North Korea represents one of the most difficult intelligence targets on the planet, making it hard for the U.S. to track down North Korean weapons systems.
The U.S. has developed the ability to monitor North Korean missile tests, but keeping up with them once they’re deployed has proven to be a challenge, the second highest-ranking U.S. military official said Tuesday.
“I’m ‘reasonably confident’ in the ability of our intelligence community to monitor the testing but not the deployment of these missile systems. Kim Jong-un and his forces are very good at camouflage, concealment, and deception,” Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Paul Selva told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.
The U.S. typically monitors and tracks North Korean missiles launched during tests, while occasionally inaccurately assessing the type of weapon tested. For instance, U.S. Pacific Command initially identified the intercontinental ballistic missile tested earlier this month as an intermediate-range missile. Several reports have indicated, though, that the U.S. watched North Korea prepare for its ICBM test for a little over an hour.
The New York Times revealed earlier this year that the Pentagon may be hacking North Korean missiles, citing the high failure rate of the Musudan IRBM throughout most of last year. While the U.S. may be attempting to launch cyber attacks against North Korean weapons systems, evidence suggests that the campaign, assuming it even exists, has been largely unsuccessful, as North Korea has successfully tested new short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, as well as an ICBM, this year, advancing the weapon at an accelerated pace.
Once a missile is deployed, tracking it becomes much harder, especially given recent developments.
North Korea tested the Pukguksong-2 (KN-15), a road-mobile, solid-fueled medium-range missile based on the Pukguksong-1 (KN-11), a submarine-launched ballistic missile. “Solid-fuel missiles can be launched more quickly because the fuel can be stored in the missile,” Melissa Hanham, an arms expert and senior research associate in the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, explained in an April article. “Rather than taking around an hour to fuel up, North Korean units can drive solid-fueled missiles out from a tunnel, erect them and fire, shaving time off their launch process and making it harder for the U.S., South Korea, and Japan to respond.”
Another important development is the tracked transporter erector launcher (TEL), which carries the KN-15.
“This is the first time we’ve seen an indigenous TEL,” Hanham previously told the Daily Caller News Foundation. Domestic production of TELs reduces the North’s dependence on foreign imports, removing a key bottleneck in weapons development. “By moving away from these heavy-duty trucks and toward indigenously produced TELs, North Korea saves money, time, and aggravation,” Hanham wrote. “With heavy, tracked TELs, North Korean missiles can traverse harsh terrain and can be fired from new locations.”
Road-mobile, solid-fueled missiles are more difficult to track and are, therefore, more survivable and less vulnerable to preemptive strikes.
When U.S. officials and experts discuss the possibility of military action in North Korea, this is one factor that must also be taken into consideration. As North Korean missiles and artillery are hidden and camouflaged, the U.S. and its allies would struggle to eliminate all of North Korea’s missiles. Because military personnel believe that North Korea has or is capable of developing nuclear, chemical, and biological warheads for its ballistic missiles, the costs of conflict could and likely would be exceptionally high.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis said previously that a renewed conflict in North Korea would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.”
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