(KCNA Video Debut of Hwasong-16 with NK News Commentary)
During the October 10 military parade in celebration of the 75th anniversary of its ruling party, North Korea unveiled its newest model intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – dubbed the Hwasong-16 – which analysts have described as a “monster” missile that is likely the world’s largest road-mobile ICBM. Given the lack of North Korean testing of the Hwasong-16, determining the missile’s specific capabilities is difficult. Analysts have therefore offered both estimates regarding its capabilities, as well as alternative assessments regarding the missile’s strategic role and value.
North Korea’s Existing ICBMs
While little definitive information regarding the Hwasong-16 is available, more is known about the remainder of North Korea’s ICBM arsenal. North Korea has conducted three ICBM tests of two different models, all in 2017. North Korea conducted tests of the Hwasong-14 ICBM on July 4, 2017 and again on July 28, 2017. Following the first test, analysts assessed that the Hwasong-14 likely possessed an effective range of 6,700-8,000 km. Based on assessments of the second test, projections of the Hwasong-14’s range were increased to at least 10,000 km, which would put much of the continental United States at risk – particularly if the range boost provided by the Earth’s rotation is factored in. Others have assessed that the Hawsong-14’s effective range likely falls somewhere between these two estimates.
Later that year, North Korea would test a second ICBM model: the Hwasong-15. Based on the missile’s performance during the test, many have concluded that the Hwasong-15 is likely capable of striking most if not all of the U.S. mainland. In addition, the Hwasong-15 is larger than its predecessor, and as such has been assessed to be capable of hosting a larger warhead as well as decoys or other countermeasures and penetration aids designed to defeat U.S. ballistic missile defense systems.
Hwasong-16 ICBM: Specifics and Possible Strategic Value
The Hwasong-16 shares some characteristics with North Korea’s existing ICBM models. Like the Hwasong-14 and 15, the newest addition to North Korea’s ICBM arsenal is a two-stage, liquid-fueled missile. The Hwasong-16’s first stage appears large enough to house four Soviet-designed RD-250-sized engines; it is believed that two such engines power the Hwasong-15’s first stage. While it is unclear what type of engine is used in the missile’s second stage, North Korea has engines suitable for use, including those that power the Hwasong-15’s second stage. The Hwasong-16, however, is noticeably larger than the Hwasong-15: analysts have estimated that the missile is roughly 25-26 meters long, with a diameter of 2.5-2.9 meters; if correct, these estimates place the Hwasong-16 at 4.5-5 meters longer and 0.5 meters wider than the Hwasong-15, and suggest that the Hwasong-16 may support a payload 2,000-3,000 kg payload compared to the earlier missile’s 1,000 kg capability. In addition, the missile’s size also requires a heavy-duty transport capability; accordingly, the Hwasong-16 was carried on an 11-axel transport erector launcher (TEL), and both the size of the TELs carrying the Hwasong-16s as well as the overall number of TELs included in the parade demonstrate North Korea’s growing ability to manufacture and produce TELs.
Beyond estimates of the Hwasong-16’s capabilities, questions exist regarding the new system’s strategic value. Some have suggested that the Hwasong-16 offers little that North Korea’s existing missiles – and the Hwasong-15 in particular – did not already offer; indeed, both systems appear capable of targeting the entirety of the U.S. mainland, while the extra payload capacity of the Hwasong-16 offers little extra strategic value. Others have focused on potential deficiencies in the design and capability of the new missile, pointing out that the missile’s size makes deploying the missile a challenge and highlighting the limited survivability of yet another liquid-fueled weapon system.
Still, there are reasons to believe that the new missile does in fact have some strategic value. The Hwasong-16’s size is likely significant with regards to North Korea’s development of re-entry vehicles (RVs). The missile’s size may allow North Korea to overcome challenges associated with the development of reliable RVs and with the design of warheads small enough to fit inside an ICBM’s RV by supporting RVs built with additional shielding and with larger warheads. Additionally, the Hwasong-16 is likely capable of carrying either a single large warhead along with decoys designed to help confuse U.S. ballistic missile defenses, or two to four smaller RVs. While North Korea is still likely some ways off from developing the technology needed for the production and use of multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), the Hwasong-16 could still be fitted with multiple RVs that, while all aimed at the same target, would improve the chances of a successful strike. Furthermore, the Hwasong-16 is also significant insofar as it represents North Korea’s continued technical progress with regards to missile development, as well as its ability to continue to achieve that progress despite the presence of international sanctions designed to limit the country’s ability to continue to develop its strategic weapons capabilities. Given Kim Jong Un’s continued commitment to the development of those capabilities, such non-operational achievements should not be overlooked.
Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a current graduate student at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.