If you've turned on the news recently there is no doubt you've seen or heard about the ballistic missile tests conducted recently by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) throughout the last few weeks. The concept of the North Korean government rattling the saber by testing a new missile system is nothing new. The notion of a nuclear armed North Korea is no longer simply a notion as it is no doubt fact. Despite the fact that even the Chinese, who fought alongside the North Koreans against the United States, have condemned their missile tests, I would anticipate that more tests will be conducted and development on a true intercontinental ballistic missile system will continue. To understand these tests, we must first look back at the North Korean missile tests of previous years.
The DPRK missile program began with tests of the Nodong-1 (also Rodong) missile system in 1993. The performance of the Nodong-1 is nothing to write home about, as the missile is essentially a DPRK produced and scaled up version of the SS-1d Scud-C. Development of the system began in 1988 and the first test in 1990 was unsuccessful, with the missile blowing up on the launch pad. In May 1993, the Nodong-1 missile was successfully fired. This missile has a range or between 1000-1500km.
On 5 July 2006, the DPRK test fired their Taepodong-2 long range missile for the first time. This particular test resulted in the missile losing control after 42 seconds of flight and crashing in the Sea of Japan. The Taepodong-2 Missile is not believed by some sources to be "missile" (in the "weapon" sense) technology but rather as "space launch vehicle" technology. This analyst would submit to the reader that most early space launch vehicle systems were intended to be missile systems first and were used for space launches... As such, it is this analyst's belief that the reverse can be equally true. I hold the R-7 Semyorka, the LGM-25C Titan II, the SM-65 Atlas, and the PGM-11 Redstone missiles all used later as space launch vehicles as evidence that space technology and missile technology are always unilateral developments. To my knowledge, the Taepondong-2 has not been successfully tested. In the event it is later tested, the advertised range is between 4000-6000km which puts Alaska EASILY within striking range.
On 22 June 2016, the DPRK successfully test fired their Hwasong-10 "Musudan" missile system. This missile has a range of 2500-4000km and is launched from mobile Transporter-Erector-Launcher systems. These missiles are still liquid fueled which means the mobile TEL's must remain static for some period of time while the hypergolic fuels are loaded onto the missile. The road mobile nature of the TEL makes these missile systems remarkably difficult to track, however the use of a liquid fueled system, particularly hypergolic liquid fuels that require extreme caution in handling, nullifies this advantage to some extent as the missile must remain static while it is fueled which allows government ISR assets to find, fix, and ready activate first-strike, second strike, TACAMO, and missile defense assets before the missiles can be fueled, let alone fired.
We also see the KN-08 long range missile, similar in design and function to the Russian Topol-M ICBM, under development. This missile has a suspected range, if it is ever brought into production, of 1500-12,000km. This would easily enable the North Koreans to strike Washington, D.C. which is just over 11,000km from Seoul. Should DPRK forces utilize their missile base at Nodong, for example, a missile shot most anywhere on the east coast should be within range, as Nodong is closer to the Eastern Seaboard than Seoul (RoK). Again, this missile has not yet been successfully tested.
Closer to the current tests is the Pukguksong-1 Submarine launched ballistic missile. This SLBM system has been tested at Sinpo Shipyard off their vertical test stand, submersible barge, and a Sinpo class Diesel Electric Ballistic Missile Submarine. The submarine is visible on Google Maps at Lat/Long (40.025426, 128.165595). Just 207 feet Northeast of the sub is the submersible test barge at Lat/Long (40.025880, 128.166033). The vertical test stand is at (40.018128, 128.156585). Again, these are all open source visible on Google Maps at the preceding coordinates. The missile has a range between 500-2000km. This missile is solid fueled. The Sinpo class submarine that these missiles have been tested from is similar to, but smaller than, the old Soviet Golf class of submarines that were modified to launch Scud type missiles. Further, 10 Golf class submarines were purchased from Russia by DPRK for scrap and it is the belief of some in the intelligence field that the North Koreans are attempting to get these boats back into service. Considering the DPRK refinement of the Scud with their Nodong missile systems, I would be willing to bet that they are entertaining the idea if not outwardly working on such a project. The Sinpo class submarine has a maximum range of 1500km and does not have air independent propulsion. It is unknown to this analyst if the boat has a Snorkel device which would allow it to run on diesels while at periscope depth or the boat must fully service to run the diesel engines that charge the batteries. This surfacing makes boats of this type highly susceptible to air and surface warfare assets although when submerged and running on electric motors this type of boat is fairly quiet. Some analysts have stated that this is built off one of the "scrap" Golf class boats but that is, based on the boats dimensions, quite difficult for this particular analyst to believe. A modified hull doesn't become 20 meters shorter and 2 meters narrower, at least not when pressure hulls are involved.
The first missile of recent testing was an updated Pukguksong-2 missile. Unlike other systems, this land based, road mobile TEL launched missile. The new Pukguksong-2 is solid fueled and utilizes a cold launch (rocket motor ignites after missile leaves launch tube) system which is far less likely to damage the TEL than a hot launch (motor ignites inside launch tube) system. This missile has a suspected range of 1200-3000km. The new TEL is tracked as opposed to wheeled. The biggest change for this missile from previous DPRK missile systems is the use of solid fuel rocket engines to propel the missile. With solid fuel, there is no fueling time (with the exception of the rare split fuel systems which use a solid fuel and a liquid oxidizer or vice versa) and thereby far less time for ISR assets to detect the missile being prepared for launch.
Yesterday, 6 March 2017, 4 ballistic missiles were fired by the North Koreans simultaneously. I have found no open source intelligence that indicates what type of missile was fired. I do not attempt to be some kind of expert on this but if I had to venture a guess, I would say that odds are the missiles fired were either addition Pukguksong-2's or Hwasong-10 Musudan's. I say that based on the missiles' flight distance. If I had to pick between the two, I'd bet more on the Pukguksong system as the solid fuel system would be far safer to fire and far less likely to be detected (and thereby rattle the cages of foreign intelligence agencies that much more) by foreign assets than a liquid fueled system.
This situation is highly fluid. Rest assured that Centurion ASG's Intelligence Department will keep well advised of this situation and prepare as detailed and frequent of reports as possible based on open source intelligence. We'll do the gathering and analysis (read: the hard part) for you.
Check back here and on our weekly Intelligence Summary (IntSum) page frequently for continuing coverage.
Prepared by CASG Intelligence Analyst; 1623HRS EST 07MARCH2017