Just to start your weekend off on a bright note there’s yet more disturbing news coming out of North Korea. While confirmation will take some time, both South Korean and American sources are indicating that there is credible evidence that Kim Jong-un has managed to launch a ballistic missile from a submarine. Previous claims by the NORKs of doing this were later debunked, but this one seems to have everyone convinced that he’s pulled it off. This wouldn’t be newsworthy if it were coming from any technologically advanced (and relatively stable) nation, but for Kim to have this sort of capability is beyond worrisome. (CNN)

North Korea has fired what is believed to be a submarine-launched ballistic missile off the east coast of the Korean peninsula on Saturday, according to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The missile was fired at 6:30 p.m. local time (5:30 a.m. ET), South Korean officials said.

The news isn’t quite as bad as it may sound at first glance, but it’s still nothing to be ignored. One of the greatest threats in any wartime scenario is that of the major powers using their ballistic missile submarines to pop up and launch a tactical strike on short notice. It’s a key element in the theory of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) which was credited with keeping the peace during the cold war. The United States has a fleet of these weapons platforms which could destroy the world several times over and the Russians and the Chinese were close on our heels in developing similar technology. None of these players, however, have leaders who are quite so mad as North Korea’s figurehead family.

The one reason we may not have to be quite as concerned in the short terms is that even if Kim has managed this, it was probably done from a highly modified submarine of very limited capability. This report from Business Insider last year gives us a good look at North Korea’s missile fleet and it’s not exactly terrifying.

The Diplomat notes that Pyongyang’s fleet of rusting diesel submarines is capable of little more than coastal defense and has limited offensive capabilities. North Korea has approximately 70 submarines in its fleet, but 20 are Romeo-class submarines built with 1950s technology. Another 40 are North Korean domestically developed Sang-O-class subs that were specially developed for the insertion of special forces into South Korea, along with mine deployment. The rest of the fleet is thought to be comprised of Yono-class midget submarines with limited range, firepower, and operating depth.

All of these submarines are diesel-electric and extremely old. As such, the submarines can submerge for only a few days at a time — and once they surface, it would easy for South Korea to be able to pinpoint their location.

One thing the United States is very good at is tracking submarines. It’s a game that’s been going on since before any of you were born and we practice it constantly. Unlike tracking the Russians or the Chinese, we would have very little difficulty keeping tabs on a group of ancient diesel boats which can’t stay below the surface long enough to make it halfway to Hawaii before they run out of air. They also tend to be noisy, giving off all sorts of telltale signals.

Still, any enhancement of North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities is a cause for concern. This is yet more proof that both the United States, and China need to be ready to step in and take drastic action to keep this maniac under control if push comes to shove.

SubMissile