Outside the Pentagon at this very moment, Raytheon is displaying its SkyHunter system, the U.S.-approved version of the Iron Dome system it has deployed to protect Israel from ballistic missile threats. The display is especially relevant, given the latest developments in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
It’s called the Hwasong-15. And based on the maiden flight of a new North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile early on Wednesday (Tuesday afternoon here on the east coast), it can hit anywhere in the United States. When asked about it, President Trump simply said, “We will take care of that situation.”
The Korean Central News Agency announced, ““The ICBM Hwasong-15 type weaponry system is an intercontinental ballistic rocket tipped with super-large heavy warhead which is capable of striking the whole mainland of the U.S. This system has much greater advantages in its tactical and technological specifications and technical characteristics than Hwasong-14 whose test-fire was conducted in July last, and it is the most powerful ICBM which meets the goal of the completion of the rocket weaponry system development set by the DPRK.”
Four rocket motors are better than two
Clearly, the Hwasong-15 does indeed put the entire continental United States in range of a North Korean strike. Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters plainly on Tuesday, “It went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they’ve taken.”
By “higher,” Mattis means 2,800 miles high. The Koreans launched the missile almost straight up. It traveled 600 miles horizontally, landing in the Sea of Japan. Flying at its optimal trajectory, it would have a range of 13,000 miles. For comparison, the Earth is 24,901 miles in circumference, meaning the Hwasong-15 can travel more than halfway around the globe.
The shortest distance between any two points on the globe is along a great circle. The great circle connecting Pyongyang with Washington, D.C. would take a missile over Siberia, into the Arctic, and south across Canada, a distance of 6,978 miles. According several web sources, a Hwasong launched from the DPRK would be able to hit New York City in 40 minutes, 30 seconds, or Washington in 41 minutes.
According the the Johns Hopkins University’s US-Korea Institute, the Hwasong-15 gained range over its predecessor, the Hwasong-14, by using “a second stage powered by four small engines derived from the Soviet R-27 missile,” versus the Hwasong-14’s two-engine second stage. The North Koreans have achieved their goal of building a missile that threatens the entire U.S.
But can they reliably deliver a nuclear warhead?
There’s no need to panic just yet. Because as we keep reminding you, there are several parts necessary to launch a successful nuclear attack. The rocket is just one of them.
Back at the end of September, we told you that the last North Korean nuclear weapon test was likely a “fizzle,” a bomb that failed to detonate properly, yielding a much smaller explosion than would otherwise be expected. So the DPRK’s progress towards miniaturizing a warhead is still very uncertain. They are a long way away from a reliable warhead that can fit on top of a missile capable of delivering a payload of only 150 kilograms while traveling its maximum distance.
To make another comparison: while it is far too delicate and time-consuming to make a reliable weapon, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket can deliver 5,500 kilograms into geostationary orbit (more than 23,000 miles high) and still return to Earth to be reused.
There’s also the matter of a reentry vehicle capable of preventing the warhead from burning-up on re-entry into the atmosphere. Building such a shield isn’t all that much of a technological challenge. Building one that is light enough not to be a burden on the rocket is another matter.
So let Kim Jong-un have his moment of pretend triumph. Let the U.N.Security Council wring its hands over continued Korean intransigence. Let the Trump administration impose even more and tougher sanctions (if that’s possible anymore).
I’m not losing any sleep over this… yet.