Thursday, July 06, 2006

A short bit on the Taepodong II missile we've all heard so much about

As far as I'm aware, this is the first article that discusses both the physical characteristics of the missile (and how they even got that info I have no idea) and it's strategic capabilities. It's very enlightening.

Information made public thus far indicates the missile the North Koreans have sitting on a launching pad has two stages, is liquid-fuelled, and, according to South Korea's National Intelligence Agency, weighs around 66 tonnes. US Vice-President Dick Cheney, not someone who habitually minimises security threats, has said Pyongyang's missile capabilities are "fairly rudimentary" and has expressed doubts the Taepodong II can reach the US.

Assuming the missile does in fact weigh 66 tonnes--and assuming it is powered by a Scud-like, low-efficiency motor, and the North Koreans do not have access to lighter airframes (fabricated from aluminium rather than steel)--Ted Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has made the following calculations:

If it is a two-stage missile, the Taepodong II will not be able to reach the US, and will not be able to carry more than a small payload. If it is a three-stage missile, it will probably be able to reach the US and will be able to carry a payload of roughly 320kg to 360kg.

Unless North Korea has managed to miniaturise its nuclear warheads--a most unlikely possibility--even a three-stage Taepodong II will be unable to carry a nuclear warhead, said Prof Postol, a former scientific adviser to the chief of naval operations. Its warhead will probably weigh around 450kg to 900kg, he said--too big to fit in the Taepodong II, as currently configured.

In addition, the missile is liquid-fuelled, he pointed out. Given the corrosive and unstable nature of the fuel, the missile has to be fired within days of being fully loaded. The Taepodong II is not designed to be kept fuelled for years, hidden in silos. And it is certainly not mobile, for mobile long-range missiles require solid-fuel propellants.

The bottom line: The Taepodong II cannot be launched without first being rolled out onto a launching pad and fuelled. And it cannot be fired without US satellites getting wind of the fact in advance.

Very interesting. What this article tells us is that the missile N. Korea has (and any it is likely to have in the near future), has nowhere near the capabilities we so feared. I do believe this changes the game somewhat. We are a lot farther away from any potential nuclear holocaust, even if by only a decade or so. That does give us some breathing room. It also lends credence to the idea that N. Korea is merely shaking things up to get some attention.


Xanthippas said...

I think the imminency of the threat has been greatly over-estimated. That is, the threat to us at least. It shouldn't take self interest in not getting nuked to get us involved, and waiting for that only makes it likely that the hawks among us will be able to scare people into thinking we need to bomb North Korea first, and ask questions later. Unfortunately, the only people running the show in the White House are either hawks, or completely disinterested.

Nat-Wu said...

They're also missing an opportunity. Despite the way N. Korea is often portrayed, they have shown that they are willing to negotiate when it comes to getting what they want. That's usually because their state is on the edge of collapse and they absolutely need humanitarian aid to keep it going. If they know that having nuclear missiles won't, in the end, benefit them greatly, perhaps they're willing to trade some of that power for food or other aid. It might just be worth it to make a deal.

Then again, Kim Jong Il does seem to be plain crazy, so I don't know.