North Korea ballistic missile test ends in failure


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North Korea on Saturday local time once again attempted and failed to launch a ballistic missile.

Some details here. The missile flew 25 miles, and was a short range missile.

While previously I attributed the consistent failures of every single North Korean missile test to the inherent incompetence of that society’s totalitarian regime, I am now beginning to wonder if espionage from either the U.S. or China might be a contributing factor. It seems unlikely, and the simplest explanation remains engineering failures with North Korea’s aerospace industry. Yet…

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28 comments

  • Robin Fox

    Perhaps the North Korean scientists are doing their best to avoid war with the U.S.?

  • LocalFluff

    It’s said to have had a range shorter than to reach Japan. I doubt they would put in the effort to sabotage every Scud. If it was short range, maybe it was not part of their development tests, but a standard test of their arsenal’s reliability. In that case, with two failures in a row, that doesn’t look good for them. I haven’t seen any statistics for the huge artillery fire drill the other day, but historically about 25% of NK’s grenades are said to not detonate on impact, based on firings into South Korea. Their rockets might be more dangerous for themselves than to their enemies. Having a warhead with sarin exploding just overhead can ruin the day.

  • wayne

    Christopher Hitchens
    “On putting off the confrontation with North Korea”
    https://youtu.be/L7wkz0TNz8U
    (6:44)

  • Garry

    As a former artillery officer, I watched the video of North Korea’s artillery shoot from the other day with interest. The sequence I saw was very short (maybe 10 seconds on a loop), which made me suspicious. Perhaps there was a longer video, but I didn’t find it. I was able to note a few things, though.

    -The first thing I noticed was that they detonated the propellant by pulling an unusually long lanyard. Our lanyards used to be 6 feet long, to ensure that the man pulling the lanyard does not get hit by the recoiling barrel. Their lanyards seemed to be 25 feet long or more; the only reason I can think of using a lanyard that long is that they half expected an accident that would be fatal if the crew was at normal distance from the cannon.

    -Assuming they’re using a conventional cannon, using a lanyard that long would preclude getting off another round quickly; one of the main strengths of artillery is getting off a lot of rounds in a short time.

    -The cannons lined up seemed to shoot at random timings, rather than in a salvo, which would look much more impressive (every other demonstration I’ve seen was shot in salvos, and we did it as a matter of routine).

    -The cannons were lined up in 3 or 4 rows, one behind the other. We would never do that; too many bad things can happen to the crews out in front, from a short round (faulty powder) to a premature detonation (unlikely in our arsenal, as the round has to spin for a while before it’s armed, but I don’t know about theirs).

    -There didn’t appear to be any shots of the projectiles hitting the water; I wonder how many actually detonated, and whether they were able to group their rounds. To group well the guns have to be aimed accurately, the powder has to be reliably consistent in its combustion, and the projectiles and barrels have to be precise. None of this is necessarily easy for the North Koreans.

    in short, I think they lined up a bunch of cannons and shot the ones that were serviceable, but they were not able to coordinate their shots in either location or timing. In the end they spliced several short segments of video to put together a sequence that looks impressive to the untrained eye. I wonder how many of their cannons misfired, whether they had any accidents, and what happened downrange when the rounds hit the water.

  • wayne

    Garry–
    Highly interesting stuff.

    Referencing missile-testing; If I recall correctly, the Germans had something like 120 consecutive launch failures at one point, during the development of the V rockets. I know it’s a stretch “analogy wise,” but we are living on borrowed time.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “I am now beginning to wonder if espionage from either the U.S. or China might be a contributing factor. It seems unlikely, and the simplest explanation remains engineering failures with North Korea’s aerospace industry.

    Although I do not want to discount this possibility, I think that it is important to note a significant difference between North Korea’s test regime and much of the rest of the world’s. Rather than stand down and examine the problem to find the root cause, they launch another missile.

    The Russians recently stood down after a failed launch and discovered that the root cause was a systemic problem in their engines. Had they continued launching without the detailed investigation, they could have continued to have failure after failure, too.

    I suspect that North Korea’s dictator is too eager to scare the world for him to be patient enough to do failure investigation correctly, even if doing it right would expose espionage.

  • LocalFluff

    I read it was a KN-17, a short range ballistic missile with steerable warhead for precision targeting or for avoiding air defense. Third test and all have failed.

    Garry, what do you think of their capability, and the effect of, using artillery with nerve gas? Precision should be less important when the target is an entire area.

    This puts the nuclear threat in perspective. Seoul has 10 million inhabitants but a nuke would “only” kill or injure about 1% of them:
    https://nuclearsecrecy.com/nukemap/?&hob_opt=1&linked=1&kt=10&lat=37.566536&lng=126.977969&hob_psi=5&hob_ft=2207&zm=11

  • Early Bird

    >>While previously I attributed the consistent failures of every single North Korean missile test to the inherent incompetence of that society’s totalitarian regime,<<

    The author seems to be implying "totalitarian regimes are inherently incompetent." Was that what the author intended to mean?

    I ask because anyone who is under the impression that totalitarian regimes cannot successfully launch missiles need look no further than the Russian space programme for evidence to the contrary. Let's not forget that the Russians launched both the first *and* second satellites.

    Meanwhile, the Americans' first effort to put a satellite into space (Vanguard TV3) ended with the bird rising a few feet, then exploding horribly on the launch pad (as seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVeFkakURXM). I expect few people reading this will remember, but at the time, the incident caused enormous embarrassment to the US. It wasn't until the following year that America finally succeeded in getting a satellite into orbit. Of course, with the Russians having already launched two by then, the American effort had a decidedly "late to the party" feel to it.

    The point being: competence has little to do with political ideology. It's early days for the North Koreans yet and I suspect Kim Jong-un is coming up with exciting new ways to motivate his scientists and technicians even as I type.

  • Nick P

    “It flew roughly 25 miles and was in the air for about 15 minutes, officials tell Fox News.”

    So North Korea’s missile flies at about 100 miles an hour?

  • Edward: I agree with you. However, I felt a need to mention the possibility of espionage, since it is possible, though very unlikely.

  • pzatchok

    The NK are using old Soviet technology and actually old Soviet SCUD missiles. This was one of those modified SCUDS.
    The same ones sold to Saddam that he launched during Gulf 1.
    Of those it is not known exactly how many did not launch but almost 30% fell apart or exploded during flight.
    Of the rest the vast majority of them missed their targets so badly they were never engaged by air defense systems.

    Does anymore really think that the portly one has a better economy and better technical expertise than Saddam did?

  • LocalFluff

    Nick P,
    ““It flew roughly 25 miles and was in the air for about 15 minutes, officials tell Fox News.”

    So North Korea’s missile flies at about 100 miles an hour?”

    It could be. It’s supposed to climb to almost 200 km altitude before falling back ballistically.

  • wayne

    North Korea isn’t acting alone in isolation. They bought their nuke plans from the AQ Kahn network and conduct a heathy trade in embargoed items, with Persia and Pakistan.

  • Garry

    LocalFluff asked, “Garry, what do you think of their capability, and the effect of, using artillery with nerve gas? Precision should be less important when the target is an entire area.”

    In my opinion, the need for precision isn’t that different for gas. Traditional artillery (meaning before laser guided and GPS guided munitions) is by nature an area weapon. In the unlikely event Kim has GPS guided munitions, denying him GPS capability would probably be pretty easy.

    In many modern conflicts artillery has accounted for more casualties than any other weapon system, but that’s because of the sheer number of rounds fired. Traditional artillery is meant to keep the enemy’s head down while the infantry advances. In trench warfare, infantry attacks became very difficult, and much of the time the main weapon was artillery (and its smaller cousin the mortar); accurate fire means that the center of dispersion coincides with the enemy position, so that out of thousands of rounds fired, a decent amount hit their mark. In even the best case, most rounds do very little damage.

    I’ve never been much of a believer in the direct effects of artillery-delivered poison gas. For one, I question how reliably the rounds can be delivered (they have been known to degrade over time, and in North Korea’s case, the cannons themselves can’t be all that reliable). Once the rounds hit, they have to detonate reliably, and (in the case of binary weapons, which I don’t know if North Korea has), the 2 components have to mix properly to produce poison gas. The purpose of binary weapons is to safety; handling projectiles with actual poison gas would introduce a whole new set of dangers to the cannoneers.

    I haven’t studied it, but my impression is that in World War 1, our main case study for gas warfare, the most effective delivery means was pipes directly into enemy trenches. Artillery rounds can’t hold a lot of gas, making them relatively ineffective.

    Gas is not as easy to deploy as we fear. Hussein used gas warfare in the Iran-Iraq War, as well as against his own people, and as far as I know (I have to admit my sources were all unclassified), it was not that effective. Gas quickly disperses with weather, and the gas molecules are large enough that a wet cloth held over the nose and mouth is often effective in preventing death, if not casualties altogether. I remember reading that Hussein dropped tons and tons of gas on small villages, with only a handful of deaths, presumably because he shot most of it downwind of the village, or the wind quickly dispersed the gas.

    Suspend your disbelief in Assad’s employment of gas, and note that it was reportedly air delivered, which is much more accurate than artillery delivery.

    Like his nukes, Kim’s artillery is more powerful as a threat than in actual use. When your target is the city of Seoul, you don’t need accuracy to cause damage and panic. Yet the moment he starts firing his masses of artillery, many of them become inoperable from inadequate maintenance, we take many others out with our air power and our own precision artillery, and I would guess many of his soldiers would flee in terror. The calculus on our end, similar to the case of his nukes, is how much damage he can do before we render his forces inoperable.

    During the Gulf War, I feared the indirect effects of gas more than I feared the gas itself. Having spent many hours at a time training in the full protective suits (including a gas mask), I know that wearing them degrades capabilities quickly. Communication becomes harder when you’re talking through a gas mask (I assume we use something like texting now to help overcome this, although texting would be difficult with the rubber gloves, which always collected puddles of sweat in the fingers). The gas mask also restricts your visibility. The suit, especially the rubber overboots, makes movement very clumsy. In hot weather, the suit leads to quick dehydration and hyperthermia. I feared that we would suspect that gas was released, put everybody in the suits, and immediately have our effectiveness degraded, leading to more casualties than the gas itself may have caused if it were actually used.

    In relation to my earlier post, I would guess that one of the problems with North Korea’s artillery is the same problem the Soviet Union had with theirs: modern recoil mechanisms use pressurized gas; in our case we used 1,200 psi of nitrogen, which was greatly compressed when the round left the tube. The Soviets didn’t use nitrogen, they used air, which meant that the recoil mechanisms rusted from the inside, and reportedly they pulled them apart every few months to clean out the rust. Once you’ve got a seal for 1,200 psi (about 80 atmospheres), you don’t want to break it unless you really know what you’re doing; it’s one thing for the factory to seal it once; it’s a whole other matter for gun crews to unseal it every few months and put it back together.

    When the cannon fires of a round, that 1,200 psi is multiplied, and if the seal is weak, you can have a catastrophic failure of the cannon (and anyone near it). I would guess that that was the main reason for Kim’s cannoneers using long lanyards. Even if nobody is hurt, once the recoil mechanism is gone, the cannon is useless.

  • Garry

    Robert Z wrote, “Edward: I agree with you. However, I felt a need to mention the possibility of espionage, since it is possible, though very unlikely.”

    Even is we don’t have this capability, I suspect that our defense apparatus has leaked rumors of our having it. I think that keeping the enemy guessing is a great approach, and is a major part of what Trump has done with his use of military action so far.

    For example, dropping the MoAB puts a lot of uncertainty in the minds of ISIS and Al Qaeda that simply wasn’t there under the Obama administration.

  • Nick P

    LocalFluff

    “It’s supposed to climb to almost 200 km altitude before falling back ballistically”

    One of the Links contains this quote: ” a former Scud missile that officials believe is being tested to one day target ships”

    It seems unlikely that a missile intended to target ships would follow a ballistic path.

  • wayne

    Garry–
    Good stuff. Enjoy the informative details, gives me a better perspective on how things actually work.

    Q: A “standard” artillery shell, if their is such an animal– Do they have proximity fuzes, explode on contact, air-burst, or what, etc.? I assume we have different versions? High explosive, fragmentation, etc.

    Ref “nerve gas,” I as well, highly doubt they have any type of binary Agents, that involves sophisticated manufacture & maintenance, and they appear to go for shear-quantity rather than ultra high-tech Quality with weapons. (far easier to synthesize conventional high-explosives, which can be made from a variety of Fats, and urine… and don’t put it past them)

    Broadly– there are [post WW-2] two major classes of nerve-agents, with multiple examples in each category, which require differing delivery mechanisms.
    Production of any of the variants is not beyond the North but I tend to think they devote most of their resources to nuclear. (They do synthesize huge amounts of amphetamine for export and hard-currency, but I’m clueless as to their infrastructure to manufacture nerve agents, but if you can make pesticide or nitrogen-fertilizer, you can make speed, nerve-gas, and explosives.)

    Sarin for example, is more of a contact-poison and does best as a liquid (droplets) and not vaporized by high explosive. Other variants do better vaporized/delivered for inhalation.

    On the production end–They all have a fairly definite shelf-life, tend to be highly corrosive requiring specialized storage, and require a certain minimum on-going investment in chemical synthesis infrastructure & technical knowledge.

    I have no clue if they have chlorine or mustard-gas, that capability would be easier on them & utilizes technology well within their capability, but is not easy to use in practical application.

    Highly interesting comments by all.

  • Garry

    Wayne, my knowledge of artillery shells is going on 30 years old, but I’m fairly confident the basics have remained the same.

    A standard HE (high explosive) round with the standard fuse detonates on contact, but literally with the turn of a screw can be set for delayed detonation (when firing on a bunker complex, for example).

    It can also be fired with an air burst fuse that is set by hand; the fire direction center calculates what the timing should be to detonate at optimum height (20 meters?), and the forward observer gives adjustments to ensure the fuse bursts at optimum height.

    There is also a fuse that sends out radio waves and causes the shell to detonate when the strength of the reflected waves indicate that it’s 7 meters off the ground.

    There are other rounds, including white phosphorus (burns in contact with oxygen), smoke (for obscuring the battlefield), and illumination (on a parachute, for lighting up a 500 meter radius). White phosphorus is often used to mark for aircraft, and one day when I ran out of white phosphorus I set the illumination rounds to detonate on the ground for the same purpose.

    There are rocket assisted projectiles, which extend their range by lighting off in midair, at the sacrifice of accuracy.

    There are what they call ICM (improved conventional munitions), which burst in air and essentially rain grenades down. These are more effective than conventional HE rounds, but the high dud rate makes for problems after the shooting stops (and means they are shot only in a few places in peacetime).

    There are also DPICM (dual purpose improved conventional munitions), which have effects against personnel and armored vehicles.

    I believe that we’ve phased out all chemical rounds, but I think nuke rounds are still in the inventory.

    There are also mine rounds, but I’ve never seen them as practical.

    There are also laser-guided rounds, which require the observer to illuminate the target until the round hits, and GPS-guided rounds, which require extremely accurate location info.

    These last are potential game-changers; traditionally artillery has been very hard to aim with precision. We used to use computers to take into account everything you can imagine, including the rotation of the earth, and weather data obtained every few hours from a weather balloon. But in the end we essentially used Kentucky windage for our initial aim (e.g., our first mission showed our guns were shooting 170 meters long and half a degree to the left, so we shift our aim point 170 meters short and half a degree to the right). Then we relied on an observer to adjust the subsequent rounds onto the target. And even perfect adjustment won’t usually result in a direct hit; there’s too much dispersion in rounds. I once shot 1,300 rounds in a week, with 7 reported direct hits on old tank hulks, which was considered an extremely high rate of direct hits.

    Being able to get a direct hit, with the first round, is something else entirely.

    I may have told you more than you were looking for.

  • wayne

    Garry–
    Highly informative stuff! Appreciate the effort & first-hand knowledge.

  • LocalFluff

    Nick P
    “It seems unlikely that a missile intended to target ships would follow a ballistic path.”
    It has a guided steerable warhead that finds the ship on the way down, and which approaches it at super sonic speed along a curvy unpredictable trajectory so that aimed kinetic air defense projectiles miss it. The Russian S-400/40N6 -Triumph reaches 185 km altitude before hitting AN AIRCRAFT!

    Since it’s fashionable today to achieve a ballistic attack from orbital altitude, even for air defense, I suppose that orbiting space weapons would be very attractive to today’s militaries.

    If the North Koreans manages to develop such a weapon, their aerospace industry must be pretty advanced. Gordon Chang, an Asia analyst, said on Fox that the last test might’ve been successful. They maybe only tested the first stage. Also, they might not want to launch secret weapons to international waters since the US then salvages what’s left of them.

  • LocalFluff

    Very interesting, Garry! In the Korea War the North had about as modern weapons as the South had, now they are way behind in terms of tanks and artillery. Nuclear ICBM seems to be the one thing they are going for.

    Concerning GPS, the EU, Russia and China have their own open GPS systems operating now. Japan has a regional one, though I think that it only enhances the other. But maybe they all cooperate on North Korea now and are prepared to encrypt all the positioning systems at once if a conflict breaks out. Or make them send out an offset of 200 km north, so that all GPS guided missiles land north of the border…

  • DougSpace

    I wonder if a something like the following gun-on-a-drone could be used to take out a missile during launch:

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=FI–wFfipvA

  • pzatchok

    A nation can not rely on another nations GPS system as a targeting mechanism for its military.
    The US proved this in Gulf 1 by sending Iraqs troops miles off target.

    Do you think the paranoid Kim would even trust China? Hell no.

    One of the reasons Nk is chasing the nuclear weapon is because you do not have to be exact with it.
    All they really need to do is threaten Sk and Japan with a nuclear bomb to politically neutralize the US and plant all the nuclear bombs they can along the DMZ as huge landmines to stop a Sk invasion of NK.
    They can drive or plane a nuclear bomb into Sk and send a cargo ship or plane with one into Japan.

  • Early Bird


    All they really need to do is threaten Sk and Japan with a nuclear bomb to politically neutralize the US

    Is it realistic to expect Japan to stand idle while the North Koreans develop delivery systems for their nuclear weapons? Yes, it’s possible, I suppose, but I am sceptical that the Japanese would let things get to the point where NK can target Japan with missiles.

    After what happened in both Iraq and Libya, I can see why NK developed nuclear weapons: it allowed them to see off the Americans without firing a shot. Nuclear weapons are, let’s face it, the ultimate “poison pill” and I doubt if any country that has them will ever be invaded.

    However, I am having a hard time understanding the point to all this missile development; missiles are inherently offensive weapons. Try as I might, I am having a difficult time seeing it as anything other than a dangerous attempt on the part of NK to upset the delicate balance of power in that part of the world. It seems to me that the South Koreans/Americans/Japanese are going to feel compelled to “do something” before the North Koreans develop a credible offensive capability.

    Is it really as simple as the North Koreans thinking that no one is ever going to mess with them while they continue to develop missiles? I am hoping there is some sort of rational angle to this madness that I have overlooked because the entire affair is starting to take on a “Summer 1914” appearance from where I am standing.

  • wayne

    Early Bird–
    Interesting points.

    Referencing “Summer 1914,” you might find this tangentially enlightening, although he concentrates on the armistice part, rather than the entangling alliances part.

    WWI and the Lessons for Today
    Victor Davis Hanson
    Heritage Foundation 6-10-14
    https://youtu.be/sBzMANLQ9dQ?t=542
    (1:04:10. cued to the start.)

  • pzatchok

    I fully expect Japan and SK to develop and deploy defensive systems.

    But Nk leader is as nutty as squirrel poop. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself. If 10 million of his people die in a nuclear war as long as he lives he wins.
    So no there will never be a balance of power.

    All he needs to do is stop the US from actively defending Japan or SK before he makes a first strike and ground invasion.

    If we get another milktoast president in office Nk could even use a nuclear weapon and give the left a list of excuses to keep them from being counter attacked and invaded.

    No we cannot even stop them from developing and building rockets and fielding them. But we can make sure they never reach their intended targets.

  • LocalFluff

    A preemptive strike against NK is not the worst alternative. Them striking first is! Best would be a regime change and reformation, and that’s up to the Chinese. I’m afraid that the Kim dynasty has made very sure to protect themselves against any such threat.

    Kim is not irrational. In his few years he’s gone big on nuclear weapons and long range missiles and even launched a satellite, all very successfully. He is insanely ruthless, but he knows what he’s doing. The small poor dictatorship has survived the Korea war, the cold war, the rise of South Korea to 20 times NK’s GDP/capita, the Soviet collapse, the starvation crisis in the 1990s. He has total control over his people, no risk for demonstrations as before the Berlin Wall fell. His killings of high officials probably strengthen him and gets rid of potential China friendly infiltrators. And militarily most people don’t seem willing to solve the problem with a first strike against him. His system is perfected like nowhere else ever.

  • LocalFluff

    The loyal top people live well in NK. Those who have contact with foreigners in trade or otherwise know things ordinary people do not. The ruthless crimes against humanity is the strongest way to create loyalty. Kim Jong-Un of course makes sure that everyone in the elite is directly implicated with crimes against humanity. Personally having to execute innocent, profiting from cruel slave labor in the mines and so on. Everyone in the elite knows that if the US ever gets them, they will all be executed as mass murderers. Kim’s victory is their only hope for survival.

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