As President Donald Trump escalates his war of words against North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un, a team of independent rocket experts has asserted that the two rockets the rogue regime launched in July and described as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are incapable of delivering a nuclear payload to the continental United States, and probably not even to Anchorage, Alaska.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology rocket expert Ted Postol and two German experts, Markus Schiller and Robert Schmucker of Schmucker Technologie, published their findings Friday in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in a paper they titled “North Korea’s ‘Not Quite’ ICBM Can’t Hit the Lower 48 States.” Newsweek saw an early version of the paper.
Postol is professor of science, technology and national security policy at MIT who has advised the Pentagon and Congress on missile-related defense projects. Schiller and Schmucker are missile engineers with the Munich-based company who have previously analyzed North Korean missiles, and in 2012 determined that the country’s supposed ICBMs were “fakes.” Schiller has worked on missile analyses for NATO, the EU, the German and Austrian armed forces and other institutions in Europe. Schmucker has worked at NASA and served as a U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq.
“From the point of view of North Korean political leadership, the general reaction to the July 4 and July 28 launches could not have been better,” the authors wrote. “The world suddenly believed that the North Koreans had an ICBM that could reach the West Coast of the United States and beyond. But calculations we have made—based on detailed study of the type and size of the rocket motors used, the flight times of the stages of the rockets, the propellant likely used, and other technical factors—indicate that these rockets actually carried very small payloads that were nowhere near the weight of a nuclear warhead of the type North Korea could have, or could eventually have. These small payloads allowed the rockets to be lofted to far higher altitudes than they would have if loaded with a much-heavier warhead, creating the impression that North Korea was on the cusp of achieving ICBM capability.”
Postol during an interview with Newsweek called the missiles “a hoax,” although Friday’s report doesn’t use that language.
The White House has not responded to a request for comment Friday morning. Newsweek will update if and when it does.
“The reality is the North Korean Hwasong-14 is a sub-level ICBM that will not be able to deliver atom bombs to the continental United States,” the scientists wrote in a draft version of their report shared exclusively with Newsweek.
The scientists based their analysis on publicly available information about the trajectories of the missiles lofted on July 4 and July 28. These independent experts determined that defense and other analysts who decided the North Korean missiles could carry the weight of a nuclear payload were focused on the rocket motor’s ability to place the rocket on maximum achievable range, as opposed to maximum achievable altitude.
In other words, the independent analysts believe that the North Korean rocket scientists engineered the power of their rockets with an eye toward gaining height, without demonstrating that their devices had the range or thrust to fly far enough horizontally—while carrying the extra weight of a nuclear bomb—to hit a target in Alaska or the continental U.S.
The independent analysts also wrote that the two July missiles carried reduced payload weights in order to increase the altitude of their trajectories.
Based on what the analysts know about the North Korean rocket, they estimated that in order for the missiles to reach Seattle while carrying a nuclear bomb, the payload would have to weigh 300 kilograms, and in order to reach Anchorage, the bomb would have to weigh less than 500 to 550 kilograms.
“Since it is extremely unlikely that a first generation weaponized North Korean atomic bomb would weigh substantially less than 500 kilograms, we conclude that neither variant of the Hwasong-14 missile could deliver a first generation North Korean atomic bomb to the continental United States,” the authors concluded.
Their analysis deviates from an anonymously sourced Defense Intelligence Agency report published in The Washington Post earlier this week suggesting that the North Koreans have miniaturized atomic bombs that their rockets could loft into the United States.
But based on an examination of what was purported to be an atomic bomb the North Koreans displayed in 1998, as well as on available intelligence about bombs that have been developed in Pakistan and Libya, and taking into consideration available information about the material resources and abilities of the rogue nation’s scientists, the independent analysts conclude, “It is overwhelmingly likely that it would not weigh less than 500 kilograms.”
The authors warned the rocket tests demonstrated that the North Korean missile technology was advancing, and that the country will eventually produce missiles with sufficient payloads to deliver atomic bombs to the continental United States, but that is “probably years away.”
Another independent expert, Michael Elleman, senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the new report is the first to identify the engine propelling the North Korean rockets, information that allows researchers to narrow their assumptions about the missile’s capability. “They have greater fidelity, in other words,” he said. But Elleman said the weight of the payload in the July missile tests remains uncertain.
In a separate statement attached to the article, Postol, an expert in ballistic missile defense, stated that while existing ballistic missile defenses “will never work reliably,” there is still time to develop a defense system with available U.S. technology.
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