Did North Korea's ICBM burn up on reentry?

Flipping back and forth between Fox, CNN and MSNBC I’ve seen the same graphic showing up over and over. It’s the projected flight path of the new Hwasong-14 ICBM launched by North Korea this past week. Potential target areas range from Hawaii to California, Chicago and even New York City. It’s certainly cause for concern and is heating up the debate over what to do about the intractable problem of Kim Jong-un. But assuming that he can actually get two of those in a row to lift off on the proper trajectory (still questionable) will the rocket be able to effectively deliver its payload when it arrives over the target?

That’s the question being raised by defense analysts today. A closer examination of video of the ICBM coming down indicates that the tip of the missile (where the warhead would presumably be located) may have not stood up to the heat of reentering the atmosphere. (Associated Press)

U.S. and South Korean experts on Tuesday said Japanese video footage capturing the Hwasong-14’s re-entry vehicle shortly before it crashed into the sea suggests it failed to survive the extreme heat and pressure after re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere following its launch from northern North Korea on Friday.

But the apparent failure likely means the North will conduct more flight tests of the Hwasong-14 missile to ensure the warhead could survive the re-entry from space and hit its intended target, the analysts said.

The Hwasong-14 ICBM, which was first tested on July 4, follows decades of effort by North Korea to obtain a nuclear deterrent against the United States. Analysis of the flight data from Hwasong-14’s second test has suggested that more of the U.S. mainland, including Los Angeles and Chicago, is now in range of Pyongyang’s weapons.

There are a couple of reasons not to be cheering for this news too loudly. One caveat the analysts included was the fact that the Hwasong-14 was sent almost straight up and then straight back down so it wouldn’t travel too far over the ocean. That sharp angle would have produced more heat than a shallower trajectory such as would be required to reach the United States. Would it have survived that trip? Unknown for now.

The second reason is that while burning up their payload capsule might be embarrassing, it’s not really the most challenging aspect of developing a functional ICBM. Adding some additional or better quality shielding and accounting for the weight difference would probably solve their problem so the next test might be flawless in that regard.

The U.S. response has been surprisingly robust, thankfully. In an obvious show of, “this is how it’s done, guys” we supposedly launched an ICBM of our own from California this morning. Last night Washington announced plans for the test. (ABC News)

The U.S. Air Force is preparing to test an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on early Wednesday morning in California.

The missile is scheduled to be launched between 12.01 a.m. and 6.01 a.m. local time from the Air Force’s North Vandenberg Air Force Base, located nearly 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Air Force Global Strike Command Col. Michael Hough, 30th Air Wing commander said the purpose of the ICBM launch program was to “validate and verify the effectiveness, readiness, and accuracy of the weapon system.”

This was obviously a message sent directly to Kim Jong-un: You might have one or two missiles that can reach us, but we’ve been masters of this game since your grandfather was in short pants. We can hit you from anywhere.

On top of that we’ve now conducted several successful tests of the THAAD anti-missile system. THAAD isn’t capable of shooting down ICBMs, but it would be very useful against the conventional rockets which North Korea might launch against its neighbors in the event of war. I don’t know if any of this is going to sink in for North Korea’s diminutive, pudgy dictator because you can never predict what’s going on in the mind of a madman, but it’s at least worth trying to get the message across. If you poke the Eagle you’re going to get the claws.

Here’s a one minute clip from CNN showing the THAAD test taking out the target. Enjoy.