North Korea has test-launched a newly developed nuclear-capable solid-fuel Pukguksong-2 (Polaris-2) MRBM+ which had been propelled from a mobile launcher by use of a cold-eject system. The weapon was launched from North Korea’s west coast near Banghyeon at 22:55z on February 11 2017. The missile obtained an altitude of 550km and travelled a distance of 500km before splashing into the East Sea. The Pukguksong-2 is an advanced variant of the Pukguksong-1 SLBM tested August 24 2016.
The highest reported altitude of an American interception was achieved on February 20 2008. The interception was made in a test of America’s Aegis BMD utilizing RIM-161 SM-3s. The target was destroyed at an altitude of 247km, less than half the altitude achieved by the Pukguksong-2, a difference of 303km. During an October 31 2015 test, the SM-3 failed to intercept a target but THAAD successfully engaged and destroyed the target in its stead. The altitude of the interception was not reported. The most recent reported ABM test occurred on December 14 2016 utilizing a salvo of Aegis BMD SM-6 missiles. SM-6 missiles defeat targets by explosive force, as opposed to SM-3’s kinetic mode of destruction. The successful intercept was reported to be endo-atmospheric, meaning the intercept took place at 100km or less. This would be a difference of at least 450km from the altitude achieved by the Pukguksong-2.
As renowned physicist Isaac Newton once famously remarked, “what goes up must come down.” Though the maximum altitude reached by the Pukguksong-2 may be out of range, it will be possible for America to challenge DPRK’s missiles prior to reaching such altitude. If American defenses fail to intercept the missile during the boost phase, and are unable to challenge the missile during the midcourse phase, America may have another chance during reentry.
A boost phase intercept would provide unique advantages which overcome the challenges of midcourse and reentry intercepts. The target is large, maintaining all or many of the missile’s stages, the target is hot due to the ongoing burn of the engine, and the target’s altitude is lower than midcourse. American missiles defenses would however need to be within range of the launch site, and prepared to verify and respond to the launch rapidly, as this phase can last as little as three minutes.
The prospect of defeating a midcourse target is daunting. The altitude is problematic, as is the cooler temperature and smaller size of that target. Perhaps most importantly, the enemy weapon may deploy decoys, suddenly becoming many targets, or even jamming guided interceptors. Kinetic interception systems may be particularly vulnerable in the event of a variable trajectory of the enemy target, especially should this include variable velocity.
A reentry intercept represents America’s last chance to defeat the enemy weapon. The altitude is lower, but so is the size and temperature of the target. The difficulty of targeting will thus be more adverse. There may also be many more threats to identify or destroy, thanks to resilient midcourse phase decoys. American defenses will have approximately two minutes to destroy all inbound threats after they achieve reentry phase. The more targets entering this phase approximately simultaneously, the more complex the attack, and the more challenging it will be to defeat. A large-scale attack involving numerous effective decoys, other countermeasures, and maneuverable reentry vehicles to dodge and fool America’s defenses will multiply that challenge.
The true capabilities of America’s ABM defenses is known only to the US government, and the true capabilities of DPRK’s missile program is known only to the North Korean government. While neither government is likely to be certain of the capabilities of the other, both have endeavored to develop countermeasures for the known and anticipated capabilities of their theoretical opponents. America possesses a great advantage in technology and resources over DPRK, but North Korea has had a great deal of time to study and contemplate not only America’s systems and habits, but also the equipment and strategies developed by America’s other nuclear-armed adversaries in Russia and China.
On July 4 2006 DPRK launched a Taepodong-2 missile approximately coinciding with NASA’s launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-121. Simultaneously, North Korea launched six other missiles of various types. Multiple launch sites were involved. This was three months after DPRK’s first nuclear test on October 9 2006. Even in the early moments of North Korea’s nuclear program, DPRK was likely evaluating America’s missile defenses and behavior. A decade later, it’s likely North Korea’s research and contemplation has continued and proven fruitful, and a North Korean missile attack against America’s regional assets and allies may be both complex and challenging for America’s missile defenses.
Though America’s ABM defenses are capable of competing with North Korea’s missiles, an umbrella of absolute protection cannot be guaranteed, and may be improbable. DPRK demonstrated as far back as 2006 that it’s contemplative of strategies involving missile salvos intended to overwhelm and perhaps confuse American defenses. Simultaneously, this is indicative of contemplating decoys and perhaps other forms of countermeasures. DPRK has invested heavily in electronic warfare, and has also probed ROK and USA defenses against such jamming, with great effect. In March 2011, North Korean jamming even forced an American RC-7B out of the air during the Key Resolve-Foal Eagle exercise. DPRK’s missile program may be contemplative of electronic countermeasures specifically.
While North Korea’s missile program and military as whole is often scoffed at by the western public, it would be unwise to underestimate the great threat posed by DPRK. North Korea’s strategy may be far more cunning than the public gives credit, and its equipment far more advanced than typically assumed. Countering a North Korean attack would likely be very challenging, and there are no guarantees.