Early Wednesday morning, North Korea tested their latest and most powerful missile to date, the Hwasong-15. Despite evidence to show that the warhead reentry vehicle failed at the tail end of the test, the missile’s successful launch boasted a reported 53 minute flight time and maximum altitude of approximately 2,800 miles, giving it an estimated range of more than 8,100 miles. Reentry vehicle issues aside, there’s no longer any question that Kim Jong Un now possesses the ability to reach America’s East Coast with a nuclear weapon.
On Thursday, North Korea continued to celebrate their successful test by releasing the first photos of their ballistic missile program’s new crown jewel, and based on those images… it’s a doozy.
Early assumptions that the Hwasong-15 was merely a modified Hwasong-14, adjusted for increased range and payload capacity, appear to have been wrong. The new missile appears to be significantly larger than its predecessor.
“Our initial analysis of the photos showed that there were clear differences between the Hwasong-15 and Hwasong-14 in terms of the looks of the warhead, the joint of the first and second stages of the missile, and overall size,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Roh Jae-cheon said in a news briefing Thursday.
According to expert analysis, the first stage of the Hwasong-15 utilizes a similar case to that of its predecessor but shows one significant difference: it has two engines instead of one. The second stage, which would be used to house the rocket’s propellent, has a larger diameter than seen in previous missiles. Estimates of the size of the second stage suggest that it is likely capable of carrying nearly twice as much fuel as previous North Korean ICBMs. By doubling both fuel capacity and the number of engines, the Hwasong-15 is more than a step forward, it’s a veritable leap for Kim’s rapidly blossoming nuclear program.
Other changes from previous missile platforms include a rounder nose, which likely indicates continued effort toward creating a reentry vehicle that can survive the immense heat and friction caused by penetrating back through the earth’s atmosphere. It’s important to note, however, that early indications suggest this new reentry vehicle failed as well.
Although the images released by the North Korean government depict a mobile launch platform, multiple U.S. officials have stated that satellite imaging suggests that the missile was actually fired from a stationary launch platform. The presence of the mobile launcher in the image, then, is likely a bit of North Korea’s characteristic theatrics, seeming to suggest that they want to depict a fully mobile strike package at the inaugural launch of their latest and greatest missile.
North Korea has claimed that the successful launch of the Hwasong-15 makes them a legitimate and viable nuclear power, though experts aren’t quite convinced. Issues with the reentry vehicle aren’t the only thing holding Kim’s regime back. They have still yet to demonstrate an accurate and reliable targeting system in their missiles, and without confirmation of the weight of the dummy warhead, the Hwasong-15’s range may be reduced when equipped with a legitimate nuclear weapon.
Nonetheless, this new missile represents a significant leap forward for the reclusive state, and potentially, a legitimate threat to American security.
Images courtesy of KCNA