In 2008 the United States flew 2,500 air sorties over vast areas of desert in Iraq in an effort to track, locate, and destroy Iraq’s Transportable Erector Launchers (TEL) which were launching missiles at U.S. forces and allies during the Gulf War. In non-contested airspace over Iraq, it was concluded with an average of 5-9 min delays in the kill chain that neither sensors nor the Command and Control were adequate to locate, track, and destroy TELs. These Iraqi missile attacks continued and included a missile attack on a barracks for U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia that killed 27 and wounded 98.
We as a nation now face this same challenge with North Korea. Earlier this month on October 10th, North Korea held a military parade in which they revealed the world’s largest and longest TEL with 11 axles to carry and launch the Hwasong-16 a liquid-fueled ICBM. Using reference points within released pictures indicate the size and scale of the rocket, the Hwasong-16 is a half-meter wider, a few meters longer, and about double the volume of its ICBM predecessor, the Hwasong-15, first unveiled in November 2017. Given the increase in rocket fuel volume, the Hwasong-16 is estimated to have a throw-weight between 2,500-3,000kg of nuclear weapon reentry vehicles along with countermeasures. The throw-weight is over double that of the Hwasong-15 and could hold up to 4 nuclear reentry vehicles with challenging decoys and penetration aids.
North Korea has historically not conducted significant flight testing of new systems like the Hwasong-6 before operational deployment. North Korea is simply doubling its already its flight-tested highly-proven two rocket engines of the Hwasong-15 to four on the new Hwasong-16. Countermeasures and dispersal of reentry weapon systems that would be used on the Hwasong-16 could be tested and proven on shorter-range North Korean ballistic missiles North Korea continues to add to its operationally-deployed mobile ICBM force in ways that challenge the United States of America.
North Korea is evolving and modernizing its nuclear ICBM threat against the United States to become “survivable” against a preemptive first strike and to overcome existing U.S. Homeland missile defense systems. The North Korean actions of developing and displaying the Hwasong-16 are intended to overcome the U.S. Strategic “Left” and “Right” of launch tactics to negate and destroy their missiles.
To increase its survivability of its nuclear ICBMs, North Korea developed the Hwasong-16 as a road-mobile TEL with the ability to transport the ICBM without fuel to enable it to move more quickly and be more capable to access roads and off-road terrain across North Korea. These TELs would disperse to where liquid rocket fuel would be pre-located or where liquid fuel would be taken to the launch sites after they were deployed. North Korea is keenly aware of U.S. satellite coverage, and patterns over their country. They routinely move their strategic capabilities to include TELs making it much more challenging than it was in Iraq in 2008 for American forces to locate and destroy TELs at launch points.
The Mountainous Terrain in North Korea is formidable. The Subterranean Tunnels of North Korea are even more formidable. As difficult as it was for U.S. C4ISR – Command, Control Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance – and Missile Defense architecture to Detect, Track and Destroy Missiles in the open deserts of Iraq, the Challenges for Detecting Missiles and Launch Points in North Korea are exponentially greater.
The United States has limited missile defense capabilities to protect our homeland against this threat with 44 unitary kill vehicles on 44 Ground-Based Interceptors. The United States Next Generation Interceptor (NGI) scheduled to be deployed in 2028 is in the process of being selected and designed to carry more throw-weight with multiple kill vehicles lowering shot doctrine and lowering cost per intercept. This too will require a larger interceptor rocket to lift a heavier payload into space with multiple kill vehicles. Yet the Next Generation Interceptor will not be ready to close the gap and address the heightened North Korean missile threat until nearly the end of the decade.
It is clear that the United States must do more to protect the U.S. homeland and our people from the growing North Korean missile threat. Whoever wins next week’s Presidential election will need to address this critically-important challenge with urgency. We simply cannot allow North Korea to gain the ability to coerce and threaten the United States with long-range missiles armed with nuclear weapons. In recent years, significant improvements in U.S. missile defense capabilities have been made and the U.S. Defense Department has fielded noteworthy capabilities. Yet we must recognize that despite that progress, we are not keeping pace with the threat and more is required.
As the United States enters a new presidential term, regardless of the election outcome, the threat from North Korea must be addressed. The threat must remain at the forefront of U.S. National Strategy. The threat must be contested as, for every day North Korea is able to grow, the United States is left behind the pace. This threat is real and must be dealt with. The Great Game of Show and TEL now has to be matched with the more technologically sophisticated Great Game of Hide and Seek.
MDAA’s mission is to make the world safer by advocating for the development and deployment of missile defense systems to defend the United States, its armed forces and its allies against missile threats.
MDAA is the only organization in existence whose primary mission is to educate the American public about missile defense issues and to recruit, organize, and mobilize proponents to advocate for the critical need of missile defense. We are a non-partisan membership-based and membership-funded organization that does not advocate on behalf of any specific system, technology, architecture or entity.