Multiple media outlets are seizing on an analysis suggesting that North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile failed in its final moments, but several leading missile experts have cast doubts on this assessment.
North Korea conducted its second test of its Hwasong-14 ICBM Friday, demonstrating alarming capabilities. The flight data for the long-range missile, which was lofted during the test, indicates that, were the missile to be fired along a normal strike trajectory, it would have a range between 6,500 miles and 6,800 miles, putting most of the continental U.S. within striking distance. Not long after the North Korean ICBM made headlines, observers began probing the limits of this new weapons system.
One popular analysis argues that North Korea likely has yet to develop a suitable vehicle to shield a nuclear warhead during atmospheric reentry.
In the wake of the launch, a video emerged that appeared to show the reentry vehicle coming apart near Japan, indicating that the North Korean missile may have failed in the critical final moments in the terminal phase of flight.
“A reasonable conclusion based on the video evidence is that the Hwasong-14’s re-entry vehicle did not survive during its second test. If this assessment accurately reflects reality, North Korea’s engineers have yet to master re-entry technologies and more work remains before Kim Jong Un has an ICBM capable of striking the American mainland,” Michael Elleman, an expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, asserted in an article for 38 North.
“The video is very poor and it’s hard to be sure of what is happening,” Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review and senior research associate in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“The behavior of the object seems generally similar to that of Russian [reentry vehicles],” he explained, “They twinkle, leave trails of light, and vanish behind clouds (before reappearing below the clouds). The North Korean missile “twinkles, leaves some light behind it, and dims almost to the point of vanishing before passing out of sight. I can’t tell whether it broke up or simply entered clouds or fog offshore.”
“I don’t find [Elleman’s] analysis in this case to be even a tiny bit compelling,” Jeffrey Lewis, a leading arms expert and the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told TheDCNF.
“The video of the North Korean warhead looks completely normal me,” he added, noting that the flashing and streaking that Elleman “interprets as signs of distress can also be seen in this video of Russian reentry vehicles,” which made it to the ground.
Lewis said that in the event that the reentry vehicle was breaking apart or disintegrating, he would “expect to see distinct chunks of debris side-by-side.” Pollack added that because the missile was steeply lofted, increasing stress on the reentry vehicle, “even if it did break up, that would not necessarily indicate its performance under the conditions associated with its actual mission.”
The failure assessment “is going viral because people *want* it to be true,” Lewis explained in a post on Twitter. “They don’t know what to do so they look for reassurance, avoid critical voices.”
There is a perpetual desire to underestimate North Korea’s capabilities, thus pushing them to test increasingly-powerful weapons to prove that they have a viable nuclear deterrent. The same was done to China, a country that also felt the need to prove itself. China strapped a nuclear warhead on a missile and fired it into the desert to demonstrate its ability to field nuclear weapons. Whether North Korea will decide to do the same remains to be seen, but goading North Korea into showing what it can do is asking for trouble.
Elleman himself, who explained that he is letting the evidence dictate his conclusions, acknowledged that even if the reentry vehicle did come apart, “this is not a major set back for [North Korea].”
“It simply means more work/tests needed,” he said in a tweet.
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