North Korea is testing hypersonic weapons. Should the West be worried? : NPR


North Korea is testing hypersonic weapons.  Should the West be worried?  : NPR

This photo provided by the North Korean government shows what it says, a test launch of a hypersonic missile on January 11th.

Korean Central News Agency / AP

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Korean Central News Agency / AP


This photo provided by the North Korean government shows what it says, a test launch of a hypersonic missile on January 11th.

Korean Central News Agency / AP

The United States, Russia and China have them all. And now North Korea also claims that: hypersonic weapons.

These aircraft go a step further than the kind of ballistic missiles that Pyongyang has periodically tested over the years. They can fly fast and maneuver in ways that make them extremely difficult to spot and destroy.

It is a leap in development that North Korea appears to have quickly bridged. If fully realized, the new capabilities could pose a significant challenge to US- and South-Korean-based missile defense systems.

This week, Pyongyang conducted several ballistic missile tests, including more of a hypersonic missile believed to be either a further development of the Hwasong-8 it first launched in September, or possibly. a brand new weapon.

The Biden administration responded on Wednesday with its first sanctions against the Northeast Asian nation – against several North Korean citizens, a Russian and a Russian company, such as Washington say helped Pyongyang “illegally procure weapons.” Four of the sanctioned North Koreans live in China.

What are hypersonic weapons and who has them?

There are basics three types of hypersonic weapons Guided ballistic missiles with warheads that can be aimed at a target; hypersonic glider, launched by a rocket before gliding to a target; and hypersonic cruise missiles powered by high-speed, air-breathing engines.

These weapons can have a range of range and can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, depending on their design.

Despite the name, the ability of the hypersonic weapon to make rapid course changes on their “terminal phase” is near a goal that is more important to avoid countermeasures than speed. By definition, hypersonic weapons fly at five times or more the speed of sound or Mach 5. But one Article in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists notes that the V-2, the first modern ballistic missile developed by Nazi Germany during World War II, was capable of a speed just below Mach 5. “Several modern medium- and long-range ballistic missiles travel much faster – Mach 15 and higher,” according to Bulletin.

North Korea’s first test in September is believed to have been by a guided ballistic missile. Also known as a manoeuvrable reentry vehicle, it is the least sophisticated of the three types, and they have been found in the arsenals of the great military powers for decades. However, the latest North Korean test is believed to have been of a more advanced boost-gliding vehicle.

James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, acknowledges that if the map of the flight path laid out by North Korea is accurate, this week’s test “represents a somewhat more sophisticated capability than I expected North Korea to have. tested. “

Acton tells NPR that he does not believe Pyongyang’s capabilities match those of the United States, Russia or China, but “if their propaganda reflects what actually happened in the test … there is a remarkable degree of capacity.”

An Avangard ballistic missile takes off from a truck-mounted launcher somewhere in Russia on an undated photo from footage distributed by the Russian Ministry of Defense’s press service.

Russian Ministry of Defense Press Service / AP

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Russian Ministry of Defense Press Service / AP


An Avangard ballistic missile takes off from a truck-mounted launcher somewhere in Russia on an undated photo from footage distributed by the Russian Ministry of Defense’s press service.

Russian Ministry of Defense Press Service / AP

Russia has already set up the Avangard, a hypersonic glider. Kremlin claims it can fly on the 27th Mach, or 27 times the speed of sound, and it is believed to be able to turn sharply during flight to avoid eavesdropping. Last month, Russia said it implemented several successful tests from surface ships and submarines of an even more sophisticated hypersonic cruise missile, known as the Zircon.

Meanwhile, in China, the DF-17, a ballistic missile designed to boost a hypersonic glider, was unveiled at a military parade in 2019. And last summer, Beijing tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glider that flew into low-ground orbit , according to US intelligence sources quoted by Weapons Control Association.

To understand China’s orbital weapons, “imagine the space shuttle, place a nuclear weapon in the hold and then let yourself be bothered with the landing gear,” Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, told NPR in October.

While Russia in general has boasted of the new capabilities, China has the most held fast in denials.

In contrast, the United States has lagged well behind in hypersonic in recent years. In October, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described China’s development curve as “very close” to a “Sputnik moment”, with reference to the Soviet launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, which spurred a space race with the United States

Chinese military vehicles with ballistic DF-17 missiles roll during a parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, Tuesday, October 1, 2019.

Mark Schiefelbein / AP

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Mark Schiefelbein / AP


Chinese military vehicles with ballistic DF-17 missiles roll during a parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, Tuesday, October 1, 2019.

Mark Schiefelbein / AP

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin last month commented on a report on China’s test in July told reporters that such tests “will only increase tensions in the region.”

“China is a challenge and we will stay focused on it,” Austin said.

Why are hypersonic weapons so dangerous?

From a technical point of view, the speed, but most maneuverability, of such weapons gives them the potential to evade defense systems. Not only are they difficult to detect, but their ability to make radical course changes when they get close to a target is designed to avoid eavesdropping.

“If you can not deter it and you can not defend yourself against it, then the only other option is the right of first refusal,” says Victor Cha, a senior vice president and Korea chairman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

It is noteworthy that after recent tests, South Korean presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol suggested just such an option this week. “Missiles traveling at speeds above Mach 5, if loaded with nuclear warheads, will reach Seoul’s metropolitan area in less than a minute. Eavesdropping is virtually impossible,” Yoon said.

“In that case, the only way to prevent them from performing a preemptive strike is when we detect signs [of a launch]he said, although he also stressed the need to “keep pushing North Korea through diplomacy.”

None., who served on the National Security Council under the George W. Bush administration, says U.S. missile defense systems are “good,” but they are mostly “aimed at stopping a handful of fairly primitive missiles from North Korea.”

“[T]hey would need to be improved to be able to handle more sophisticated kind of missiles, “he tells NPR.

Inevitably, Pyongyang’s development of hypersonic weapons will “raise discussions about whether … the South Koreans or the United States and South Korea should have more offensive attack capabilities,” Cha said.

How big is the short-term threat?

Despite the apparent alarm of North Korean advances, there are experts who say the threat may be exaggerated.

Acton says he is not convinced that hypersonic weapons are significantly harder to intercept than conventional ballistic missiles.

“Capturing ballistic missiles is by no means straightforward,” he admits. With some modifications, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system or THAAD, a U.S. missile defense system that has been deployed to South Korea, may also work against hypersonics, he says.

“[I]It is not clear to me that it will be so much less effective against maneuvering hypersonic systems than against ballistic missiles, “he says.

Others have noticed that technologies like the orbital weapon that China tested last year are not new at all. Russia tested one six decades ago, during the Cold War.

Adam Mount, director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists, suggests that hypersonic weapons would be something resembling just another shaker in North Korea’s arsenal, though potentially quite effective.

“North Korea has a number of options for defeating US missile defenses,” he told NPR. “They could saturate these missile defenses with large salvos of weapons, and they have other options to try to avoid missile defenses.” Hypersonic weapons, he says Mount, “have the ability to do this with smaller salvos of weapons, and so they do not have to fire as many missiles to have a high level of confidence to hit protected targets.”

John Tierney, a former Massachusetts representative who now serves as executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, calls hypersonicics “shrug worthy” by adopting a term invented by author Fred Kaplan in a column ind Slate last year followed up on Gen. Milley’s “Sputnik moment” remark.

“It’s shoulder pulling worthy by objective standards,” Tierney told NPR. “But of course it’s very useful for people in the defense industry and the military to hype it up, because that’s how you get more money on the budget.”

Tierney warns that Pyongyang’s claims may be exaggerated and suspects that the real value to North Korea of ​​hyping hypersonic weapons is propaganda, not military effectiveness.

Others, however, are more cautious. Cha points out that North Korea’s capabilities have been repeatedly underestimated in the past – to the great annoyance of the West. First, cold water was poured on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. So ballistic missiles. And even cyber warfare.

“They want to test something. It will not work and the experts will say, ‘Oh, you know, they’re trying to achieve some capacity, but they’re still far away,’ ‘he says. “Then they do it.”

“North Korea is very aware of its intentions,” he warns. “It wants to develop hypersonic capabilities, and it will develop hypersonic capabilities.”

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