N. Korea’s Nodong – no joke

By Gordon Prather

A year ago, some un-named U.S. government official “reported” that North Korea was working on a new missile that could perhaps be a threat to the U.S. mainland. “We’ve had hints of this for several years, but it’s only within the last year that we’ve been able to confirm that this [missile] did exist and it’s derived from Russian technology.”

Now comes Jane’s Defense Weekly to confirm – sort of – this slam-dunk U.S. intelligence. According to Jane’s, North Korea has developed and is deploying, two new missile systems, both based on the Soviet R-27 liquid-fueled submarine-launched ballistic missile.

The R-27 – deployed during the 1970s and 1980s – had an operational range of about 1,600 miles carrying a 1.2-megaton nuke warhead. But Jane’s says the Korean ground-launched model could have a range of about 2,500 miles, bringing Hawaii into range.

True, North Korea has developed and produced longer-range versions of the Soviet Scud liquid-fueled single-stage ballistic missile and has marketed them internationally.

In particular, North Korea sold (a) the 170-mile range Scud-B to Iran, Egypt and Syria, (b) the 300-mile range Scud-C to Iran, Libya and Syria, and (c) the 560-mile range Scud-D to both Iran and Pakistan. North Korea reportedly has 600 Scud-C missiles and 100 Scud-derivative two-stage Nodong missiles with a range of 800 miles.

How did the Koreans get the increased range? Basically by adding fuel, thereby reducing the missile’s “throw weight” and its accuracy.

They bought the basic Scud from the Soviets. Where did they get the basic R-27 missile?

Not from Russia.

Eduard Baltin, the former commander of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, says reports that they did are “absurd.” In the early 1990s, all R-27s were removed from service. “They were completely cleaned up at the decommissioning factory and their warheads and military guidance systems removed. All that was left was a solid metal shell, which was no good for anything apart from scrap.”

North Korea did obtain 12 decommissioned Russian submarines from a Japanese scrap dealer in 1993. Jane’s says that – even though their missiles and launch systems had been removed – the missile “cold-launch” tubes and stabilizing sub-systems were left intact and could have helped the Koreans develop their version of the R-27.

It isn’t obvious how. About the only similarity between the North Korean Scud-derivatives and the R-27 is that they both use liquid fuel. For example, the R-27 was designed to be launched from a tube while the submarine was submerged. That means the missile doesn’t have guidance fins and that the engine isn’t ignited until the missile pops clear of the surface. No one supposes that the Korean R-27 will be launched that way.

In any case, ballistic missiles are North Korea’s principal “cash crop.” Where is the market for a 1,600-2,500 mile range liquid-fueled ballistic missile? Why would North Korea waste time and money improving another obsolete liquid-fueled ballistic missile?

The answer appears to be that they had no choice. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, no one will sell them ballistic missiles, modern or obsolete.

But Jane’s claims engineers from the VP Makeyev Design Bureau in the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk helped the Koreans design and possibly build their R-27, under the guise of helping the Koreans develop a space-launch vehicle based upon a three-stage Nodong ballistic missile.

Well, irrespective of whether the Russians helped them build an improved R-27, it seems likely they taught the Koreans a lot about multi-stage missile guidance. When you increase range by adding fuel – thereby reducing throw weight – missile guidance becomes all the more important. Especially when you replace a 1.2-megaton nuke warhead – weighing about a thousand pounds – with a few hundred pounds of high-explosive.

So if Jane’s is right and North Korea does have a few ballistic missiles that can reach Hawaii carrying a few hundred pounds of high-explosive, it is perhaps a good thing that the Clinton-Gore zillion-dollar ballistic-missile defense system in Alaska is partially operational. Perhaps, because the Clinton-Gore system has to intercept enemy warheads in their exo-atmospheric “cruise” phase, using inert heat-seeking kinetic-kill vehicles. But, when it’s exo-atmospheric, the enemy warhead is cold, exhibiting almost no infrared signature. So, what’s a poor heat-seeking bullet to do?

Too bad we got rid of all our ABM nukes. With a heat-seeking bullet, a miss by a hundredth of a meter is as bad as a miss by a hundred meters. But, with a nuke, a hundred meters is close enough for government work.