The failed launch of North Korea's Unha-3 space launch vehicle, alleged by many to be cover for a long range ballistic missile test, the successful test of India's Agni-5 missile, which gives India the ability to strike high value targets throughout China, South Korea's testing of a cruise missile able to strike targets covering all of North Korea, and the recent release of satellite imagery showing continued work in central China on bases for the DF-31 and DF-31A long-range missiles, all underscore that Asia appears to be in the midst of a fully-fledged ballistic missile arms race.
The world's attention has been especially gripped by the Unha-3 and Agni-5 launches.
What do they tell us about North Korea's and India's strategic capabilities and future intentions?
The first point we might focus on is whether the Unha-3 launch, Pyongyang stated that the purpose was to deliver the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim il Sung, was in fact a long-range ballistic missile test.
North Korea has tried to follow all the protocols that any self-respecting space power should abide by. This included announcing the intended flight profile of the Unha-3 space launcher and the designated splashdown zones for the first, second and third stages of the rocket. This is done, in the case of the flight profile, through what is called a NOTAM (notice to airmen).
The North had stated that the Kwangmyongsong-3 would be placed on a near polar orbit. A North Korean news report had quoted, however, a senior space program official as stating that in fact the Kwangmyongsong-3 would be placed in a sun-synchronous orbit. The discrepancy, it has been widely reported, suggests that the North messed up their own spin and thereby only succeeded in putting their cover story into orbit.
However, it is possible to use physics to appreciate the difference between an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) test and a legitimate satellite launch. The North Koreans say they wanted to place the Kwangmyongsong-3 into a 500km low earth orbit. The ballistic flight profile of an ICBM test and a satellite launch of the type announced by Pyongyang differ markedly, as does the respective burn times. Because the Unha-3 crashed and burned so early in flight, reaching an altitude of around 40km after approximately 100 seconds of powered flight, it is not really possible to discern which of the two descriptions is more accurate. Furthermore, the actual splashdown of the Unha-3 was well short and due east of the designated first stage splashdown zone.
We are unable, as a matter of science, to definitively distinguish between the two in the case of the Unha-3 using telemetry alone. Notice, however, that most commentary simply assumes that it was a ballistic missile test. In fact, the previous satellite attempt, the Unha-2 launch, was a third stage failure. The splashdown of the first and second stages of the Unha-2 was consistent, though not perfectly so, with the preannounced splashdown zones and so the flight profile of the Unha-2 was in sync with a satellite launch.
The last point is worth mentioning for the Unha-3 was basically all but the same rocket as the Unha-2. The third stage, the main difference between the two, was a bit larger for the Unha-3 because the flight path was different, in order to avoid over flying Japan, which meant that the Unha-3 was not able to take advantage of the earth's rotation to gather velocity as had the Unha-2.
It should be stressed that the Unha-3 third stage is powered by a cluster of vintage Soviet SS-N-6 sea launched ballistic missile steering engines, which means that the third stage would not be able to deliver a 1,000kg first generation nuclear warhead to intercontinental range, but it could deliver a lightweight satellite and park it at a 500km orbit.
To deliver a nuclear warhead the Unha-3 would need to be modified. Doubtless a successful launch would have provided useful information for the North's missile programme, however because the failure occurred so soon after launch the Unha-3 really wasn't of much assistance.
There are not sufficient grounds to conclude that the Unha-3 launch was a covert ballistic missile test. Any analysis that suggests so, and any international political reaction that assumes so, should be treated with scepticism.
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