Another North Korean “Hypersonic” Missile?
Information to Date
On January 5, the South Korean and Japanese governments reported that North Korea had launched a ballistic missile. The missile reportedly flew about 500 km into the East Sea/Sea of Japan. (No source has thus far reported the altitude reached by the flight.)
The next day, North Korea announced the test launch of an unnamed “hypersonic missile” that “precisely hit a set target 700 km away.” The missile’s “detached hypersonic gliding warhead… made a 120 km lateral movement… from the initial launch azimuth to the target azimuth,” combining “multi-stage gliding jump flight” and this “strong lateral movement,” which was termed a “new” technique. The test also was said to have verified “the reliability of fuel ampoule system under the winter weather conditions.”
“The successive successes in the test launches in the hypersonic missile sector have strategic significance in that they hasten a task for modernizing strategic armed force of the state…and help fulfill the most important core task out of the five top priority tasks for the strategic arms sector in the five-year plan,” the North Koreans announced. They also published a single photograph of a non-canisterized, liquid-propellant missile with a conical, finned payload just alighting from a road-mobile launcher.
A number of important points emerge from the recent test:
MaRV or Boost-Glide Vehicle?
The missile in the photograph appears to be one of those displayed by North Korea in October 2021 at the “The Defence Development Exhibition Self-Defense 2021,” nearby the “hypersonic missile Hwasong-8” launched on September 28, 2021. Both missiles appear to use the same or a similar booster (resembling a shortened version of the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile [IRBM]), but have different payloads. The September 2021 Hwasong-8’s arrow-shaped payload strongly resembles the boost-glide vehicle (BGV) used with the Chinese DF-17 missile, while the January 2022 missile’s payload resembles a traditional maneuvering reentry vehicle (MaRV) akin to that on the North Korean KN-18 variant of the Scud short-range ballistic missile and the 1980s US Pershing-II medium-range ballistic missile.
However, it is not clear from the available data whether the payload of the January 2022 missile is a traditional MaRV or a conical boost-glide vehicle (BGV) like the US Common-Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB). Either one, as well as a standard ballistic reentry vehicle, would technically be “hypersonic” (i.e., travel at speeds better than Mach 5) when launched from a booster of the size shown by North Korea. State media’s reference to the January test combining “multi-stage gliding jump flight” (which sounds like a BGV) and “strong lateral movement” (which sounds like a MaRV) does not help resolve this question. A BGV would be capable of greater speed and maneuverability, and would be more technically demanding than a MaRV, but either type of payload would be useful in evading US and allied missile defenses.
More Clarity on the September 2021 Hwasong-8 Launch
The information released by North Korea on January 6 clarified two aspects of the September 2021 launch:
- The depiction of a road-mobile launcher for the January 2022 test, and Japanese reporting that this test was conducted from the same general location as the September 2021 launch, lends further credence to the original assessment that the September test was conducted from a mobile launcher. (North Korea did not announce the launcher type in September and only showed photos of the missile in flight, not the launcher.)
- The January announcement may also have resolved some of the confusion the North Koreans created in their September 2021 attribution of “missile fuel ampoules” to the Hwasong-8. Some analysts took this to mean that the missile was transported in and launched from a canister, which they assessed would permit the missile to be maintained “pre-fueled” and “launch-ready for years.” But the January 2022 photo shows that the new missile (and thus presumably the Hwasong-8, which uses the same or similar booster and probably also was launched from a mobile launcher) is not canisterized, and the North announced that the new missile also uses the “fuel ampoule system.”
- This seems to confirm that “ampoulization” is not canisterization but akin to the Soviet/Russian practice of preloading submarine-launched ballistic missiles with propellants at the factory and maintaining the fueled missile as a sealed unit for loading into the launcher. As noted previously, it is in fact not “ampoulization” or canisterization but the use of storable liquid propellants in missiles like the Hwasong-8 and the new system that permit such missiles to remain fueled on a day-to-day basis.
Possible Implications for Long-Range Missile Reliability
The rocket engines used in the September and January tests probably are the same type used (in different configurations) in the North’s Hwasong-12 IRBM and Hwasong-14 and –15 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), none of which have been flight tested since 2017. (The same engine probably also is used in the large ICBM North Korea paraded in October 2020 and has not yet been flight tested.) The fact that both of the “hypersonic” systems apparently functioned successfully through the boost phase will probably give the North a bit of comfort that these larger systems have some degree of launch reliability.
The North clearly enjoys the sense of military threat and technological prowess conveyed by having “hypersonic missiles.” Interestingly, the January 6 announcement called hypersonic missiles “the most important core task out of the five top priority tasks for the strategic arms sector in the five-year plan,” while the announcement of the September 28 test called them just “one of 5 top-priority tasks of the five-year plan.”
As with the Hwasong-8, the new missile would only make a niche contribution to the North’s existing large ballistic missile force, primarily in providing another option to evade missile defenses. It is unclear why the North might be pursuing two types of “hypersonic” missiles or two types of “hypersonic” payloads for essentially the same missile. The two types might be competitors for the same role, fulfill two different targeting needs, or be intended to provide extra bang for North Korea’s political and propaganda buck. Regardless, if the North intends to deploy either system as a credible weapon, it will need at least a few more successful and longer-range tests, probably taking at least a few years.
The difference between the 500-km range reported by Japan and the 700-km range reported by North Korea probably is due to the final leg of the missile’s flight occurring below Japanese radar coverage. This is often the case with North Korean missiles that maneuver in the final phase, and this time, Japan recognized that possibility by noting the 500-km figure applied “if it is a normal suborbital orbit.” See also: Joseph Dempsey, Twitter post, January 5, 2022, 6:07 p.m., https://twitter.com/JosephHDempsey/status/1478865668510474242.
See: Ankit Panda, Twitter post, January 5, 2022, 4:09 p.m., https://twitter.com/nktpnd/status/1478835947584241668?s=20; “Defence Development Exhibition Self-Defence 2021 Opens in Splendour Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Makes Commemorative Speech at Opening Ceremony,” Foundation of the Korean Friendship Association, October 14, 2021; and “Hypersonic Missile Newly Developed by Academy of Defence Science Test-Fired,” Rodong Sinmun, January 6, 2022.
See: Brad Lendon and Yoonjung Seo, “North Korea claims to be testing the world’s most advanced weapon. Experts are doubtful,” CNN, January 6, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/01/06/asia/north-korea-missile-test-explained-intl-hnk-ml/index.html; Ankit Panda, Twitter post, January 5, 2022, 4:09 p.m., https://twitter.com/nktpnd/status/1478835947584241668?s=20; and Kyle Mizokami, “Trump’s ‘Super Duper Missile’ Is Actually Super Duper Real,” Popular Mechanics, July 20, 2020, https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/research/a33369447/trump-super-duper-missile-facts.
Vann H. Van Diepen, “Six Takeaways From North Korea’s “Hypersonic Missile” Announcement,” 38 North, October 13, 2021, https://www.38north.org/2021/10/six-takeaways-from-north-koreas-hypersonic-missile-announcement.
“Hypersonic Missile Newly Developed by Academy of Defence Science Test-Fired,” KCNA, September 29, 2021.
See: Vann H. Van Diepen, “Six Takeaways From North Korea’s “Hypersonic Missile” Announcement,” 38 North, October 13, 2021; and Joseph Dempsey, Twitter post, January 5, 2022, 6:07 p.m.