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

This photo provided by the North Korean government shows a test launch of a hypersonic missile on January 11.

Korean Central News Agency / AP


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Korean Central News Agency / AP


This photo, provided by the North Korean government, shows a test launch of a January 11 hypersonic missile.

Korean Central News Agency / AP

They have the USA, Russia and China. And now North Korea says so: hypersonic weapons.

These aircraft go a step further than the type of ballistic missiles that Pyongyang has tested regularly over the years. They can fly fast and maneuver so that they are extremely difficult to detect and destroy.

It is a leap forward that North Korea seems to have overcome quickly. If fully implemented, the new capability could pose a significant challenge to US and South Korea-based missile defense systems.

Pyongyang has conducted several ballistic missile tests this week, including more hypersonic missiles, which are thought to be either a further development of the Hwasong-8, which it first launched in September, or perhaps a completely new weapon.

The Biden administration on Wednesday responded with its first sanctions against the people of Northeast Asia – against several North Korean nationals, a Russian and a Russian company, which, according to Washington, helped Pyongyang “illegally obtain weapons.” Four of the sanctioned North Koreans live in China.

What are hypersonic weapons and who has them?

There are basically three types of hypersonic weapons – guided ballistic missiles that can be aimed at a target; hypersonic gliding vehicles launched by a rocket before gliding to a target; and hypersonic missiles, which are powered by high-speed air-breathing engines.

These weapons can have different ranges and can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, depending on their design.

Despite the name, it is the ability of hypersonic weapons to make rapid course changes at their “final stage” near the target, which is more important for circumventing countermeasures than speed. By definition, hypersonic weapons fly five times or more at the speed of sound, or Mach 5. But the article in Bulletin of Atomic Scientists notes that the V-2, the first modern ballistic missile developed by Nazi Germany during World War II, was able to reach speeds just below Mach 5. “Modern medium-range and long-range ballistic missiles fly much faster – Mach 15 and higher,” according to Bulletin.

North Korea’s first test in September is thought to have been a ballistic missile. Also known as a maneuverable return vehicle, It is the least sophisticated of the three types and have been found in the arsenals of the major military powers for decades. However, it is believed that the latest North Korean test involved a more advanced power-assisted vehicle.

James Acton, co-director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program, acknowledges that if North Korea’s route chart is accurate, this week’s test represents “a somewhat more sophisticated ability than I expected. North Korea has been tested. “

Acton told the NPR that he did not think Pyongyang’s abilities matched 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 abilities.”

An Avangard ballistic missile is fired from a launcher on a truck somewhere in Russia, in an undated photograph from footage distributed by the press service of the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Press Service of the Russian Ministry of Defense


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Press Service of the Russian Ministry of Defense


An Avangard ballistic missile is fired from a launcher on a truck somewhere in Russia, in an undated photograph from footage distributed by the press service of the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Press Service of the Russian Ministry of Defense

Russia has already built the Avangard, a hypersonic glider. The Kremlin claims that it can fly at Mach 27, or 27 times the speed of sound, and is thought to be able to turn sharply in flight to avoid capture. Last month, Russia said it had conducted several successful tests on surface ships and submarines of an even more sophisticated hypersonic missile, known as the Zircon.

Meanwhile, the DF-17, a ballistic missile designed to reinforce a hypersonic glider, was demonstrated at a military parade in China in 2019. And last summer, Beijing tested a nuclear-powered hypersonic glider that flew to low Earth. orbit, according to U.S. intelligence sources cited The Arms Control Association.

To understand China’s orbital weapon, “imagine a space shuttle, put a nuclear weapon in the hold, and then don’t bother with the landing gear,” said Jeffrey Lewis, professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey. October.

While Russia generally boasted of new capabilities, China mostly clung to denials.

In contrast, the United States has lagged far behind in hypersonics in recent years. In October, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Corps of Chiefs of Staff, described China’s development curve as “very close” to the “Sputnik moment”, referring to the Soviet launch of the world’s first artificial satellite to spark a space race with the US.

Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-17 ballistic missiles drive during a parade commemorating 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 carrying DF-17 ballistic missiles drive during a parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, Tuesday, October 1, 2019.

Mark Schiefelbein / AP

Commenting on the Chinese test in July last month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters that such tests would “only increase tensions in the region.”

“China is a challenge and we will continue to focus on that,” Austin said.

Why are hypersonic weapons so dangerous?

From a technical point of view, the speed, but above all the controllability of these weapons gives them the potential to avoid defense systems. Not only are they difficult to detect, but their ability to radically change course as they approach the goal aims to avoid capture.

“If you can’t discourage it and can’t defend yourself against it, then the only other option is preemption,” says Victor Cha. senior vice president and Korean chairman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

It is noteworthy that, following recent tests, South Korean presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol proposed just such an option this week. “Missiles that move at speeds over Mach 5, when charged with nuclear warheads, will reach the Seoul metropolitan area in less than a minute. Capture is virtually impossible,” Yoon said.

“In that case, the only way to prevent them is to take a precautionary strike when we find the symptoms [of a launch]He said, although he also stressed the need to “continue to press North Korea through diplomacy.”

No, who served on the George W. Bush National Security Council, says U.S. missile defense systems are “good,” but mostly “aimed at stopping a handful of fairly primitive North Korean missiles.”

“[T]”Hey, it needs to be improved so that it can handle more sophisticated types of missiles,” he told NPR.

The development of hypersonic weapons in Pyongyang will inevitably “spark a debate about whether … South Koreans or the US and South Korea should have more offensive strike capabilities,” Cha said.

How significant is the short-term threat?

Despite the apparent concern about the North Korean approach, there are experts who say the threat can be overcome.

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

“Capturing ballistic missiles is by no means easy,” he admits. With some modifications, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System, or THAAD, the US missile defense system that was deployed in South Korea, could also be able to work against hypersonics, he says.

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

Others have noted that technologies such as the orbital weapon, which 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 like just another shake in North Korea’s arsenal, albeit potentially quite effective.

“North Korea has a number of options to defeat the US missile defense,” he told the NPR. “They could saturate the missile defense with large volleys of weapons and have other options to try to avoid the missile defense.” Hypersonic weapons, according to Mount, have “the ability to do so with smaller volleys of weapons, so they don’t have to fire enough missiles to be highly confident that they can hit protected targets.”

John Tierney, a former Massachusetts representative who now serves as the executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, calls hypersonics a “good shrug”, adopting a term coined by writer Fred Kaplan in a column in Slate last year following General Milley’s remark “Sputnik moment”.

“By objective standards, it’s a good shrug,” Tierney told NPR. “But of course it’s very useful for people in the defense industry and the military as they expand it, because that way you get more money into the budget.”

Tierney warns that Pyongyang’s claims may be exaggerated, and suspects that the real value for North Korea in promoting hypersonic weapons is propaganda, not military effectiveness.

However, others are more cautious. Cha points out that North Korea’s capabilities have been repeatedly underestimated in the past – much to the displeasure of the West. The first cold water was poured on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Then ballistic missiles. And even cyber wars.

“They’re testing something. It’s not working and the experts say, ‘Oh, you know, they’re trying to reach some ability, but they’re still a long way off,'” he says. “Then they will.”

“North Korea is very clear about its intentions,” he warns. “He wants to develop hypersonic skills and will develop hypersonic skills.”

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