Over the past year, the media, and the American public, have devoted a great deal of attention to Kim Jong Un’s rapidly advancing nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs. However, throughout repeated ballistic missile tests and the detonation of the reclusive state’s first dual-stage (hydrogen) nuclear bomb, certain elements of the recipe for intercontinental ballistic missile success has continued to elude them.

A survivable reentry vehicle seems to the biggest hurdle Kim’s regime has yet to find a way to overcome, despite clear redesigns visible in the various iterations of North Korea’s Hwasong suite of ballistic missile platforms.

According to Air Force General Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, a reentry vehicle isn’t all Kim may potentially be lacking. Every ballistic missile test thus far has ended with the platform falling into the ocean, leaving no opportunity to demonstrate any kind of advanced, or even rudimentary targeting capabilities.

“What he has not demonstrated yet are the fusing and targeting technologies and survivable re-entry vehicle,” Selva said, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “It is possible he has them, so we have to place the bet that he might have them, but he hasn’t demonstrated them.”

The Hwasong-15 left, and Hwasong-14 right. (KCNA)

It’s worth noting that until successfully tested on a missile platform, merely possessing the required technology does not automatically equate to a viable targeting system in practical applications. This is why even seasoned nuclear powers like the United States continue to conduct test launches of tried and true ICBM platforms, in order to ensure they remain functional and accurate.

“It is possible, although I think unlikely, that he has found a way to do the test without us knowing,” Selva said. “But I can’t envision what that test would look like, where he would be convinced that he has those components at a reliable-enough level of performance to declare that he’s ready.”

Higher, further, but still a failure: North Korea's latest missile test likely broke apart upon reentry

Read Next: Higher, further, but still a failure: North Korea's latest missile test likely broke apart upon reentry

Of course, it’s not all good news from the Korean peninsula, and Selva tempered his claims with concerns about North Korea’s Hwasong-15 platform, pointing out that if war were to break out, it is unlikely the United States would be able to identify the warning signs of an impending launch in time to interdict. Although Kim’s missiles still rely on liquid fueling, the mobility allotted by converted timber trucks sourced through China would make finding the missiles in time troublesome at that stage.

Hwasong-15 aboard a mobile launch vehicle. (KCNA)

“It is very unlikely that in a tactical situation, we would get any of the indications and warning that would precede a launch other than if we got lucky and saw the movement of the launch mechanism to the launch platform,” Selva said.

However, according to Selva, the United States does possess the capacity to nearly cripple North Korea’s missile infrastructure if called upon to take decisive action, and by infrastructure, he clarified, he means more than the missiles and launchpads.

“Remember, missile infrastructure is not just the missiles,” Selva said at a roundtable with journalists in Washington this week. “If you’re the poor sergeant that has to go out and launch the missile, and I blow up your barracks, you’re not available to go do your job.”

 

Feature image courtesy of the Department of Defense