Last month, North Korea fired a ballistic missile capable of striking the US territory of Guam, the latest in a record series of tests that demonstrated the relentless progress of the country’s illicit nuclear weapons program.
But of all the missile systems tested in recent weeks, it is the development of a new generation of maneuverable weapons designed to evade missile defense systems that has most intrigued defense experts.
“Kim Jong Un [the North Korean leader] doesn’t just want more missiles, it wants better missiles,” said Ankit Panda, nuclear weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“The qualitative arms race has started in a very important way.”
Unlike a ballistic missile, which follows a predictable parabolic trajectory affected only by gravity and atmospheric drag, a maneuverable missile’s trajectory can be altered in flight by the manipulation of fins or fins and, in some case of propulsion systems such as air-breathing engines. .
On January 5, North Korea’s Academy of National Defense Sciences supervised the launch of a rocket equipped with a conical “re-entry vehicle” (MaRV).
According to North Korean state media, the vehicle made a “120 km lateral movement on the flight path” before hitting its target in waters 700 km from the launch site in the northern province of Chagang.
Six days later, a leather-clad Kim witnessed the test of a rocket equipped with a “hypersonic hover warhead” that performed a “hover bounce” and 240 km sideways maneuver before hitting its target.
These weapons are often described as “hypersonic”, a term used to describe any projectile that travels at five times the speed of sound or faster. But experts stressed that it was the weapons’ maneuverability, not their speed, that distinguished them from other types of missiles.
“There are really three motivations for developing maneuverable missiles,” said Steven Dunham, a launch systems analyst at The Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development center in Los Angeles.
“First, you have to hit the target you want to destroy with the required accuracy. Second, to do this you must be able to evade or avoid the missile defenses surrounding the target. And third, you have to have the reach to be able to achieve that goal,” he said.
Missiles capable of altering their trajectory can be both more accurate and much more difficult to intercept and destroy.
Delivery vehicles that slide at low altitude are also more likely to escape the notice of radar systems – such as South Korea’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system – which are designed to detect ballistic missiles moving at much higher altitudes.
The United States, China, Russia, Iran and South Korea, among others, have been developing maneuverable missiles, in some cases for decades. Last year, the Financial Times revealed that China had tested a hypersonic glider vehicle capable of orbiting the globe before reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.
“There’s a misunderstanding that maneuverable weapons are kind of a new niche threat,” said Sam Wilson, senior policy analyst at The Aerospace Corporation. “In fact, most of the missiles developed in the world are maneuverable to some degree.”
But analysts worry that North Korea’s maneuverable weapons, in addition to the progress it has made in developing “solid-fuel” missiles that can be deployed with less warning, increase the risk of misdirection. disastrous calculation on the Korean peninsula.
South Korea’s defense strategy envisions “chain” preemptive strikes against North Korean missile systems in the face of an imminent attack.
Last month, Yoon Seok-youl, the conservative candidate for South Korea’s March presidential election, said a preemptive strike was the “only method” to prevent an attack from a nuclear-capable missile at home. hypersonic speeds.
“The worrying thing is that if you look at North Korea’s plans to shoot first and you look at how South Korea plans to react to North Korea’s plan to shoot first, you realize that their two policies are shoot first,” Panda of Carnegie Endowment said. . “It’s the classic scenario of mutual fear of a surprise attack.”
Observers said Pyongyang would continue to exploit a divided and distracted international community as it ticked off items on a weapons wish list announced by Kim last year.
“For the US to break the impasse, it needs to give the North Koreans something ‘big’, and that would require sanctions relief,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst based at the Wilson Center think tank. in Washington. “But how can the Biden administration realistically do that when the North has tested seven missiles in 25 days?”
In the meantime, said Dunham of Aerospace Corporation, it was imperative that defense planners begin to put maneuverable weapons at the heart of their thinking.
“This move towards maneuverability really threatens the foundation of our historic approaches to missile defense and missile warning systems,” Dunham said. “The threat has overtaken the language we have to discuss and define the problems we need to solve.”
What is a maneuverable missile?
A missile system consists of a rocket – or booster – and an armed payload that sends a warhead to its target. Some are non-separable or “unitary” missiles, while others have detachable payloads.
Ballistic warheads follow a predictable parabolic trajectory – similar to a cannonball – affected only by gravity and atmospheric drag.
Typically fitted to ballistic missile boosters, aerodynamic vehicles are militarized payloads that can be maneuvered through the use of aerodynamic control surfaces such as ailerons and winglets.
There are several types of aerodynamic vehicles, including maneuver re-entry vehicles and hypersonic glide vehicles. While the term “hypersonic missile” is often used as shorthand for these maneuverable weapons, experts said that’s misleading: nearly all missiles that travel several hundred miles or more reach hypersonic speeds.
A fractional orbital bombardment system is a delivery system that sends a weaponized payload into orbit, where it circles the earth until a rocket attached to the warhead slows it down and allows it to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and exit. accelerate towards its target.
Sources: The Aerospace Corporation, The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, FT research