Analysts say that despite North Korean missile test, Kim Jong-un is likely years away from an ICBM

Despite North Korea’s claim its intercontinental ballistic missile launch shows it can attack targets anywhere it wants, experts say it will probably be years before it could use such a weapon in a real-world scenario.

The July 4 test demonstrated the North is closer than ever before to reaching its final goal of developing a credible nuclear deterrent to what it sees as the hostile policy of its archenemies in Washington.

But even for an experienced superpower, getting an ICBM to work reliably can take a decade.

Launching a missile under test conditions is relatively easy. It can be planned and prepared for and carried out whenever everything is ready, which makes success more likely. The real game-changer would come when the missile is considered operational under any conditions — in other words, when it is credible for use as a weapon.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

For sure, the North’s Fourth of July fireworks were a major success.

Initial analyses indicate its new “Hwasong 14” could be capable of reaching most of Alaska or possibly Hawaii if fired in an attacking trajectory. It was instead shot at a very steep angle, a technique called lofting, and reached a height of more than 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean 930 kilometers (580 miles) away.

Hwasong means “Mars.”

“If a vague threat is enough for them, they could wait for another successful launch and declare operational deployment after that, and half the world will believe them,” said Markus Schiller, a leading expert on North Korea’s missile capabilities who is based in Germany. “But if they take it seriously, as the US or Russia do, it would take at least a dozen more launches and perhaps 10 years. Mind you, this is their first ICBM.”

Schiller noted the example of Russia’s latest submarine-launched missile, the Bulava.

One of Russia's ICBM-capable submarines, K-535 Yuriy Dolgorukiy. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

One of Russia’s SLBM-capable submarines, K-535 Yuriy Dolgorukiy. Photo by Schekinov Alexey Victorovich.

“They really have a lot experience in that field, but from first launch to service it took them almost 10 years (2004 to 2013),” he wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “They still have troubles — one of their test launches just failed.”

The bar for having an operational ICBM is also higher for the North if the United States is its target.

An ICBM is usually defined as a land-based ballistic missile with a range in excess of 5,500 kilometers (3,420 miles). That comes from US-Soviet disarmament talks and in that context makes good sense. The distance between Moscow and New York is about 7,500 kilometers (4,660 miles).

But Narushige Michishita, a defense expert and professor at Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, pointed out that although the range required for North Korea to hit Alaska would be 5,700 kilometers (3,550 miles) and Hawaii 7,500 kilometers (4,660 miles), reaching the other 48 states requires ranges of 8,000-12,000 kilometers (5,000-7,500 miles).

Screenshot from Google Maps

Screenshot from Google Maps

“In the US-DPRK context, the 5,500 kilometer-range ICBM means nothing,” he said. “We must take a look at the range, not the title or name.”

Pyongyang made a point of trying to dispel two big questions about its missiles with the test: re-entry and accuracy.

It claims to have successfully addressed the problem of keeping a nuclear warhead intact during the descent to a target with a viable heatshield, which would mark a major step forward. The Hwasong 14 isn’t believed to be accurate enough to attack small targets despite Pyongyang’s claims otherwise, but that isn’t a major concern if it is intended to be a threat to large population areas, such as cities on the US West Coast.

The reliability problem, however, remains.

“These missiles are very complex machines, and if they’re launched again tomorrow it might blow up on the pad,” said David Wright, co-director and senior scientist at the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “You don’t want to do that with a nuclear warhead on top.”

Wright said he believes Kim Jong Un decided to start a number of different development programs for different missile systems a couple of years ago and that the frequency of launches over the past 18 months suggests those programs have moved forward enough to reach the testing stages.

“I have been surprised by how quickly they have been advancing,” he said.

Wright said the North is believed by most analysts to have a nuclear device small and rugged enough to be put on a long-range missile, or to be very close to having one.

But he said it remains to be seen if its latest missile can be further modified to get the range it needs to threaten the contiguous US, or whether that would require a new system with a scaled-up missile and more powerful engine.

An unarmed LGM-30G Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launch. USAF photo by Senior Airman Lael Huss.

“I suspect the latter, but don’t know yet,” he said.

The answer to that question matters because it has implications for how long it will take North Korea to really have an ICBM that could attack the US West Coast — and how long Washington has to take action to stop it.

What is Wright’s estimate?

“I would expect a couple years,” he said.

TOP ARTICLES
This is why car bombs are a terrorist go-to

Responsible for two of the three deadliest terrorist attacks against Americans in history, car bombs are tailor made to mess with your mind.

This is the latest version of the M9 service pistol

The M9A3 offers a bigger magazine, a user-friendly grip, and a host of improvements based on lessons learned from over three decades of service.

This is what the DoD has planned for a zombie apocalypse

It does touch on many of the pop culture elements of zombie lore, but it breaks things down to become applicable to most situations that would similar to an actual outbreak.

Some dirtbags messed with an Iwo Jima memorial — and Marines caught 'em on film

Officials say an Iwo Jima memorial in Fall River was doused with the contents of a fire extinguisher last weekend. Police are investigating

Vets are going to get a new ID card, and they'll be ready for use next month

The new identification card will provide employers looking to hire veterans with an easier way to verify an employee's military service.

This is the story behind the rise and fall of the Islamic State group

The Islamic State group, responsible for some of the worst atrocities perpetrated against civilians in recent history, appears on the verge of collapse.

Now the Iraqi army is going after the Kurdish forces who helped beat ISIS

Iraqi federal and Kurdish forces exchanged fire on Oct. 20, capping a dramatic week that saw the Kurds hand over territory across Northern Iraq.

This Kurdish female militia refuses to stop its hunt for ISIS terrorists

A Kurdish female militia, after helping free the city of Raqqa, said it will continue the fight to liberate women from the extremists’ brutal rule.

The US just sent nearly 1M bombs and missiles to Guam — here's why

Hint: There's this guy a few thousand miles away who's threatening to lob a nuke in their direction.

This is what the 400 US troops in Somalia are actually up to

The US has quadrupled its military presence in Somalia after Al-Shabab killed nearly 300 civilians in two truck bombings. Half of them are special ops troops.