Yonhap News has reported that North Korea may be preparing to test a Musudan intermediate range ballistic missile.
In terms of Politics this test could either be a reaction to South Korea’s parliamentary elections or an event to mark DPRK founder Kim il Sung’s birthday. It comes on the heels of months of provocations revolving around the annual joint military exercises between the U.S and Republic of Korea. This included the reveal of a new warhead as well as an actual nuclear test.
Technologically, the Musudan has a maximum range of 2500 to 3500 km, far enough to hit Guam, Taiwan or Manila. It’s payload is estimated at around 1200 kg, enough to carry North Korea’s nuclear warhead.
The Musudan is based on the Russian R-27 submarine launched ballistic missile. Previous North Korean missiles have used older technology derived from the 1950s era Soviet “Scud” short range missile. The Scud based designs like the No-dong, Taepodong and Hwasong are less efficient and used cruder Kerosene based fuels which produce less energy and less thrust. These design deficiencies limited their range and payload. As a result, not even the Kim Jong Un’s largest Scud-based missile could carry enough weight far enough to hit the continental United States with a nuclear payload.
The real area of interest for any upcoming Musudan test is not the missile per se, but the technology the missile is based on. North Korea’s newest KN-08 missile is suspected to use two Musudan engines in a side by side configuration. Experts like like Jeffery Lewis estimate that such a configuration would allow the missile to reach the continental United States with a nuclear payload.
Although the DPRK recently conducted an engine test for the KN-08, neither the Musudan missile or any rocket using it’s engines has ever been flight tested before. It remains to be seen whether the North Korean version actually works in practice.
The rocket itself is constructed using more advanced methods than the Scuds. It uses an aluminum isogrid to support it’s structure instead of the steel ribs used on the Scuds. While this method saves weight it is a more complicated technique and whether the North Koreans have mastered it remains to be seen. There is also the matter of the submerged main and vernier engines that haven’t been tested in flight either.
If the Musudan works it means North Korea has succeeded in moving beyond Scud based missiles. It also means that it is technically capable of producing at least the basic components of the KN-08 and is well on it’s way to creating a functioning ICBM. An ICBM that would (at least in theory) put the American West Coast in range of the North Korean nuclear arsenal.
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