The only difference between a civilian satellite launch and an ICBM is the payload. Yesterday, North Korea attempted to launch an ICBM. No, it was not simple satellite test. No, it was not innocent. This has been true throughout history and today. The technology used to launch a rocket and fire a nuclear missile is identical. The Soyuz space vehicle that the Russians use to launch supplies to the International Space Station today is the same vehicle they used to launch sputnik in 1957. It is also the same rocket that became the R-7; the first Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.
Just like sputnik before it, North Korea’s rocket launch was indisputably an attempt to build the delivery system that their nuclear weapons need. Unfortunately for the west, it seems that the test has succeeded. But, even with the successful launch we still have plenty time to prevent North Korea from passing the point of no return and building a true nuclear deterrent.
The DPRK now possess a nuclear bomb and is currently attempting to build an ICBM to deliver it. The problem for them is that in order to build a nuclear force both of these things must be combined. Nuclear weapons require not only arms but the means to use them. A weapon without a delivery system does not pose a threat to anyone. As of yesterday the DPRK has shown the ability to place 200 kgs ontop of a missile. To put this in perspective, the DPRK would need to increase the payload by a factor of five in order to fit a nuclear weapon to the launch vehicle.
But there is more to nuclear deterrence than being able to fire a missile . Delivering a nuclear weapon is one thing; creating a credible deterrent is another. In order to create such a deterrent, nuclear weapons and delivery systems must be combined in a way that precludes their destruction and creates a second strike capability. This second strike capability must be substantial and be able to partially or totally destroy an adversary. The United and the Soviet Union figured this out the hard way during the Cold War.
The first Strategic Integrated Operations Plans (SIOP) showed just how hard it is to meet this standard. Even with thousands of warheads and a few functioning ICBMs, SLBMs.and long range bombers the United States still believed that it could win a nuclear war in the early 1960s; destroying 95 percent of the soviet arsenal in a massive strike.
Today, North Korea is nowhere close to equaling the Soviet Union’s ability in 1950s; either in number of systems, survivability, accuracy, or reliability. Currently The DPRK has only a few delivery systems. None of which have been proven successful. In fact, they have never even proven that they can place a warhead on a Scud, let alone build the kind of integrated defenses and hardened infrastructure required for nuclear deterrence.
As currently configured, the North Korean rocket force is neither survivable or capable. The Unha-3 missile is not even a basis for a survivable design. It’s use of corrosive fuel means that like the 1950s vintage R-7 it takes hours to prepare for launch and it’s alert time is limited. It is too big to be road transportable and it lacks the payload capacity to carry a warhead. It has also never proven that it could survive atmospheric reentry.
Although nuclear miniaturization could help resolve the payload issue they would still need to vastly increase the power of the warhead and its survivability. A modern American or Russian ICBM can be launched in a minute from a hardened silo or submarine. It can hold multiple warheads and has decoys to aid penetration through air defenses. Each warhead can pack up to a half megaton of explosive power .
The Unha-3 rocket was launched from an “soft”(unshield) open launch pad. Preparations could be seen for days leading up to the launch. When fired, the missile was easily tracked by South Korea and Japan. Both of these countries had already activated air defense systems prior to the launch should the missile endanger their respective countries. In short, the U.S and it’s allies knew this was coming and could have blown to rocket up on the launch pad if that option was tolerable politically.
But politics is really the bottom line when it comes to North Korea.The February 6th launch was as much political as it was technical. Politically, the end goal of the DPRK nuclear program is to preserve the Kim regime and extract concessions from the West. The nuclear program is a tool of terror, not war.
This political terrorism so far has had a limit. Each new nuclear test and rocket launch has so far failed to terrorize the world and bring the concessions the regime craves. Sanctions have piled up and U.S / South Korean relations remain strong. Currently, In the event of war the United States has a plan to attack North Korea, seizing or destroying its nuclear weapons capacity. Today it is estimated that with a contribution of 90,000 troops the United States along with South Korea could defeat North Korea and secure their nuclear stockpile in less than 2 months.
However, we should be wary that the DPRK may eventually construct a force that is survivable or capable of second strike. In this circumstance the situation could change dramatically. The military option would become more difficult and less politically palatable. The situation would become dramatically more dangerous and the outcome much more unpredictable. The placement of missiles in silos, the miniaturization of warheads, the diversification of delivery systems, or the successful launch of a nuclear missile from a submarine would all increase the ability of the North Korean regime to add survivability and capability to their currently impotent nuclear force.
However scary that prospect, we certainly have time to avoid this outcome. The DPRK is a poor nation, both financially and technically. America took less than 12 years from the capture of the V-2 missile and Operation Paperclip to successfully test the first generation, thermonuclear armed Atlas ICBMs .In the 10 years since North Korea’s first test of a nuclear weapon they have not proven that they can place a single nuclear warhead on any delivery system, missile, bomber or otherwise; let alone design a system that would deter a global power like the United States from mounting an attack.
Although the DPRK has made small, incremental steps toward a true nuclear force does not appear capable of creating one for the foreseeable future. In fact, it cannot put a single missile on alert.
This is really the point; at this rate the DPRK nuclear program is political in nature. We have time to stop them. How we use that time is critical. Right now we have options. However, our options decrease with every nuclear test and missile launch. As of yesterday The North Koreans have only a nuclear device and a partially developed missile. They do not have a functioning nuclear capacity or deterrent. They have so far not succeeded in bending the world to their will . But, when and if they achieve that level of capability the situation will change. That is why we must combine strategic patience with forceful action if we are to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. If we fail, North Korea will be able to blackmail the universe.