Overhead view of the Missile Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Titan I and II and Jupiter from an aerial view. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH. June 14, 2021. Credit: Tyler Greenlees, Dvids

Technological Threat Assessment

By Kai McLamore, February 2023

This page serves as an analysis of current technological developments by Russia, China, and North Korea, and their application for missile threats. This analysis looks at how the technology can be applied to their weapon systems and how they can bypass missile defense systems, in order to identify lacking areas of defense and to better adapt to the changing threat environment.


Nuclear Powered Cruise Missile

Russia is developing a nuclear-powered cruise missile called the Burevestnik, or the SSC-X-9 Skyfall. This missile would have a range of most places on earth, and be able to carry both conventional and nuclear payloads. The missile resembles the shape of the Kh-101 except with the guidance wings in front of the fuselage, and the size increasing to 1.5-2 times that of the Kh-101. Speculated range from Russian military researchers is 10,000-20,000km, seating the cruise missile in the range of ICBMs. Russia has a goal of operational use by 2025. [i]

A strategic cruise missile like this would require complete redesign of the US missile defense network. It would be able to fly under the radar of many of the advanced missile defense systems that we have that are designed to intercept ballistic missiles at higher altitudes, like the THAAD, SM-Block IIA, and GBIs. NASAM and Patriot systems, and SM-6 missiles would need to be prioritized in stationing at all critical areas to make sure adequate cruise missile defense is present. It would require both ballistic and cruise missile defense in all areas, rather than just critical points in the range of traditional cruise missiles.


Subsonic Boron Combustion Engine

Chinese military researchers developed a novel prototype engine that is a solid fuel scramjet, but also has the benefits of more controllable liquid fuel injection. The engine utilizes powdered boron, which is highly combustible when it meets with oxygen. The engine utilizes multiple controllable nozzles that inject the boron into the engine in a way that when opened and closed, it creates shockwaves that slow the incoming oxygen down to subsonic speeds. The slower the oxygen enters the combustion chamber, the slower the air moves through, the more efficient the fuel is burned. The engine has created a 79% more efficient fuel usage with its hybrid operation, compared to traditional scramjet only engines. It effectively doubles the range for hypersonic weapons. [ii]

The Chinese DongFeng-17 Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) missile has a range of 2,500km, putting Guam and the Philippines in its proximity. This new engine would increase the range to 5,000km, adding Hawaii and Alaska to its standoff range. This threatens two states with our most advanced missile detection radars, Cobra Dane, LRDR (Long Range Discrimination Radar), UEWR (Upgraded Early Warning Radar) at Clear Space Force Station all in Alaska, and Hawaii having the base for the Sea-Based X Band Radar, as well a new Homeland Defense Radar under construction. The majority of the GBIs located in Alaska (44 interceptors) would be at risk from HGV attacks, of which we do not currently have adequate defenses against.

Air/Underwater Cruise Missile

Chinese researchers from the Changsha National University of Defense Technology have developed a blueprint for a boron powered ramjet cruise missile engine that would allow it to cruise, and then dip into the water simulating a torpedo. The cruise missile would be able to fly at a height of 10km for a distance of 200km, then transitioning to skim on the surface of water, as well as submerge itself completely up to 100m for a distance of 20km. The engine would create an air bubble in the form of supercavitation to maintain a high speed of 100mp/s under the water, and 857mp/s above water. [iii]

This ramjet engine development would be a serious threat against any ship. The SeaRAM and Phalanx defense systems on ships would not have the range, both distance and height, to target a missile skimming the water or underneath it from 20km away. It would effectively negate current precision guided defense systems. This would also create serious cruise missile threats to any coastal structures and defense systems. It could be used as a first strike against coastal missile defense systems, harbors with ported ships, and defensive structures in close proximity. Taiwan’s western coast would be within range of ground launched cruise missiles with this engine. It creates a strategic weapon to disable forward defense systems for more advanced missile and sea weapons to reach their targets without interference.

Space-Based False Missile Signal

Chinese military researchers have completed computer modelling simulations of a missile-based interference technology that would cause interference to missile defense systems trying to target the launched missiles. The technology would utilize unarmed missiles launched with three interference satellites detaching once leaving the atmosphere that would hijack enemy radar networks to amplify the threat of the unarmed missile on their systems. It would effectively attract missile interceptors to the unarmed warheads to deplete the missile defense arsenal when the armed missiles are fired. It can also be used in conjunction with armed missiles by amplifying the signals of the unarmed missiles to enemy radar, helping to obscure the armed missiles. The technology is able to sit within the margin of error of military radar, and lessens the margin of error over time as it is active in space. [iv]

If this technology reaches a successfully engineered level, it would be a tremendous threat and would need to be focused on for strategic deterrence. The Chinese would be able to completely overwhelm our defenses in a quick missile volley, as well as sustained, exhaustive launches. The technology would make the latter more dangerous as the interference space vehicles would be given more time to hone into the radar networks and become more accurate in disrupting signals. They make it more difficult to anticipate because the interference vehicles would be secured within the missiles and released once outside of earth’s atmosphere, providing immediate disruption. Anticipation would require the missile to be destroyed before it can leave the atmosphere, allowing for a very small window of targeting. The missiles would likely be launched from one of the 400 inground silos located in Northwestern China, situated at least 3,000km from South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.

North Korea

Underwater Missile Silos

The missile launched by North Korea on October 10, 2023, indicated that they have been working on lake based ballistic missile launch capabilities. While it is logistically difficult to build an underwater silo, that pumps out water, has electrical and communication connections, North Korea has had extensive experience with underground infrastructural developments. After the Korean War, they focused on building underground tunnels, factories, and research locations for nuclear bombs. Underwater ballistic missiles launchers also offer the ability to test new SLBMs without the need of submarines; of which North Korea is limited. [v]

Successful creation and deployment of ballistic missiles from underwater silos in lakes and reservoirs would give North Korea a strategic edge in nuclear deterrence. It offers strong second-strike capabilities, by concealing their missiles within unknown locations. It would take extremely specific weapons to target the launchers, needing to locate the precise location of the missile under the water and then penetrate the water and get close enough to destroy the silo. Locating within the enclosed lake, and accurately cutting through the water would be the two critical challenges to overcome. With recent developments for solid fuel engine design for their Hwasong-17, the research could easily translate over to an inter-continental SLBM, creating a reliable nuclear deterrence against the US. Focus should then be placed on local missile defense interceptors, like THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) in South Korea or Aegis BMD ships near the Korean Peninsula, to be ready to intercept the missile during the initial launch stage in the case of a second strike against the US homeland.

Underwater Nuclear Drone

North Korea claimed that on March 23, 2023, they detonated an underwater nuclear drone in a nuclear war simulation with South Korea. They launched the drone called Haeil on March 21, and it traveled in an oval trajectory for 59 hours and 12 minutes until detonating at a simulated naval port. It maintained a depth of between 80-150m for the duration of the journey. The purpose of this weapon is to be used against naval fleets and coastal ports, creating tsunami waves that would neutralize the threat. It has been in design since 2012, and has been tested 50 times since then. [vi]

This submersible nuclear drone poses a unique security risk to naval units. The concept of a stealth, unmanned and submersible nuclear weapon with the intent to create natural disaster type destruction is one that is difficult to counter. There is a great array of tools to counter standard missile platforms and light artillery munitions, but there is little to defend against heavy ocean wave damage. If a Haeil was to be sent into a harbor and detonated, it would cause severe damage to all ships in that harbor, as well as the infrastructure there to receive ships. It would most certainly delay its ability to receive new ships until fixed, and depending on the proximity of the blast, could destroy the ships and the harbor requiring a complete reconstruction. Against fleets in open water, the created waves would be able to capsize boats, rendering them extremely vulnerable to attack and requiring significant time to collect themselves. If close enough, it would also irradiate the water in the initial splash, creating the threat of radiation contamination to personal on the ships and requiring medical teams to reinforce the cleanup and replace the sailors. This weapon creates a significant propagating imbalance type of threat against ships that is neither kinetic nor non-kinetic and therefore difficult to counter. In addition to previously stated uses, it could be used as a counter to coastal invasion forces to disrupt initial attacks and create vulnerabilities in the attackers position. Emphasis on long range detection and submersible elimination of threats should be invested.


[i] https://www.iiss.org/blogs/military-balance/2021/02/burevestnik-russia-cruise-missile

[ii] https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3209761/chinese-team-nearly-doubles-boron-engine-efficiency-boon-military-and-civilian-hypersonic-flights

[iii] https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3192288/chinese-scientists-plan-boron-powered-supersonic-missile-can-fly

[iv] https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3210567/china-puts-phantom-space-force-concept-test-aim-swamp-enemy-missile-defences

[v] https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/dont-laugh-at-north-koreas-lake-launched-ballistic-missiles

[vi] https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2023/03/north-korea-unveils-new-haeil-suicide-underwater-drone/

Missile Threat and Proliferation