Recently, North Korean media released pictures of what appeared to many observers to be a physics package for a nuclear bomb small enough to fit into an ICBM. Along with the bomb the North Koreans also revealed a new KN-08 ballistic missile with what appeared to be a modified nose cone.
These photos were met with intense interest (and criticism) from the observers. Melissa Hanham, from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, had doubts about whether the device could fit into the nose cone of the missile or whether the device itself was just a mock-up.
Either way, the North Koreans now claim that these devices are, in fact, operational, and not just mock-ups. They have also claimed that they will conduct tests of the new device to prove it.
A Third Missile?
I stated in my last article on the North Korean missile program that the DPRK had two potential nuclear delivery systems: the Hwasong-5 and the Nodong/ Rodong-1(basically an enlarged Scud). Assuming that the North how overcome the numerous technical challenges presented by the KN-08 in its apparent redesign, they may now have a third weapon. That is, of course, provided it can carry the “miniaturized” nuclear warhead shown in the pictures.
The KN-08 remains an untested missile. The technology used in at least one of the stages is suspected to be derived from the R-27 SLBM rather than the Scud technology used on most operational North Korean missiles. Another untested IRBM called the Musudan is the only other missile utilizing the R-27 technology. The Nuclear Threat Initiative went as far as to call it a Schrodinger’s cat, as it is a complete unknown whether the missile actually works until it is test fired.
In the suspected configuration the KN-08 is thought to have a range of around 5,500 km and a throw weight of 1,000 kg. It is thought to use a Nodong first stage and R-27 second stage. While this is enough to reach Alaska, it falls short of both Hawaii and the continental U.S.
Problems with the KN-08
Along with its range problem the missile has other issues. While the redesigned, blunter nose cone should make the vehicle more survivable by dispersing the heat over a larger area, it also makes it less accurate and more vulnerable to anti-ballistic missile systems. This was noted in Mr. Schilling’s report.
It’s worth noting that the missile was not that accurate to begin with. The most advanced version of the R-27 had a CEP of 1300 meters. This basically means that the warhead has a fifty-fifty chance of landing within 1.3 km of the target. Also remember that the first stage is likely a Nodong which is an even older piece of technology.
“Miniaturized” may not be the most apt word to describe North Korea’s new bomb. Using some simple pixel counting I determined that the bomb had a diameter of between 50 to 61 cm. The polygonal patterns and circles on the outside of the warhead seem to indicate that it uses several dozen high-explosive lenses to compress the fissile material in its core. Modern nuclear weapons generally use more advanced systems that use as few as two detonators.
With the addition of the wiring, fuses, guidance system, and the heat shield the missile will need to reenter the atmosphere following launch; the warhead is certain to rub up against the KN-08’s payload limits
The low yield of the weapon only compounds the accuracy problem and range problems. This nuclear bomb is only a small single-stage device. In order to be effective at the level of accuracy the North Koreans need for a military strike, the yield would need to be in the range of several hundred kilotons. This is evidenced by the fact that the Soviet versions of the R-27 were equipped with either a one megaton thermonuclear bomb or a trio of three 200 kiloton MIRVs.
Like everything out of the DPRK this display was intended for political effect. With drills between the U.S and South Korea coming up, the North is throwing its annual tantrum. Missiles are being fired into the sea, weapons are being shown off, and the nuclear stick is being waved.
In reality, the North Koreans have made a show of a missile and a bomb that are incapable of threatening the U. S mainland. In order to hit the West Coast of the U.S they would need to create nuclear warhead half the weight of their current device. Even then, strategic targeting is almost certainly out of the question.
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