North Korea this week tested what state media called a hypersonic hovering missile, a sophisticated weaponry that is said to be the nation’s latest technological advance in nuclear power and could be factored into the strategic balance.
Here are some questions and answers about North Korea’s technology and capabilities:
– What is a hypersonic missile? –
Hypersonics are defined as being able to travel at speeds of at least five times the speed of sound – Mach 5, or more than 6,100 kilometers (3,800 miles) per hour.
In addition to their speed, they can maneuver in mid-flight, making them much more difficult to track and intercept than traditional projectiles.
By reducing flight times, they also reduce the possibility of responding.
Depending on their design, they may be capable of carrying nuclear or conventional warheads only, and have the potential to shift the strategic balance.
– Who has them? –
Russia is so far widely regarded as the world leader in technology, developing a range of new hypersonic weapons that President Vladimir Putin has called “invincible”.
In July, he successfully tested the Zircon, a hypersonic missile launched by a ship traveling at seven times the speed of sound.
It already has Avangard hypersonic glide vehicles and air-launched Kinzhal (Dagger) missiles in its arsenal.
Russian officials say the Avangard hit a breakneck speed of 33,000 kilometers per hour during testing.
Others are looking to catch up: Washington is spending billions on several research programs and this week said it has successfully tested a Raytheon-built hypersonic air-launched missile that has reached “greater than Mach 5” speed.
China has also tested hypersonic glide vehicles, according to the US Congressional Research Service, which says Russian and Chinese hypersonic systems are designed to be equipped with nuclear weapons.
– What exactly does North Korea have? –
Details on the North Korean missile – the Hwasong-8 – are limited.
Pyongyang’s official KCNA news agency said the test “confirmed the navigation control and stability of the missile,” “the guiding maneuverability and glide characteristics of the detached hypersonic planing warhead,” and the motor.
He did not specify how fast it had reached, but added that it had a “bulb” fuel system, a propellant cartridge that could eliminate the need to refuel the launch site.
Ordinary liquid-fueled missiles cannot be transported with their propellant on board because their volatility makes them too dangerous.
Instead, they need to be resupplied immediately before launch, a tedious process that gives an enemy plenty of opportunities to locate and destroy them.
– Was there independent confirmation? –
Seoul has not confirmed what type of missile it was.
The United States and South Korea are security allies and have extensive radar and surveillance technology to observe the North.
The Southern Army typically detects and announces ballistic missile launches within minutes, and did so on Tuesday.
But he didn’t follow his usual practice of specifying the maximum altitude and flight distance.
Media citing anonymous sources say it reached a height of around 60 kilometers and flew less than 200 kilometers, but did not specify its speed – the crucial variable.
In a statement, the Seoul Joint Chiefs of Staff assessed it as “at an initial stage of development and will take a considerable time to be deployed,” adding that the South Korean and American military were “Capable of detecting and intercepting it”.
South Korean news agency Yonhap suggested without citing sources that he could have reached Mach 3.
– What difference would that make? –
Some experts warn that hypersonic weapons may have only limited benefits, with a Scientific American article last month saying “they are by no means a revolution.”
But if Pyongyang continues this week’s first test to fully develop hypersonic technology, “it would pose a significant military threat,” said Cheong Seong-Chang, director of the North Korea Studies Center at the Sejong Institute.
“It is reasonable to assume that the North is developing this missile with the United States in mind,” he told AFP, adding that it could be used as a bargaining chip in future talks with Washington.
Tuesday’s launch was at close range, but Pyongyang would seek to develop medium and long range capabilities in the field, he added.
“If it is developed at long range, there is no country on earth, including the United States, that can intercept such a fast missile. “
© 2021 AFP