Join 3,424 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Scuds on Steroids
December 27, 2012 11:08 AM   Subscribe

Unha-3, Pyongyang's first successful orbital launch vehicle, dropped her first stage into the Yellow Sea after December 12's launch. Analysis of debris salvaged by the South Korean Navy suggests the scud-derived, crudely assembled rocket is actually an ICBM with enough range to theoretically reach the U.S. (should North Korea somehow manage to miniaturize their nuclear weapon technology and develop re-entry ability).
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot (55 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
It is worth considering sources. Yeah, S. Korean sources have more credibility than N. Korean sources.

"...intelligence officials and rocket scientists affiliated with the South Korean Defense Ministry..." Will say what their government wants them to say.

For those two or three that haven't seen it; Almost Everything You’ve Heard About the North Korean Space Launch Is Wrong, is worth a read in conjunction with the NYT article.



-After Colin freaking Powell went before the UN and did his shadow puppet show it is worth keeping a jaundiced eye on all talk along this nature.
posted by edgeways at 11:20 AM on December 27, 2012 [19 favorites]


Seems pretty obvious that if it can reach orbit, it can reach anywhere.
posted by empath at 11:24 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, not exactly . . .

From a practical perspective, these different goals result in significant differences in the flight profile of a space launch versus a ballistic missile launch. . . . The most striking difference is in the altitude — a long-range ballistic missile actually goes much higher into space than a typical space launch into low-Earth orbit (LEO), sometimes as high as 1,500 kilometers (930 miles).

Within these parameters, the North Korean rocket launch was most certainly a space launch and not a ballistic missile test. This can be verified by multiple sources before, during and after the launch. Prior to the launch, North Korea notified international agencies of the splashdown zones for the first two stages and the payload shroud, as is standard practice. These splashdown zones corresponded to a space launch trajectory, indicating beforehand that the North Koreans planned to try and place a satellite into orbit. During the launch, heat from the rocket was picked up by constellations of U.S. military infrared satellites in orbit. Tracking of the burn phase of the launch by those satellites allows the U.S. to verify that it was on a space launch trajectory.


Wired: Almost Everything You’ve Heard About the North Korean Space Launch Is Wrong

So who are we supposed to believe, now?
posted by The Bellman at 11:27 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Despite the looming fiscal cliff, no one with any vested interests would like to see spending cuts for the US military. Timely news about threats from North Korea, Iran, etc. are useful in that regard.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:31 AM on December 27, 2012 [16 favorites]


And? So let's say N. Korea launches a nuclear weapon at us. We bomb them and invade them and they get nothing. So maybe we have no need to panic at this.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:32 AM on December 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


Seems pretty obvious that if it can reach orbit, it can reach anywhere.

If pure chance is your targeting mechanism. And the warhead survives. And explodes at the right time.

The launch hysteria has more in common with the ridiculous claim that al Quds was trying to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador as another pretext for invasion in Iran. They're both laughably false claims that are dutifully repeated as fact by news outlets too scared to employ journalists.

Here's the reality:
Making even a single long-range missile or rocket hit its target is mind-bogglingly complicated. But it pales in comparison to the task of building an arsenal of missiles that could be relied on in a war to strike the far-off places they’re programmed to attack.

North Korea’s far more advanced rival, South Korea, has failed twice since 2009 to launch a satellite on a rocket from its own territory, and postponed two attempts in recent weeks because of technical problems.
So, if you're capable of believing that North Korea can achieve something that has eluded their southern neighbor with a tiny fraction of the same resources, you're also probably terrified that Ahmadinejad is going to blow past the fifth fleet in a speed boat and invade California.
posted by tripping daisy at 11:33 AM on December 27, 2012 [14 favorites]


I imagine this validates some assumptions among the newly-elected conservative South Korean leadership too.
posted by ardgedee at 11:34 AM on December 27, 2012


And? So let's say N. Korea launches a nuclear weapon at us. We bomb them and invade them and they get nothing. So maybe we have no need to panic at this.

One low-yield nuclear attack on Tokyo (and everyone seems to hate Japan at the moment) would shut down the entire world. These missiles are a threat and a deterrent, and aren't meant to be used.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:36 AM on December 27, 2012


Not that the US's early rockets had anything to do with ICBMs...
posted by Xoder at 11:40 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


One of the reasons that US government sources can assert that this is just an ICBM military program disguised as a civilian space program is because that's exactly what we did.

We've been there. We've done that. It's why we have a "civilian" space program.

On preview, Xoder got there first.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:43 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Seems pretty obvious that if it can reach orbit, it can reach anywhere.

Hitting space is rather easier than hitting anywhere in particular.

"Space," it says, "is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space, listen..." -- Douglas Adams
posted by Etrigan at 11:43 AM on December 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


suggests the scud-derived, crudely assembled rocket is actually an ICBM with enough range to theoretically reach the U.S.

Right after you get a rocket that's capable of following an ICBM trajectory instead of satellite to LEO and handle the whole "your shit burns up as it reenters the atmosphere" thing.

The North Koreans have made a whipper snipper and people think they're on the way to a ride-on lawnmower.
posted by Talez at 11:46 AM on December 27, 2012


The North Koreans have made a whipper snipper and people think they're on the way to a ride-on lawnmower.

Exactly. American paranoia is still at idiotic levels, and I am sincerely surprised that the public and the mass media are so easily pushed to repeat all of the nonsense coming out of psyops these days. The last time their nonsense got through the filter it cost our country three trillion dollars and thousands of lives. You'd think they would learn how to experience shame at some point.
posted by tripping daisy at 11:56 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Having an ICBM gives them pretty much unlimited ability to extort the rest of the world, which they've already demonstrated a willingness to do. I'm not saying we should do anything about it now, or anything like that, but it's certainly not a good thing.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:00 PM on December 27, 2012


Oh... wait.. this is the New York Times.... (coff ***Judith Miller*** coff).

Well certainly once a decade is ok right?

moving along now
posted by edgeways at 12:02 PM on December 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


American paranoia is still at idiotic levels,

Well, maybe but that does not mean that even a rough delivery system might not be an important constraint to US behavior. Countries that the US doesn't like and which don't have nuclear weapons tend to get invaded much more often than those who have nuclear weapons. The real target may be holding Tokyo hostage as mentioned above, though that would guarantee the end of the NK regime. I think a more likely threat is US surface fleet as you could might be able to convince yourself that you can get away with nuking a carrier group which was actively attacking you.
posted by shothotbot at 12:03 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hitting space is rather easier than hitting anywhere in particular.

Yeah, but they've got the range at least. Of course the computer guidance part is going to be trickier for them, unless they steal it or someone sells it to them.
posted by empath at 12:04 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


They do not have an ICBM.
There have also been claims that the stage uses a more advanced fuel called UDMH, but it appears instead to be the kerosene-based fuel used in Scuds. In his recent RAND study, Markus Schiller noted that a test Iraq performed using UDMH in a Scud engine gave poor performance, and that burning UDMH gives a transparent flame. The North Korean video of the launch instead shows an orange flame characteristic of Scud fuels (Figure 3 is an image from 12:44 into the video). These findings confirm that the stage is still Scud-level technology.
Debris from North Korea's Launch: What it shows
posted by tripping daisy at 12:05 PM on December 27, 2012


The Wired article was excellent and detailed, but I think it's a bit soon to form any solid conclusions. Unless anyone here is a missile expert with detailed and reliable information, I'd keep an open mind and reserve judgement. Just like this story may play in to useful narratives for the military-industrial complex, the opposite viewpoint plays into various assumptions that are popular around these parts (i.e. Iraq redux, the US is paranoid, etc.). Would it be so shocking and impossible if the DPRK was attempting to develop ICBMs to carry the nuclear weapons that everyone knows that they have? Of course not! The Wired article was great, but it shouldn't be the last word on the matter.
posted by Edgewise at 12:11 PM on December 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


We bomb them and invade them and they get nothing. So maybe we have no need to panic at this.
posted by Ironmouth


Over China's dead body. Like last time.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:12 PM on December 27, 2012


Don't scoff at a SCUD. It's modelled on the V2,
which is the seed from which all of our own military and civilian space capabilities grew.

Kerosene and LOX can power an ICBM just fine. Look at the US Titans.
posted by the Real Dan at 12:16 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


This whole argument that, prima facia, the North Koreans couldn't eventually produce a working ICBM just smacks of racism and that whole "aliens must have built the great pyramids."

I don't think we in the "west" need to panic about this. But we do need to think about it, because if getting access to working nukes is the only way to insure the US doesn't put boots on your ground, then we really do have a problem.
posted by digitalprimate at 12:26 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


This whole argument that, prima facia, the North Koreans couldn't eventually produce a working ICBM just smacks of racism and that whole "aliens must have built the great pyramids."

They don't have a functioning economy, they're under a world-wide embargo and their people are starving to death. It's not racism to point that out.
posted by empath at 12:31 PM on December 27, 2012 [9 favorites]


Don't scoff at a SCUD. It's modelled on the V2,
which is the seed from which all of our own military and civilian space capabilities grew.


I'd say you can't go from V2 to the Moon (or a sophisticated ICBM) without a von Braun, or two.
posted by alex_skazat at 12:32 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it is more along the lines of an insular country with very limited resources and questionable scientific practices will have a much more difficult time in producing an ICBM then some would have us believe... rather than OMG racism!

racism? really? pardon me, but I think that's pretty silly assertion to drop in here.
posted by edgeways at 12:33 PM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


digitalprimate: "This whole argument that, prima facia, the North Koreans couldn't eventually produce a working ICBM just smacks of racism and that whole "aliens must have built the great pyramids.""

I always assumed those arguments revolved around NK's profound lack of an established industrial base, trading partners, or functioning higher education system.

Nobody doubts that South Korea could independently develop a space program (in fact, they have one!). Accusations of racism seem really off-base here...
posted by schmod at 12:34 PM on December 27, 2012 [4 favorites]



I'd say you can't go from V2 to the Moon (or a sophisticated ICBM) without a von Braun, or two.


Я не согласен
posted by leotrotsky at 12:34 PM on December 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


alex_skazat: "I'd say you can't go from V2 to the Moon (or a sophisticated ICBM) without a von Braun, or two."

Wouldn't you also need a von Braun to invent the V2 for you as well?

It's often said that the US won the moon race because America's German rocket scientists were better than the USSR's German rocket scientists.
posted by schmod at 12:36 PM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Wired article is silly, just as silly as when we discussed it last week. It'd be nice if the discussion here were about the articles linked in this post.

ICBM technology and satellite launch technology are very closely related. North Korea doesn't need any particular accuracy to continue its 10+ year long program of extortion and self preservation by threatening the world with nuclear weapons. They just have to be able to lob the warhead somewhere near a populated area. They've now shown they are one big step closer to that capability. On the anniverary of the leader's ascent to power, at that.

The US is not in any hurry to trump up the threat of North Korea or create a Bush-level lie like we did in Iraq. We don't have the incentive. And besides, we're much more worried about Iran. Be as cynical as you want about US policy; sometimes the bad guys really are bad guys. North Korea is a desperately poor, backward, isolated country run by a military dictatorship. And it has nuclear weapons and now, delivery capability. It's worth some attention.

Look at it this way. If you believe it really was a satellite, what reason would North Korea have for launching one? Do you really think they think The Song of General Kim Jong-Il is worth devoting several years of GDP to putting into space? The country can't even keep the electricity working, even in the capital, they're not exactly launching stuff for fun or for science.
posted by Nelson at 12:43 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Pyongyang's first successful orbital launch vehicle

So what's the definition of "successful" these days. I suppose it did manage to get it's payload into orbit, but it appears to have just dumped it there unable to deploy it's solar panels or broadcast its basic telemetry signal! Is that success?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:43 PM on December 27, 2012


This whole argument that, prima facia, the North Koreans couldn't eventually produce a working ICBM just smacks of racism and that whole "aliens must have built the great pyramids."

Yeah.. what smacks to me more of racism is that the North Koreans have a secret nuclear program so they can randomly drop nukes on the US. Why? Just because they're insane like that. Not because having a functioning nuclear program is a great deterrent to invasion and equalizes the playing field.

Not that the regime in NK doesn't have huge human rights and other problems, but that doesn't mean they aren't strategic and rational in major national defense issues.
posted by formless at 12:43 PM on December 27, 2012


It's often said that the US won the moon race because America's German rocket scientists were better than the USSR's German rocket scientists.

The US won the moon race because 1) the US turned into a moon race, since it couldn't beat the Soviets at anything else and 2)NASA modeled the Soviet system while the USSR modeled capitalism. By that I mean, the Soviets had competing design bureaus with different goals, all vying for the a smaller amount of money. NASA was a single department given a single goal and pretty much a blank check to do it. Originally the various US military branches were fighting over who got to lead the space program and didn't manage to get very far.

Had the USSR's Sergei Korolev been given a larger budget and not died from all wounds in a Soviet Gulag, he more than likely would have given the US a real challenge in terms of reaching the moon first. .
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:44 PM on December 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


If you believe it really was a satellite, what reason would North Korea have for launching one?

Same reason the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. and everyone else has had: "Look, my national dick is so huge, you can see it from space!"

Sure, there were eventually more practical applications, but that first one is always just to say you can.
posted by Etrigan at 12:48 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


The US and the Soviets launched satellites as part of their ICBM development program, a crucial part of the Cold War arms race. Not the only reason of course; legitimate science and demonstration of capability of power too, also economic reasons. But the military budget significantly underwrote both the US and Soviet space programs.

North Korea still has periodic mass starvation. And, seriously, almost no electricity. They're not launching satellites for fun.
posted by Nelson at 12:52 PM on December 27, 2012


formless: Yeah.. what smacks to me more of racism is that the North Koreans have a secret nuclear program so they can randomly drop nukes on the US. Why? Just because they're insane like that... Not that the regime in NK doesn't have huge human rights and other problems, but that doesn't mean they aren't strategic and rational in major national defense issues.

Correct or not; saying the regime is irrational is not the same thing as saying Koreans are irrational, so I don't see how this could "smack" of racism in the slightest. Especially since the Kims have been intentionally cultivating an aura of "just crazy enough to do it" for fifty years.
posted by spaltavian at 12:59 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


The 10th Regiment of Foot writes "So what's the definition of "successful" these days. I suppose it did manage to get it's payload into orbit, but it appears to have just dumped it there unable to deploy it's solar panels or broadcast its basic telemetry signal! Is that success?"

Of a launch vehicle? Yes. Requiring the sattellite to be functional is moving the goal posts of what a successful launch is.
posted by Mitheral at 1:04 PM on December 27, 2012


If you believe it really was a satellite, what reason would North Korea have for launching one?

Even if you assume they have entirely militaristic motivations, there are plenty of military uses for satellite technology.
posted by empath at 1:19 PM on December 27, 2012


This whole argument that, prima facia, the North Koreans couldn't eventually produce a working ICBM just smacks of racism and that whole "aliens must have built the great pyramids."

While I doubt that anyone here is qualified to state whether or not this is possible, I don't think it's necessary to resort to the "big R." It's enough for me to know that both the US and USSR were capable of producing ICBMs decades ago. I don't know exactly what level of engineering prowess is possible, but surely the way have been partly paved, if only by the knowledge that it is clearly possible, and the fact that there is a lot of public information about how it can be done.

I really imagine either scenario to be possible. Anyone who thinks that this is open-and-shut, either way, probably has no idea what they are talking about. As a rule, I never give much credence to people talking about such esoteric topics who start their argument with an eye roll at how obvious their conclusion is and how naive are those who don't see it plainly.
posted by Edgewise at 1:53 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


"So what's the definition of "successful" these days. I suppose it did manage to get it's payload into orbit, but it appears to have just dumped it there unable to deploy it's solar panels or broadcast its basic telemetry signal! Is that success?"

Pretty much, yeah. It's quite an accomplishment just to get the stages separated properly and insert the satellite into the correct orbit. They've come a long way in fourteen years, or however long they've been doing this.

I think from their perspective North Korea is just trying to move up the technology tree. Their overall goal is superpower status, becoming something like a tiny version of China, with weapons so advanced no one will dare to touch them. And if that means starvation for ordinary people while the government develops the capacity to launch things into space, then so be it.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:25 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think from their perspective North Korea is just trying to move up the technology tree.

And if they succeed, they reveal the whole map and can start building components for their Alpha Centauri colonization ship!
posted by Copronymus at 2:50 PM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Does anyone seriously still trust the Times to correctly differentiate between mass paranoia and real, imperative threats to our national security?
posted by deathpanels at 3:13 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


According to an op-ed/article I saw in the Orange County register the other day, the single most dangerous, existential threat to America is the National Education Association.

So about North Korea, I wouldn't really worry.

No really, the guy said that. And he was an M.D.
posted by Xoebe at 3:23 PM on December 27, 2012


As long as their rocket takes a week to prep and they are launching from a surface pad, they don't have a credible ICBM. And as long as they don't have a 300 pound nuclear warhead, they don't have anything to put on their not very credible ICBM. Using Scud technology, they will never be able to launch a significant payload. The most threatening thing they can do with this is launch a satellite. Which they did.
posted by Mcable at 3:53 PM on December 27, 2012


One low-yield nuclear attack on Tokyo (and everyone seems to hate Japan at the moment) would shut down the entire world.

What?
posted by adamdschneider at 3:59 PM on December 27, 2012


Maybe if they did launch a satellite they could get that picture that shows the world at night, with their country - including capital shrouded in darkness.
posted by the noob at 4:12 PM on December 27, 2012


What they have is a package that can give a few hundred pounds (if that) orbital delta vee, and guidance good enough to hit space. That's very hard to do if you're trying it from your back yard, but it's fairly straightforward if you have the resources. Ask SpaceX, which last I looked wasn't nearly as big as even the tiniest and most backward government.

They don't have a way to hide or stealth the launch preparations. That complicates things considerably and makes it easy to track what they're doing.

They don't have a way to protect a package through re-entry. That's harder than launching and kind of necessary if you want your bomb to go off on a target on the ground.

They don't have guidance good enough to hit a target on the other side of the world. That's really, really hard, and inability to do it reliably is one reason US and Soviet warheads got so big at the height of the cold war; you needed something big enough to destroy a hardened silo even if you didn't quite hit it.

Such guidance as they do have may depend on our own GPS system, judging from one of the antennas on the prototype satellite they displayed. That works really well until we realize your recent launch is on a ballistic trajectory and turn it off.

They do not have a lightweight nuclear weapon. In fact, they don't have what most people in the industry would call a nuclear weapon at all; they have a large, heavy fizzle machine that can achieve a kiloton or two yield through an obviously incomplete reaction. They apparently tried a plutonium gun style bomb which didn't work for reasons that we've understood since roughly 1943.

Making lightweight nuclear weapons is really really hard. It makes putting Sputnik into orbit look like child's play by comparison. NK would not be dicking around with atomic fizzle machines if they had a lottery ticket holder's chance at that tech.

Even if they could get their half-baked A-bomb to Tokyo, detonating it there would not end anything of global significance. The direct destruction would be comparable to 9/11, possibly knocking out a few skyscrapers but having very limited effect beyond a few thousand feet. Fallout might be a larger issue but Tokyo is a huge city and fallout can be tracked, detected, and cleaned up.

The most likely practical reason they did this is dick waving. Any practical threat to anyone else because they've managed to do this is minimal.
posted by localroger at 4:18 PM on December 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


I don't understand the need to completely minimize this. It's at least a little bit worrying and its something that bears watching. It's not an existential threat to the US, nor is it a pretense for war.

I suspect that the regime will collapse before they get the program along far enough to be genuinely threatening.
posted by empath at 4:49 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Worth watching? Sure. Worth worrying about? Not so much. If they can increase payload capacity and make a nuke that actually works, they might be able to generate a relatively significant EMP even though they still lack the guidance technology necessary for the targeting capabilities we had on our first ICBMs.

There are enough ifs there that worry is premature.
posted by wierdo at 6:02 PM on December 27, 2012


I don't understand the need to completely minimize this.

It's because if you have a bit of background in rocket science and nuclear science, it's very obvious that the threat is minimal. There's no "need" there. It just is.
posted by localroger at 7:25 PM on December 27, 2012


The US really isn't Pyongyang's target, Seoul and Tokyo are. And the payload doesn't have to be nuclear, they can wreak plenty of havoc without it. Which might be a better goal anyway since China would be more willing to defend them if they don't take the nuclear option.
posted by tommasz at 7:35 PM on December 27, 2012


I suspect that the regime will collapse before they get the program along far enough to be genuinely threatening.

The Long History of (Wrongly) Predicting North Korea's Collapse
posted by Golden Eternity at 7:40 PM on December 27, 2012


A SCUD is basically a Russian redesign of the A4 which is actually a V2. Which is what the American Space Program started with back in the day.
posted by Artw at 8:37 PM on December 27, 2012


The US really isn't Pyongyang's target, Seoul and Tokyo are
Can't they hit Seoul with conventional artillery? I thought that was their main threat?
posted by fullerine at 9:34 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, S. Korea's biggest threat from the North is the massive "convenential" artillery buildup. It will be interesting to see if SK purchases some of these new Iron-Dome style technologies, as it would radically alter the the threat from the North enough that it might be a game-changer.
posted by rosswald at 11:21 AM on December 28, 2012


Iron Dome may not be all that.
posted by Artw at 12:12 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


« Older Of Fanás and Forecastles: The Indian Ocean and Som...  |  "I was never threatened coveri... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments