The launch of the new ballistic missile by North Korea is a huge step forward for Kim Jong Un’s missile arsenal and capabilities. The Pukguksong-2 missile is a large diameter, solid propelled, road mobile device – and more than capable of being equipped with a nuclear warhead.

The missile was fitted within a large canister, on top of a new tracked TEL, based on a heavily modified tank chassis, with a similar layout to the old Soviet SS-14 missile. The Pukguksong-2 is ejected from the launch tube using a “cold ejection” mechanism, and while aloft, ignites its engine.

Assessing Pyongyang’s progress

The missile appears to be larger than the SLBM that was first launched on 2016, and unlike its sibling, is equipped with grid fins – of the same type used on the HS-10 (“Musudan”) missile. The launch was both aimed to reach maximum range – hence the high apogee. It is the first time that we see this missile, and in retrospect, some reports on destroyed TELs during failed launches, which we saw in various reports in 2016, at the time attributed to HS-10 launches, might have been unsuccessful tests of the new behemoth visible in the footage.

Preparation for the test

On several occasions, I have said that the hectic tests of missile technology we saw in 2016 will eventually lead to a transition in the DPRK missile arsenal, from liquid propulsion to solid, which will boost the operational effectiveness of North Korea’s capabilities.

In an article titled “Should we worry about N.Korea’s SLBMs?” (published on May 19, 2016), I wrote: “One cannot dismiss the future path of North Korea’s missile forces – a transition from liquid-propelled missiles to solid ones. When this step is taken by Pyongyang, the operational effectiveness of the missile arsenal will be dramatically enhanced, and the capability of building a true ICBM (with a range to hit targets within the continental United States) could be achieved.”

In an April 2016 congressional briefing, and during several meetings on the hill, I noted the issue of solid propulsion in North Korea (and Iran) as one to follow and to monitor.

International attention

The success of the launch is important on another front: the international one. Kim’s latest feat was carried out while the prime minister of Japan, Abe, was meeting with the U.S. President. Trump’s reaction to the test was very minor, and it is fair to expect a much more rigorous response from the White House soon.

The exact technical issues of the missile and its potential are not yet fully known, but one thing is clear: North Korea is mastering all the aspects necessary to build an impressive array of missile force – be it liquid propelled missiles, Solid propelled SLBMs, and large solid propelled road-mobile IRBMs, and they are on a fast track towards a true ICBM capability. A solid propelled ICBM will be a huge advancement for North Korea – and a major challenge for the U.S. and the rest of the world.

The TEL that was used to launch the Pukguksong-2 is a tracked one, and its unusual design – which resembles the Soviet SS-14 system, is all North Korean design and manufacturing. The DPRK choice of using this unusual configuration instead of a wheeled vehicle (such as the TEL for HS-13 and HS-14 “ICBM’s”) might tell us something about the operational use and deployment of the new missile – in the remote and harsh terrains of North Korea, the vehicle could be operated from unprepared areas.

KCNA covers the launch

The range of the test launch was limited due to the high altitude of the trajectory – North Korea didn’t want to fly over Japan. A full range test might be conducted in the future, from the Sohae space center to the southwest. At the present time, it is unknown if the DPRK conducted thrust termination at the final phase of the test flight. From analyzing the available footage, it is my belief that they didn’t.

Some very high-resolution images of the launch show the missile in great detail, and the two-stage configuration, the re-entry vehicle and the set of grid fins – are identical to the Pukkuksong-1 SLBM, but the re-entry vehicle (AKA the warhead) is much bigger and has a different shape.

Why now?

The flight test of the missile was also a test of U.S. reaction. As I’ve said, at the time of the missile test the prime minister of Japan was in the U.S. with President Trump. Both condemned the test, but it took more than 48 hours for the U.S. President to issue a second, more rigorous statement. The UN Secretary-General issued a condemnation on his behalf, and it is reasonable to assume that the issue will be resolved with a UN Security Council resolution and, possibly, another round of sanctions.

In contrast to some expert’s analysis, the transition from liquid propulsion to a solid one was not done to shorten the exposure time of the missile and avoid detection, since the DPRK could refuel its liquid propelled missiles in their hide, and could probably do it horizontally, so there is no need for high bay structures.

The issue is effectiveness, maintenance and a simple fact of rocket science: solid rocket fuel is highly efficient, and a smaller missile could travel a longer distance in comparison with a same sized missile using liquid propellants. In 2015 I estimated about the HS-14 (a second type of “ICBM”). I said that a missile with its dimensions, with solid propulsion, could easily reach the continental United States. 

If North Korea pursues this path, it soon will be a credible and severe threat to the U.S. – and one that the new administration will find very difficult to diffuse.

Featured image: KCNA