The Hwasong-17, North Korea’s most recently known intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), has recently made headlines after landing near Japan. While the nuclear weapon is being developed, one might wonder if it can truly bypass the United States’ venerable ballistic missile defense system, which has served the country for decades.

Will the US be able to deter North Korea’s massive ballistic missile?

‘Monster’ ICBM of the DPRK

DPRK stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Sensationalized as the ‘monster’ ICBM of North Korea by the media, the Hwasong-17 is a two-stage, liquid-fuelled, road-mobile ballistic missile operating at the back of a 22-wheeled transporter erector launcher (TEL) vehicle. The massive rocket was unveiled during the 75th founding anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea parade and had been conducting tests since. According to reports, unlike its predecessor, the Hwasong-17 is speculated to carry multiple warheads and decoys that would confuse and possibly evade missile defenses.

North Korea’s state media reported that the Hwasong-17 ICBM successfully “flew nearly 1,000 km (621 miles) for about 69 minutes and reached a maximum altitude of 6,041 km.” The ballistic missile has an estimated diameter of approximately 2.5 meters and a mass of around 80,000 to 10,000 kg when fully fueled.

Moreover, Japanese Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada said that the latest Hwasong variant could travel as far as 15,000 km (9,320 miles) or more—enough to reach anywhere on the US mainland. There’s no sufficient information as of the date on the technical specifications of the Hwasong-17 and on evidence to prove its ability to successfully deliver warheads after re-entering the atmosphere. Even with released footage, analysts could not confirm, considering that it could be falsified for public appearance.

A former intelligence officer at the US Defense Intelligence Agency and now a professor at Angelo University in Texas, Bruce Bechtol, told VOA News that “Unlike the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15, which the North Koreans could probably fire up [to aim at] the United States tomorrow, it appears a Hwasong-17 is a long way from being operational.”

Third-generation Protector

The third-generation missile descendant of the venerable Minuteman family, the LGM-30G Minuteman III is a three-stage, solid-fueled, silo-based ICBM that served as the land-based leg of the US nuclear triad—America’s national security backbone. It took over the place of its predecessor three years after its development in 1970 with an initial force of 550 missiles and has since been the country’s protector against destructive actions from adversaries 24/7. What made it more capable than its predecessor is its ability to be equipped with Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs), which allows it to carry multiple nuclear warheads on the front end (also known as the “bus“). Currently, though, the US has limited the number of warheads of the Minuteman III to one, a W78 with a yield of 335 kilotons and a payload twenty times the power of the 1945 Hiroshima bomb. Nonetheless, if international security is jeopardized at any time, the number will be restored to its original force.

LGM-30G Minuteman III has a launch weight of about 34,467 kilograms, a length of 18.2 meters and a diameter of 1.85 meters, and a range of up to 8,000 miles (13,000 km). When launched, it can fly over 15,000 mph or Mach 23 (about 24,000 kph at burnout) and reach a ceiling height of 700 miles (1,120 kilometers). Moreover, each of its rockets has an estimated ten-year lifespan, which so far “exceeded with its continual life extension program,” and will continue its service until the 2030s.

North Korea Boasts ‘Monster’ Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, Hwasong-17

Read Next: North Korea Boasts ‘Monster’ Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, Hwasong-17

In August, amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and a few days after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan, the Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) conducted “an unarmed” Minuteman III test as part of the periodic routine to ensure that the third-generation American ICBM continues to be “safe, secure, reliable, and effective to deter twenty-first-century threats,” it said, clarifying that the launch does not relate to the current world events. The test was initially scheduled earlier this year, but with the invasion of Russia in Ukraine and the rising nuclear tensions, Pentagon postponed it to avoid misunderstanding.

For now, the Minuteman III remains the solo land-based ICBM of the US after the aging LGM-118 Peacekeeper missile was retired in the mid-2000s. Nonetheless, an upcoming ballistic missile will be joining the third-generation Minuteman, the LGM-35 Sentinel, which is currently in its earlier stage of development. Also known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), the future ICBM is expected to be completed and replace its then-aging predecessor sometime in mid-2030. Until then, the Air Force is committed to maintaining and keeping Minuteman III on top of the most reliable and viable deterrent in the world.

Which one is stronger?

The ability to carry a nuclear warhead alone makes both ICBMs formidable—a destructive weapon capable of annihilating a city and, potentially, the entire population. Moreover, as promising as it sounds, Hwasong-17 is still in the works. While its reported specifications may one day become operational, it will take time, which means the more advanced, more viable LGM-35 Sentinel may already be in service. Besides, it’s only a matter of who will fire first and how fast the receiving end can deter the attack.

Currently, America has 450 Minuteman III ICBMs distributed in various silo locations across the country, including Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota, with each range of approximately 8,000 miles and capable of reaching almost anywhere in the world under an hour.

Wondering how the US would respond to a nuclear attack? Read our take here.

Reference

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2007, November 2). MIRV. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/technology/MIRV

Missile Defense Project, “Minuteman III,” Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 19, 2016, last modified August 2, 2021, https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/minuteman-iii/