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North Korea has tested a cruise missile that is reportedly capable of carrying a nuclear weapon.
If true, the missile could hit U.S. military bases in South Korea and Japan.
This is a sign that the country is diversifying its nuclear delivery systems, complicating the job of potential enemies.
North Korea tested a new type of missile over the weekend, designed to penetrate the air defenses of its enemies—and, worryingly, it could be nuclear capable.
The unnamed cruise missile, which resembles the U.S. Navy's Tomahawk cruise missile, is designed to fly under the coverage of enemy radar systems, and is reportedly able to strike American military bases in both South Korea and Japan.
North Korea's state-run newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, reports that the tests took place on September 11 and 12. It referred to the missiles as "strategic weapons," a common allusion to nuclear-capable weapon systems. Development took two years, per Rodong Sinmun, and North Korean officials and scientists conducted "detailed tests of missile parts, scores of engine ground thrust tests, various flight tests, control and guidance tests, warhead power tests, etc."
North Korean officials claimed that one missile traveled for 7,580 seconds (two hours, six minutes, and 20 seconds) and traveled a distance of 932 miles. At 46,000 square miles, North Korea is a fairly small country—slightly smaller than the state of Mississippi—and the longest contiguous stretch of land is just 385 miles from the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea to the Chinese border. This prevented a straight-line missile test; instead, the missile flew oval and figure-eight patterns over the country.
Most of North Korea's long-range missiles are ballistic missiles. Ballistic missiles are large, powerful rockets that travel straight upward and deliver their warheads into low-Earth orbit (or the upper atmosphere) on a ballistic trajectory. Once the warheads near their targets, the warheads de-orbit and streak downward to rain nuclear destruction. Ballistic missiles get their warhead payloads to target quickly, but anyone looking for them can easily see them through space-based infrared sensors or ground-based radar systems.
Cruise missiles, on the other hand, are bullet-shaped missiles with stubby wings. Unlike supersonic rocket-powered missiles, turbofans (scaled-down versions of regular jet engines) power them, causing the missiles to plod along through the atmosphere at subsonic speeds. Cruise missiles typically fly around .75 Mach, or 575 miles per hour, a fuel-efficient speed that squeezes as much range out of the onboard fuel supply as possible.
As a result, cruise missiles have more in common with jet planes or drones than the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. Uncrewed, and with the only real requirement to carry a 1,000 to 2,000 pound warhead, the result is a relatively small, pilotless aircraft using an internal guidance system to navigate to the target. A missile flying at subsonic speeds might not seem like a major threat, but slow speed does have its advantages.
For one thing, cruise missiles are sneaky, according to Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California. "The big advantage of cruise missiles is that they can fly low, below radars that might detect them," he tells Popular Mechanics. "That means they can surprise an enemy and evade missile defenses."
Radars, particularly ground-based radars, are line-of-sight detection systems. Mountains and other terrain block line-of-sight, so a cruise missile will fly around them to reach its target, masking its approach. The biggest radar block is the curvature of the Earth: a cruise missile flying at an altitude of 300 feet will be detected by a radar 15 feet off the ground at just 27.23 miles. Assuming the radar is the target (or co-located with the target), that gives the defender just three minutes to shoot down the cruise missile. And some cruise missiles incorporate stealthy features to make them even more difficult to detect.
North Korea's new cruise missile complicates things for South Korea, Japan, and American bases in both of those countries. Not only must these countries cast their electronic gaze upward to detect ballistic missiles, but they must also contend with cruise missiles that might suddenly pop up on their radar screens, with just a handful of minutes to shoot down what could well be a nuclear-tipped intruder.
Why would North Korea bother developing cruise missiles? "One reason is that South Korea has a mature cruise missile program oriented against the North, with the most advanced types having a range of 932 miles," explains Joshua Pollack, senior research associate at the James Martin Center. "Just as the North has made efforts to match the South's conventional ballistic missiles, they're trying to match its cruise missiles."
Additionally, Pollack tells Popular Mechanics, North Korea is always looking to develop new "strategic" capabilities in a bid to sway the U.S.'s policies toward it. "If [intercontinental ballistic missile testing] didn't do it, I doubt cruise missile testing will, but Pyongyang is determined to try," he says.
Finally, North Korea must keep up with the missile defense systems building up around it, Pollack says. "They've addressed it by rehearsing salvo launches of theater ballistic missiles and developing maneuvering payloads and quasi-ballistic missiles. Cruise missiles help to round out the picture."
Joseph Dempsey, research associate for Defence & Military Analysis at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, agrees. "We have already seen North Korea developing a new generation of short-range ballistic missiles, specifically the KN-23," he tells Popular Mechanics. "Developing a land-attack cruise missile capability allows further diversification of delivery system options, presenting a further challenge for existing and planned systems historically focused on countering the ballistic missiles."
Dempsey cautions that this latest missile may not be a wonder weapon, though. "We should be cautious to assign modern capabilities to this new missile, particularly given [that] little is known about guidance or targeting systems at this stage."
How can the U.S., South Korea, and Japan counter the new North Korean cruise missile threat? The easiest way to destroy cruise missiles is while they're still on the ground, before launch. That assumes, however, that the attacker can destroy all the missiles—both ballistic and cruise missiles—in a single blow. The danger is that once Pyongyang notices its nuclear-tipped missiles are being destroyed, it might launch all of them in response. Just one warhead successfully threading a country's missile defenses could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of civilians in densely populated East Asia.
The second easiest (and most likely) method for countering cruise missiles is early detection. Powerful aircraft-based radars, such as those aboard the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye or the E-3 Sentry AWACS, can peer down and detect a low-flying cruise missile. The aircraft can then warn nearby missile-defense batteries of the incoming threat, ensuring they are ready to fire the moment the cruise missiles enter their engagement zones.
Of course, detecting a cruise missile with airborne radar relies on an airplane actually being in the air when the launch occurs. An alternate method, the JLENS system, proposed using aerostats fitted with radars to protect the U.S. eastern seaboard from surprise Russian cruise missile attack; this program was shelved after one of the aerostats broke free and crashed in a forest in Pennsylvania in 2015.
North Korea's advances in nuclear weapons, and the rockets and missiles to deliver them, are nothing short of astonishing. It's a particularly notable feat for a country that ranks among the poorest in the world. Unfortunately, those advances really benefit no one but North Korea's leadership, and threaten millions of people across East Asia.
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