelled missiles, a transition also to be made applicable to its longer range missiles. That makes sense, but time will indeed tell what gives here. The pace of any such transition will be interesting to see, as would its impact on strategic tension during research and development testing.

The February 2018 North Korean military parade was less about vulnerability and more about transition, a bit like the 2012 parade, it seems to me, which shows how quick Pyongyang is now moving given that it so recently tested the Hwasong-15.