North Korea Can’t Yet Bank on Road-Mobile Missile Working: Pentagon

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects a Korean People's Army military unit in this undated photo released in January by regime-controlled media. The Pentagon in a new report said the reliability of Pyongyang's new road-mobile strategic ballistic missile is low.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
March 6, 2014, 9:12 a.m.

The Pentagon on Wed­nes­day said the cred­ib­il­ity of North Korea’s new­est in­ter­con­tin­ent­al bal­list­ic mis­sile is low, as the weapon has not yet been tested.

In a con­gres­sion­ally man­dated up­date on the se­cur­ity situ­ation with North Korea, the De­fense De­part­ment noted that the KN-08 in­ter­con­tin­ent­al bal­list­ic mis­sile, which Py­ongy­ang has be­gun dis­play­ing at mil­it­ary parades, should “be cap­able of reach­ing much of the con­tin­ent­al United States” — but only if it is suc­cess­fully de­signed and de­veloped.

“ICBMs are ex­tremely com­plex sys­tems that re­quire mul­tiple flight tests to identi­fy and cor­rect design or man­u­fac­tur­ing de­fects, and the Hwasong-13 [KN-08] has not been flight-tested,” the Pentagon noted in an un­clas­si­fied ver­sion of the re­port. “Without flight tests, its cur­rent re­li­ab­il­ity as a weapon sys­tem would be low.”

Not much is known about the new mis­sile’s ac­tu­al cap­ab­il­it­ies. Top U.S. mil­it­ary of­fi­cials have warned re­peatedly of the threat it poses to the United States and these state­ments tend to re­cir­cu­late widely among the circle of in­ter­na­tion­al ob­serv­ers who fol­low North Korea’s mis­sile and nuc­le­ar activ­it­ies.

U.S. De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel last March cited the KN-08 in de­tail­ing the Pentagon’s de­cision to pro­cure 14 ad­di­tion­al long-range mis­sile in­ter­cept­ors for place­ment in Alaska in 2017. Those mis­sile-de­fense plans are pro­ceed­ing des­pite ser­i­ous tech­nic­al chal­lenges in in­ter­cept­or per­form­ance, and in the ab­sence of any North Korean flight-test of the KN-08.

Some in­de­pend­ent ex­perts have noted that the KN-08s seen in 2012 North Korean mil­it­ary parades had ob­vi­ous design flaws, though those same ana­lysts ac­know­ledged that ver­sions seen on dis­play last year ap­peared more real­ist­ic and bet­ter de­signed.

North Korea is as­sessed to be al­most done build­ing launch fa­cil­it­ies that could be used to test the KN-08 and its older stra­tegic mis­sile cous­in, the Tae­podong 2, which had its first suc­cess­ful flight tri­al in Decem­ber 2012.

“North Korea will seek to con­tin­ue to de­vel­op and test-launch mis­siles, in­clud­ing the TD-2 ICBM/SLV [Tae­podong 2 mis­siles con­figured as space launch vehicles],” the De­fense De­part­ment said in its re­port.

The total num­ber of launch­ers for the Tae­podong 2 is un­known though North Korea is es­tim­ated to have at least six launch­ers for the KN-08, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. Both mis­siles are es­tim­ated to have ranges ex­ceed­ing 3,400 miles.

“North Korea will con­tin­ue us­ing and im­prov­ing the TD-2, which could reach the United States with a nuc­le­ar pay­load if de­veloped as an ICBM,” the de­part­ment said.

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