On July 4, North Korea launched a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan. Now Pyongyang has acquired the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability to join the club of the few. At first, the US military described the rocket as an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) or a small range ballistic missile (SRBM), not an ICBM. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) assessed that the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America. The US Pacific Command rated the missile as a «land-based, intermediate range ballistic missile». This point of view is largely shared worldwide. People tend to believe what they want to believe, not what has happened in reality.
The IRBM has a range of between 3,000 to 5,500 kilometers. A short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) is a ballistic missile with a range of about 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) or less. A short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) is a missile with a range of about 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) or less. Indeed, the range of the tested missile was 930 km (578 mi) but the observed apogee of the missile «greatly exceeded» 2,500 km (1553 mi) or even 2,800 km (1740 mi). If so, the estimated range is roughly 8,000 km (5,000 mi) on a standard trajectory to make it an ICBM. Even if this calculation is exaggerated and the range is smaller, Alaska is within its reach.
BBC cites David Wright, a physicist with the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, says that if the reports are correct, this missile could «reach a maximum range of roughly 6,700 km on a standard trajectory». That range would allow it to reach Alaska, but not the large islands of Hawaii or the other 48 US states, he says. But the conclusion is the same – it was an intercontinental range weapon that North Korea tested on July 4.
Anyway, the range will be extended pretty soon; it’s a matter of time. Vice Adm. James D. Syring, the Director Missile Defense Agency, who said at a congressional hearing in June that the United States «must assume that North Korea can reach us with a ballistic missile».
Normally, contemporary ICBMs have an apogee of 200-500 km (124-310 mi) or 800-1200 km (497-745 mi) depending on the category and trajectory. North Korea definitely did not want to go the whole hog and test the missile at a maximum range closing a large part of the Pacific for flights and shipping. With a flight time of about 40 minutes – enough to test a modified payload configuration – the missile was lofted after being fired at a steep trajectory to avoid overflying Japan and other countries. As a result, the range was reduced. Pyongyang did not want to provide any warning or close any areas; it wanted a surprise prior to the G20 summit.
North Korea has experience of probing subsystems of the ICBM in development under disguise of «failed tests». The components exploded at the desired moment. A test conducted at a relatively short range and high altitude is routine for North Korean military.
In comparison with the first ICBMs developed by the USSR and the US in the 1960s, the North Korean rocket is much smaller in size; its estimated throw weight does not exceed 500 kg (1,100 lbs). Not a great thing, but it’s enough to place a 50-70 kt warhead. Normally, the first generation ICBMs reached an altitude of around 1,500 km (932mi) with a powered flight portion lasting roughly 300 seconds or more. Despite poor accuracy, the weapon was a threat to big cities and military bases.
The missile in the North Korea’s inventory is highly vulnerable to US ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) and sea-based Aegis systems. The kill probability of the Ground-based interceptors (GBI) is 0.3-0.4.The GBIs deployed in Alaska can hit 5-6 North Korean intercontinental missiles. The US THAAD missile defense system recently deployed in South Korea is actually useless against an ICBM but its radar can effectively track military activities in China and Russia.
With an arsenal of 15-20 ICBMs, North Korea would possess the capability to inflict guaranteed unacceptable damage on the United States.
North Korea’s efforts to speed up progress toward an intercontinental ballistic missile have intensified in 2017, signaling its intent to strike the continental United States with a nuclear-capable ICBM.
US Donald Trump said on Twitter in January that a North Korean test of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States «won’t happen!» Now the threshold is crossed and he must take a decision on how to respond. There is little time for the US president to act. There are options and the use of force is one of them. According to CNN, US military commanders have long said they plan against a worst-case scenario. «I know there's some debate about the miniaturization advancements made by Pyongyang», Adm. Harry Harris, head of the US Pacific Command, recently said, «But PACOM must be prepared to fight tonight, so I take him at his word. I must assume his claims are true – I know his aspirations certainly are». Defense Secretary James Mattis has recently told South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham that the US is ready to deny North Korea the capability of building an ICBM that can hit the American homeland with a nuclear weapon.
The international community, including Russia and China, strongly condemns North Korea’s nuclear program. Moscow and Beijing have called on Pyongyang to freeze its missile and nuclear activities. There is no support on their part for a US military strike, but the American president may have good reasons to order a military operation.
So, North Korea has achieved its goal. There is each and every reason to surmise that the G20 summit will not be so much about climate change or other issues planned for discussions but the problem of North Korea and what to do about it. The launch came just two days before the start of the G-20 event in Hamburg.
The opinions about concrete steps to be taken may differ but nobody supports Pyongyang and its nuclear ambitions. One way or another, something must be done to tackle the burning problem. It’s an issue that unites, not divides the participants of the event in Germany, including the presidents of Russia and the United States to hold their first ever face-to-face meeting. The US, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and EU member-states have a good chance to put aside the problems that divide them and concentrate on the threat to global security.