Image analysis of North Korea’s recent Musudan missile test
After multiple reports of failed tests, observers finally got to see the elusive intermediate-range Musudan missile in action, via pictures and video released by state North Korean media last month.
On June 22 North Korea tested what it calls the Hwasong-10 (화성-10), more commonly known as the Musudan in the West, via two launches taking place at around 5:58 a.m. and 8:05 a.m. And while the verdict on the first test of the day is still out, the second test was viewed as being more successful.
After news of the test was announced, at around 5 p.m. Pacific Time, the first set of images were released. This is what we saw:
The photo revealed the Musudan with a new black colored paint-job, as well as a new additional panel near the base of the missile. Used for steering and/or stability, the depicted grid fins are grate-like panels that consist of interlacing metal strips that can act as a replacement for traditional planar fins.
Above on the left can be seen eight grid fins deployed around the base of the Musudan. On the right are two different types of grid fins that were used on the Russian SS-20 ICBM. From the Musudan image, it seems that these grid fins match those used for stabilization rather than steering as they seem to be bolted at two different points on the base of the missile, making them immobile after unfolding. This new addition may have been made after a series of failed tests, as they were not seen on any of the parade variants. Also, the missile system the Musudan is based on — the R-27 — did not employ them.
Another image from the test revealed new information about the Musudan’s engine. While we did not get to see the missile’s engine in its entirety, we were given our first view of its rough configuration.
The image above is an overlay of an R-27 engine on an image released by Uriminzokkiri. Produced by the Makeyev Design Bureau, the first news related to its transfer to North Korea was in October of 1992 when Russian authorities stopped technical personnel — some of whom were from the Makeyev Design Bureau — from boarding a plane to North Korea. Later, in September of 2003, the JoongAng Ilbo cited a South Korean intelligence official as having observed new launchers (or TELs) and 10 missiles which looked like the SS-N-6 (which is the NATO designation for the R-27) at the Mirim airdrome.
Although we have seen the Musudan in previous military parades, the engine was not visible. We had an understanding of what technology was transferred to the North Koreans when we saw R-27 Vernier rockets in Iran (who purchased a similar system from the North Koreans) as the second stage engines in their satellite launch vehicle, the Safir. However, we can now clearly see that the Musudan’s engine configuration closely mirrors that of the R-27.
While new images of the missile system reveal the functioning form of the Musudan, there was an additional new feature added to the TEL, wheel covers.
Much like the addition of grid fins, these panels were not seen on any of the parade-variant TELs. There may well be an interesting story behind this addition. North Korea’s first test of the Musudan system ended in what was called “a fiery, catastrophic attempt at a launch” by U.S. Defense Department spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis. The missile reportedly blew up shortly after launching, causing damage to the TEL.
After this failed launch the decision to add protective paneling over vulnerable areas of the TEL might have been made to protect them from potentially catastrophic failures in the future. TELs are expensive and, as the North may not be producing the Musudan’s variant indigenously yet, losing one in a test would be very costly.
As mentioned before, out of the two tests that took place on June 22, the first was deemed a failure for having “burst into pieces in the air after flying some 150 km after launch.” While it would still be interesting to find out at what altitude the first test exploded at, the information gathered from the second test was rather interesting. According to reports from Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, the missile reached an altitude of 1,000 km. The Musudan’s estimated range is somewhere between 3,000 – 4,000km. Having only flown about a tenth of that distance, while reaching an excessively high altitude, it would seem that the North Koreans intentionally lofted the missile.
There are two images from this test that support the theory of intentional lofting, should they prove to be undoctored.
This image is of Kim Jong Un sitting in the observation booth as he watched the Musudan launch from one of the computer monitors. On the table in front of him is a map of North Korea, Russia, China, and Japan. However, if that map is isolated, rotated and stretched, it looks like this:
With this image, the graphic that was used to explain the phases of the test to Kim Jong Un is partially visible.
This second graph better displays that extra dimension, to show the lofted trajectory of the Musudan:
The graph displays a high altitude lofted missile trajectory. This trajectory is also seen on one of the monitors in this second image.
Although the quality is poor, a higher resolution image of this scene shows a clearer version of the image below.
The red line represents the Musudan’s current altitude and distance traveled relative to the expected outcome of its ballistic trajectory, which is represented in green. The numbers on the chart above also represent this relationship, however there are red numbers that were cropped out of this version.
From the chart above, the table seen below shows most of the numbers from the higher quality image, with the left side being the expected number set and right being the current/in progress number set.
|Flight time||20:15 (Minutes)||12:3? (Minutes)|
|Distance||400.0 (KM)||203.? (KM)|
|Altitude||1400.0 (KM)||1413.? (KM)|
These numbers are interesting as it is roughly in line with the reports concerning the distance traveled while the altitude is 400 km over the 1000 km Japanese estimate.
If the numbers pulled from the chart are correct, it would explain this image as well.
Here it can be seen that the time on the screen roughly matches with that of the chart and Kim seems to be pointing at the present altitude of the Musudan which, according to the chart, has exceeded the expected altitude by some 13 kilometers.
According to a KCNA article published on June 23, the Musudan “landed in the targeted waters 400 km away after flying to the maximum altitude of 1413.6 km along the planned flight orbit.”, which is the same as the data pulled from the screen, and the graph represented on the map.
But why choose a lofted trajectory? As David Wright pointed out in his assessment of the Musudan test, a lofted trajectory would allow the North Koreans to test the way their reentry vehicle performs under conditions similar to those it would experience in an actual full range launch. Another convenient note however is that this test avoided flying over Japan.
While the former point most likely holds more potency for deciding to loft the missile, a North Korean missile launch that flies over Japan would certainly have escalated tensions in the region more so than one that did not. KCNA also hinted at this relative tension avoidance in the June 23 article: “The test-fire was successfully conducted without affecting the security of a surrounding country even a bit.”
The June 22 Musudan test revealed a lot of things. It introduced to the world an actual Musudan, instead of the parade variants we have seen in the past, it possibly revealed how this missile and TEL have evolved though its past four failed test launches (from grid fins to TEL wheel covers), and it demonstrated that the system works, sometimes. We also learned that the North Koreans need work on their infographic skills, but perhaps that is a conversation for another time.
Main picture: KCNA
Dave Schmerler is a Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey. He holds a MA in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies from the Middlebury Institute of Internati...
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