KRT via AP Video

Kim Jong Un has yet again fired another Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) in a test launch that ended in failure. However, the failure looks like it occurred upon re-entry, and if they solve this problem, the “Hwasong-15” will have the range to conceivably reach the east coast of the United States along with much of the rest of the world—that is, if it didn’t get shot out of the sky first.

An ICBM is a missile fired off with the intent to deliver and detonate a thermonuclear warhead on another continent. It is possible that other types of weapons could be delivered using this system, but it has never happened before. The land based system is different from the Submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), which, as the name implies, delivers the nuclear payload from a submarine.

The ICBMs are often housed and launched from a nuclear silo. The United States still has silos ready for launch, though they generally rely more upon SLBMs. With that said, North Korea moves their ICBMs (often under the cover of darkness) to launch pads. Launch pads can be problematic, as you can’t fuel up the missiles before transporting them—which means you have to fuel them on the pad itself. They have to fuel their ICBM out in the open, vulnerable to air strikes, and wait until the missile is ready to go. DPRK controls these missiles with the Strategic Rocket Forces, otherwise known as the Missile Guidance Bureau, of the North Korean military.

An SLBM during launch | Wikimedia Commons

There are four phases in launching and delivering a nuclear payload via ICBM: the boost phase, the post-boost phase, the midcourse phase and the terminal phase (reentry).


This is the launching part. The engines fire and the missile goes from ground level to approximately 90-125 miles up in the air. During this stage, the missile is still all in one piece, gaining altitude and readying itself to break apart and begin its targeting process.

Interception: Ideally, an enemy country would take out the missile in this phase. The missile is all in one piece, and they don’t have to worry about attacking decoys, multiple warheads in some cases, and they can even just bump it off course. Weapons designed to attack missiles in this stage are generally able to do so due to the tracking of the missile’s exhaust, as it must put out an immense amount of heat in order to reach high altitudes. The window of opportunity is small here, as the entire process generally takes from 3-4 minutes.