North Korea’s ICBM tests a possible deception tactic

North Korea has shocked the world by making huge strides in
missile technology since debuting an
intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4
, but according
to James Kiessling, the road-mobile missile may just be an act of

Kiessling, who works at the Office of the Secretary of Defense,
gave Business Insider his personal views on North Korea, which do
not represent the Pentagon’s official stance.

“If you’re really concerned about an ICBM from anyone, go back
and look at history for what everyone has ever done for ICBMs,”
said Kiessling. “All early liquid ICBMS are siloed.”

Through a painstaking analysis of imagery and launch statistics
from North Korea’s missile
program, Kiessling has concluded that the
road-mobile, truck-based missiles they show off can’t actually
work as planned, and may instead be purposeful distractions from
a more capable missile project.

In a paper for Breaking
, Kiessling and his colleague Ralph Savelsberg
demonstrated a model of the North Korean ICBM and concluded its
small size made it basically useless for reaching the US with any
kind of meaningful payload. 

History suggests that building a true liquid-fueled ICBM that can
be transported on a truck presents huge, if not insurmountable
problems, to designers.

“The US and the Soviets tried very hard and never managed to
reach a level of miniaturization and ruggedness that would
support a road-mobile ICBM,” said Kiessling, referring to the
minaturization of nuclear warheads needed to fit them onto

ICBMs that use liquid fuel, as North Korea’s do, are “very likely
to crumple or damage the tankage” while being carted around on a
bumpy truck. 

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icbm intercontinental ballistic missile north korea hwasong 14 AP_17185312955179KCNA via Reuters

“While it may not be impossible, it’s bloody difficult and
extremely dangerous,” to put a liquid-fueled ICBM on a truck,
according to Kiessling.

Instead, the US, Soviets, and Chinese all created silo-based
liquid-fueled missiles, as the static missiles are more stable
and less prone to sustaining damage. 

But there’s no evidence of North Korea building a silo for
missile launches, and Kiessling said that could be due to a
massive deception campaign that may have fooled some of the
world’s top missile experts.

Kiessling thinks that North Korea has actually been preparing for
a silo-based missile that combines parts of the Hwasong-14, its
ICBM, with its space-launch vehicle, the Unha. Both the Unha and
the Hwasong-14 have been tested separately, and Kiessling says
they could easily be combined.

This analysis matches the comments of Mike Elleman, a senior
fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for
Strategic Studies, who told Business Insider he saw the
Hwasong-14 as an “interim capability” that North Korea was using
to demonstrate an ICBM as quickly as possible.

Elleman believes that North Korea well develop a “heavier ICBM”
that “may not be mobile,” but can threaten the entire continental
US and carry a heavier payload, including decoys and other
penetration aides. 

titan 2 missile silo steve jurvetson flickr ccby2 7332367192_877fdacffe_k
Titan II ICBM in an underground silo. This is how the US handled
the challenges of liquid-fueled missiles.

Jurvetson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

But other prominent analysts disagree with Kiessling’s model,
saying he incorrectly judged the size of the Hwasong-14. To that,
Kiessling says that North Korean imagery, which has all been
purposefully released by a regime known to traffic in
propaganda, is geared towards deception. 

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“One of the hardest problems imaginable is to find something
you’re not looking for,” said Kiessling, of a possible missile
silo in North Korea.

“If I was in the place of Kim Jong Un, and I wanted to have
a cleverly-assembled ICBM program, I’d do it the way everyone
else does it,” said Kiessling, referring to silo-based missiles.
“But at the same time, you run a deception program to distract
everyone else from what you’re doing until you’re done.”

A silo would also prove an inviting target for any US strikes on
North Korea, as the target can’t hide once its found. If the US
were to find out that North Korea hadn’t succeeded in
miniaturizing its warheads enough to fit on its mobile missiles,
a smaller-scale strike against fixed targets may seem like an
attractive option.