As if attempting to troll the United States, the DPRK test fired it’s first ICBM on the Fourth of July. The test was a high altitude “lobbed” trajectory affair that hit 2800 km at its apogee and landed 930 km downrange of the test site. If fired for distance at a normal trajectory the missiles range is estimated at between 6700 km and 8000 km; enough to strike Anchorage and Seattle respectively.
In technical terms the missile, identified as the HS-14, appears to be a two stage design using liquid propellant and transported on a Mobile Erector launcher (MEL). The missile is nuclear capable as evidenced by the relatively large shroud / reentry vehicle and Judging by the size, it could easily house the compact nuclear device that the North Koreans have developed.
Steering is accomplished by the use of vernier engines as opposed to the vanes and grid fins of earlier designs. The HS-14 then, does not seem to require external fins for stabilization.
This design has room to grow. Because the North Korean’s are now designing missiles instead of copying Russian ones, the introduction of improved variants with extended range is likely. This could include adding or enlarging engines or mounting a third stage.
The large shroud/ reentry vehicle is suggestive of future design ambitions for more powerful warheads, probably thermonuclear. This is further evidenced by a new underground nuclear test site that analysts believe is capable of containing a 282 kiloton nuclear test. This would be far too big for a practical fission weapon given the hermit kingdom’s small stockpile of fissile material and would be a logical step forward for the program.
In terms of drawbacks, the major limitations of this design are its use of liquid fuel (increases logistical burden, launch time and visibility) and it’s range. Although given the counter value role DPRK ICBMs are supposed to perform, such limitations are not as pressing as they are for tactical missiles.
The effect on the military situation cannot be understated. In the event of war American nuclear strikes will be needed for the prompt destruction of these launchers. America does not current field a conventional weapon that could accomplish the job fast enough to preempt a launch.
In the political realm, this missile solidifies North Korea’s nuclear deterrent capability. Although not able to hit much of the United States and possibly vulnerable to GMD interception, the HS-14 is the death knell for America’s Korean strategy. It is now far too late for talk of denuclearization or stalling the program. What we are facing now is a nuclear standoff. Thousands of American lives on the home front are at now at risk and the leverage Kim has gained is significant.
While many are still in denial about the regime’s nuclear capabilities I see no reason to be hopeful. This is a functional nuclear missile that has been successfully tested. There is no bright side. North Korea that can put a nuclear warhead in Anchorage. The only conceivable upside is that we are not living six months in the future where the situation will certainly be worse. Happy Independence day.