Update | April 14, 9:46 pm. AFP reports that South Korean news channel YTN has described a series of four static engine tests earlier this year for what it calls North Korea’s KN-08 ICBM. Dong-a Ilbo reported on a static engine test late last year. Korean speakers can view the YTN video and read the transcript.
My article on North Korea’s emerging ICBM force is now online at 38North.org. (As always, these are my personal views only.) Go read it first. The bottom line is, we have bigger problems than the upcoming TD-2 launch.
It’s striking that Pyongyang, which presumably cannot afford to build a large fleet of intercontinental missiles, has opted to pursue the ICBM course in the face of the American missile defense deployment in Alaska and California (the Ground-based Midcourse Defense, or GMD). That decision implies some real confidence in North Korea’s countermeasure technology.
Creating effective countermeasures is not necessarily trivial; then again, it’s probably much less of a challenge than building the main components of a working ICBM in the first place. Just how much help the North Koreans received in this area in the 1990s from scientists and engineers at Russia’s Makeyev Design Bureau – the source of R-27 technology – remains unknown. However, the 2010 BMDR Report reported that “proliferators” were deploying countermeasures, and treated “the transfer of advanced capabilities” from other countries as a serious and ongoing problem.
One possible response to the appearance of the new North Korean ICBM, whenever it is finally deemed operational, will be to leave current missile defense deployments unchanged, on the grounds that they anticipated the new development. This stance would be consistent with the claims of two administrations that the GMD system is capable of defending America against the emerging threat.
Another approach – one urged by Rep. Michael Turner in recent HASC hearings – will be to add more interceptors. But if existing interceptors can’t beat the countermeasures, adding more units won’t help. Only if the North Koreans were try to overcome missile defense through sheer numbers of weapons, not though countermeasures, would there be grounds for a numerical strategy.
Against a limited but relatively sophisticated threat, quality counts much more than quantity. It’s risky to put too much faith in sheer numbers.