Successful Launch Puts Long Range Nuclear Missile Capability Within Reach

North Korean Rocket Launch Shows Progress Towards ICBM Capability Has Been Made, But Dr. Andrew Futter Suggests Significant Challenges Remain.
December 12th, 2012

WASHINGTON DC – Today’s successful satellite launch proves there is “no reason why North Korea can’t now go on to develop  a fully functioning inter-continental ballistic missile” (ICBM).  But while progress towards a long-range nuclear missile has provoked understandable consternation from Washington and its allies, a UK based expert says that significant hurdles remain for Pyongyang.

This successful launch is significant because it shows that the DPRK is ever-closer to mastering the technology required to field an intercontinental ballistic missile. Married to an ever-progressing nuclear weapons program, Pyongyang is now one step closer to developing long range nuclear weapons capabilities. But despite what appears to be a sensational development, British Missile Defense expert Dr. Andrew Futter explains that several key challenges remain:

There is a lot that still needs to be done in order for North Korea to develop a working ICBM: the warhead will need to be militarized, they will have to find a way of getting the warhead to re-enter the atmosphere, and they will also need to develop a capability to hit a specific target. Each of those are graduated, difficult steps.

As Futter explains, while there are many similarities between space rockets and long-range missiles, the technologies required for the latter are substantially more difficult to accomplish. While a satellite only needs to go one way into space, a long-range missile needs to do the same and also succeed in getting back to planet earth. And as the meteors which burn up upon entering the atmosphere every day show, for a man-made warhead to reach its target unscathed is no simple feat.

But even if North Korea does succeed in figuring out the basics for atmospheric re-entry, it would still need to put significant effort into developing a guidance system that could accurately target cities on the other side of the planet.  As such, Futter suggests that several more tests will be required before Pyongyang can develop any confidence in its capabilities:

I think they would probably need to conduct five or six tests to be sure. For example, I don’t think you could test how payloads react in space without testing. Lots of this kind of testing went on in the early Cold War with the U.S. and Soviet Union, just so they could know they would have something they could rely on.

Interestingly, with more tests comes additional opportunity for the international community to try and draw draw red lines to halt North Korea’s rocket program. However, given the failure of Security Council resolutions in stopping North Korea so far, it is not clear how effective any additional external challenges to Pyongyang’s rocket program may be.

While Futter conceded that it might be possible for North Korea to conduct further tests and one day achieve a working ICBM capability, he remained hesitant to suggest this could be a major threat increase for the U.S.

The United States has 30 or so interceptors in Alaska which would probably be able to intercept something. And because of the number of interceptors, the U.S. would have several attempts at intercepting a single [North Korean] warhead. The problem only develops when you have multiple warheads or multiple rockets. When it’s tens of rockets, it becomes something that could overwhelm U.S. defenses.

With North Korea’s limited resources, it seems unlikely that Pyongyang has what it takes to develop the type of capability which Futter suggests could seriously threaten the continental United States – for now. But today it has become the tenth nation in the world to develop a domestically produced satellite launch capacity and is arguably now on route to developing a basic but limited long-range missile capability.

Picture: Pyongyang Times

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.