Following a successful flight-test this weekend, North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency announced that the KN-15 (Pukguksong-2) medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) will now enter mass production and begin operational deployment. The missile probably isn’t truly operational at this stage, but is more likely entering a pre-operational training period. It will likely take another year or so to achieve reliable and accurate performance from the missile, train the launch crews, and establish a mass production capability. This is about what we expected in terms of the timeline, only the explicit announcement comes as any sort of surprise.
While North Korea already has the ability to attack their regional adversaries—South Korea and Japan—with their current arsenal, the KN-15 provides a robust second strike capability for deterrence purposes. And early deployment, even of an unreliable missile in limited numbers, may suit that purpose.
Timing and Training
The KN-15, first seen earlier this year, is a solid-propellant missile with a range of 1,200-1,300 kilometers, carried on a tracked transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicle. Its performance is comparable to North Korea’s existing Scud-ER and Nodong missiles, threatening targets across South Korea and much of Japan, but the use of solid propellant will give it greater mobility and a faster response time. The tracked TEL will also support greater cross-country mobility, though the old-style wheeled TEL would have been better for on-road operation.
The claim that the KN-15 is ready for operational deployment is probably an exaggeration. With only two successful tests to date, it would be difficult for North Korea to have confidence in the missile’s reliability under combat conditions. For instance, in combat, you don’t get to pick the best missile in the stockpile, your technicians don’t get to give it a thorough inspection the day before, and you don’t get to call off the countdown and schedule for another day if things aren’t perfect. Accuracy would also be a concern, as precise control of the shutdown of solid motors is technically challenging and difficult to demonstrate without multiple tests. The six tests of the related KN-11 (Pukguksong-1) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) would add some confidence, but not all of those were successful and the KN-11 is, in any event, a different missile system.
Additionally, the North Koreans have not been trained on solid-fuel systems. The advantage of a solid-propellant missile is the ability to launch on short notice, perhaps as little as five minutes. However, North Korea’s missile have largely been liquid-propellant systems until now. Consequently, training of North Korea’s missile teams has been working through a very different launch drill over a much longer period. It will take some time for them to learn new procedures.
Another extraordinary claim from this weekend’s test is that the KN-15 missile has some sort of terminal guidance capability. No details were given, and there are grounds for skepticism. In particular, the reentry vehicle does not appear to have thrusters, fins or any other control mechanism. These could be concealed at launch, but we have already seen North Korea display what looks like a maneuvering reentry vehicle (MaRV) with quite visible steering fins mounted on an old-style Scud missile. We believe the Scud/MaRV combination, whose formal designation is yet unknown, has been tested at least twice.
One new feature demonstrated in Sunday’s KN-15 test was the ability to take images of the Earth from near the missile’s apogee, and transmit them to a receiving station on the ground. This doesn’t require any great technological leap, but the North Koreans have not done it before, and it is unusual for a ballistic missile. But if they can continue to gather imaging data as the missile enters the atmosphere—something they have not demonstrated, or at least not revealed—that would be useful for guiding a MaRV and conducting precise attacks against military targets.
If the North has any plans to develop a precision-guided maneuvering reentry vehicle, the KN-15 is certainly where they will want to deploy it. But it is quite possible they are doing most of the testing using cheap, reliable Scud missiles; they may have taken the opportunity to fly just the imaging sensor and telemetry system on this flight. At some point in the future when the KN-15 and the guided MaRV are both working separately, they could be mated into a single system. But MaRVs are a notoriously difficult technology to perfect, and that will likely take more than a year; quite possibly even more than a decade.
Even if mass production of the KN-15 were to start today, it would take more than a year to produce a significant stockpile of these missiles. At its peak, North Korea could manufacture about 50 Nodong missiles each year. It is unlikely it will be able to manufacture KN-15 missiles at a higher rate, and even 50 missiles per year will require a great deal of troubleshooting on the assembly line. From an engineering standpoint, the transition from hand-crafted prototypes to mass production is almost as challenging as developing the prototypes in the first place.
This means, North Korea could begin deploying the KN-15 missile this year, but only in limited numbers and most likely just for training purposes. Within a year or so, the missile could achieve what we would call initial operational capability (IOC), the point at which missiles could reliably be used in combat, albeit still in limited numbers. It will likely take at least five years for the KN-15 to replace the Scud-ER and Nodong as the mainstay of North Korea’s strategic missile force, and even then, only in a first-generation version with a non-maneuvering warhead.
If and when this happens, it will give North Korea a robust second-strike capability against targets in South Korea and Japan. It is important to remember that if all Pyonyang wants is the ability to conduct a surprise attack against their local adversaries, they can do that right now with their current arsenal. The purpose of the KN-15 is to give them the ability to retaliate if they are the victims of someone else’s first strike, and to credibly threaten retaliation in order to deter an attack in the first place. And early deployment, even of an unreliable missile in limited numbers, may suit that purpose.