North Korea is continuing to make steady progress with regards to the development of its ballistic missile capabilities, with the DPRK having in recent months unveiled a host of new weapons systems from new short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) to its largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) produced so far, along with new variants of its Pukguksong series of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
As it introduces new weapons systems, the overall capability of North Korea’s ballistic missile arsenal increases. North Korea is now believed to have several long-range missiles capable of striking the continental United States between its three different ICBM variants, while its arsenal of advanced SRBMs appear as though they may pose a significant challenge to ballistic missile defenses deployed in South Korea.
In addition to the increasing capability of North Korea’s ballistic missiles, the challenge posed by the DPRK’s ballistic missile program is made worse by the added survivability afforded to those weapons by their nature as road-mobile weapons systems.
Compared to more static ballistic missile systems such as silo-based missiles or those fired from fixed launchers, road-mobile missiles are more survivable in so far as they can be dispersed and hidden from a potential adversary. This makes them significantly more difficult to track, detect, and destroy than missiles fired from fixed positions, which are likely to be known to an enemy and can be more easily targeted. Mobile missiles, particularly with regards to ICBMs, are likely preferable to countries whose arsenals are not large enough to effectively weather an enemy first strike, and who instead rely on maintaining all or most of their arsenal in order to be effective. The act of dispersing road-mobile missiles, moreover, can also be used as a method to signal resolve.
Road mobile missiles do come with some tradeoffs, however, as they are less responsive than fixed missiles owing to their need to take the time to disperse and the added logistical and communications challenges that come with such operations. The added survivability offered by road-mobile missiles may also be for naught should they be caught be an adversary before they are dispersed, with such missiles often based in less resilient facilities than a silo.
North Korea’s embracing of road-mobile missiles presents potentially significant challenges to both the United States and South Korea in the event of either a North Korean missile attack directed against the continental United States or a conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
In the event of a major conflict that draws in the United States, North Korea’s road-mobile missiles will complicate American efforts to eliminate the threat to its mainland. With the uncertainty that still exists regarding the U.S. military’s ability to reliably intercept enemy long-range missiles, U.S. military forces will prioritize destroying North Korean ICBMs early before they can be fired. The dispersal of North Korea’s road-mobile ICBMs, however, will make this a significantly more difficult task. North Korea has prioritized ensuring the mobility of its ICBMs, and the unveiling of the Hwasong-16 ICBM brought with it the equally troubling revelation that North Korea is continuing to make progress in its ability to import, modify, or even indigenously produce transporter-erector launchers (TELs) for its larger weapon systems.
At present, North Korea’s ICBMs remain liquid-fueled, and as such will need to be fueled prior to launch. This will likely need to take place at the missile’s ultimate launch site to avoid damage to the weapon, and the lengthy fueling process could give the United States the time it would need to locate and destroy the missiles. Should North Korea ever develop the capability to produce solid-fueled ICBMs, this potential American reprieve would be lost.
North Korea’s road mobile missiles are also significant with regards to a conflict on the Korean Peninsula itself. Unlike its ICBMs, North Korea’s most threatening SRBMs are solid-fueled. North Korea’s ability to disperse and quickly fire its potent short-range missiles is a valuable asset, and provides the DPRK with an effective option for conducting limited coercive strikes against South Korea. South Korea’s strategy for countering such an attack relies on preemptively detecting and destroying the missiles, a task that is again made more difficult in the face of the North Korean missiles’ mobility.
North Korea’s mobile missiles will also prove to be a threat should tensions escalate beyond only a limited conflict. The early stages of a major conflict on the Korean Peninsula will see North Korea direct massive amounts of firepower against civilian and military targets in South Korea, a task for which its SRBMs are particularly well suited. This will mark them as a priority target for South Korea, but their mobility will likely allow them to survive long enough to inflict significant damage. The potential advent of North Korean tactical nuclear weapons, as well as the possibility that its SRBMs could serve as delivery mechanisms for chemical weapons, further signifies the challenge posed by road mobile North Korean ballistic missiles.