Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Limits of Technology

From today's Financial Times, a dose of reality concerning Tuesday's North Korean missile test. As the the paper reminds us, Pyongyang has a long way to go in mastering ICBM technology. The TD-2 that was test-fired yesterday fell apart after only 40 seconds in flight, underscoring the current limits of North Korean expertise in missile engineering.

The good news? Pyongyang is trying to build an ICBM on the cheap, using 50s-era SCUD technology. Unfortunately, Kim Jong-il is absorbing the same lesson that Saddam learned during the first Gulf War--there's only so much you can do with a missile airframe designed to fly relatively short distances. Trying to increase the range--by extending the missile body, reducing the payload and boosting fuel tanks and engines--places severe stress on the design, and greatly increases the chances for catastrophic failure.

In fact, the odds of producing a viable ICBM from a basic SCUD design are somewhat remote. But necessity is the mother of invention, and in Pyongyang's case, SCUD technology is available and affordable, so Kim Jong-il's rocket scientists have steadily pursued that option for fielding the DPRK's first long-range missile.

The bad news? If the TD-2 doesn't pan out, the North now has access to a better design, via the transfer of SS-N-6 technology from Russia. The SS-N-6 clone (which the North Koreans call the BM-25) is classified as an intermediate range missile, suitable for targeting Europe from a launch site in Iran, or hitting Guam or Hawaii from the DPRK. It was designed to carry a nuclear warhead, although Russia insists that the designs acquired by Pyongyang lack that capability. If you believe that, perhaps I could interest you in a bridge in Brooklyn.

The BM-25 is a slightly newer missile, and (at least in theory) more easily adaptable as an ICBM. But even a "stretch" BM-25 would have its limits; the missile would still be relatively inaccurate (and capable of carrying only a small payload), but it's better than the "Super SCUD" option Pyongyang has been working on. Indeed, Israeli intelligence reports that Iran has already acquired the BM-25, and other North Korean clients may purchase the missile as well.

More disturbingly, Tuesday's launches also prove that Pyongyang has mastered short and medium-range missile technology. There were no apparent malfunctions among the SCUDs and NO DONGS fired yesterday, and those missiles form the backbone of North Korea's missile force. By some estimates, Kim Jong-il may have as many as 700 missiles (most of them SCUDs), capable of targeting all of South Korea, as well as portions of Japan. The NO DONGS, with a range of roughly 700 miles, can target all of Japan, and U.S. bases on Okinawa. North Korea's ICBM threat may still be a few years away, but the threat from short and medium-range missiles is mature, and very real. That's a compelling reason to continue our investment in theater ballistic missile defenses, for ourselves--and our allies.

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