Modeling the Threat

Even the most ‘in the know’ intelligence analysts would give almost anything for the chance to tour a North Korean ballistic missile launch facility. But thanks to the work of Nathan Hunt and 38North.org, anyone with an internet connection can take a virtual stroll through one of the most restricted and secretive places on Earth.

Using 3-D computer imaging and information gathered from every image publically available, Hunt has virtually reconstructed the North Korea’s Sohae Missile Launch Facility. First unveiled in July 2013, the model has recently been enhanced to include even greater detail and will soon include other parts of the facility.

“This path involved taking much more time to painstakingly review every photo and video available, taking [still shots] from videos to draw dimensions for parts, and modeling these parts to match those specs in true detail,” says Nathan Hunt, chief architect of the Sohae panorama. Indeed, the new detail on Hunt’s model is truly remarkable, down to every railing, ladder, and cross beam on the launch tower. The model provides a 365 degree view of every part of the tower and Taepo-Dong 2 missile.

The work, however, is always in progress according to Hunt. “As I come across more photos, I use these new glimpses to enhance the accuracy of the reconstruction…I rate my reconstruction as being at 98% accurate on sections, but the tower is constantly changing, so I am consistently reworking parts and details.”

Far beyond just a novelty for the curious, Hunt aims to provide researchers with a tool that can be used to help gauge the state of the DPRK’s ballistic missile program and capabilities. “It’s one thing to look at satellite imagery” says Hunt, “and another to be able to combine both satellite imagery and 3D renderings to view those changes in detail that have been done at a site at ground level and see the scope of facilities in real time.”

Hunt says he is continuing to expand the Sohae panorama. “Currently, I am continuing work on the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in North Korea, modeling the main launch pad as well as other facilities around the site.”

Changes to the tower at Sohae and its surroundings is perhaps as good an indicator as any of the level of activity in North Korea’s missile program. Hunt remarked “since I have started this project (in 2012), the launch tower itself has seen six major overhauls.” Based on recent upgrades, analysts have contended that North Korea may be preparing for a test launch of missiles larger than the Taepo-Dong 2, the longest range missile North Korea has tested. These upgrades include increasing the height of the tower itself, and widening of the road leading to the tower.

“The accelerated pace of upgrades to Sohae facilities,“ says Hunt, “indicates that the North is rapidly expanding their development and testing capabilities, both in the handling of larger size booster rockets and for handling and collecting data from such tests. These steps point to the idea that the North is setting the stage for a new expanded testing regime for their new generation of long-range ballistic missile systems.”

The enlargements at Sohae could be preparations for a potential flight test of North Korea’s KN-08 missile, believed to be North Korea’s latest attempt at a long range ballistic missile capable of reaching U.S. territory. A flight test of the missile has been anticipated for over a year, and analysts at 38North.org contend that the North Korea conducted a series of KN-08 engine tests earlier this year.

Predicting exactly when North Korea will perfect its long range missile technology is a snipe hunt. What we can be sure of is that North Korea’s ambitions to build a road mobile, nuclear capable ballistic missile remains unabated. What we can predict about the North Korean regime is that it will surprise us. North Korea’s invasion of the South in 1948, its test of the TD-2 long range ballistic missile and subsequent “satellite launch,” and its three nuclear tests all came as strategic shocks to the world. North Korea is predictable in its unpredictability.

The Obama Administration has shown tremendous discipline in maintaining its doctrine of “strategic patience” towards the DPRK, but the North appears undeterred from pursuing its course of WMD development. Many tools are necessary to address this threat, including strict enforcement of non-proliferation regimes such as the Missile Technology Control Regime, and reinvigoration of counter-proliferation efforts such as the Proliferation Security Initiative. What is also needed is a robust missile defense, both regional and homeland, to hedge against the strategic uncertainty North Korea provides, to deter it from further investments in ballistic missile technology, and to defend U.S. and allied territory should all other measures fail.

See the Sohae Satellite Launching Station Panorama.

By: Ian Williams 

One thought

  1. The facility and supporting work on a gantry has extremely limited value for informing / constraining expectations of underlying missile programs. Watching such efforts and drawing conclusions is an engraved invitation for your adversary to lead you down the garden path of their deception program. (It’s humiliating and wrong-headed to make vast investments / huge decisions on the basis of limited / tenuous information without gaming alternatives; recall the ‘Slam Dunk’ WMDs call that cost us Trillions and over 4000 war dead.)

    On 12/12/2012, North Korea demonstrated a real capability via placing 400-600kg (payload, debris and empty third stage) in a semi-sun synchronous polar orbit via a large and inefficient plane change. This is a real ICBM class threat via the first 2 stages of the Unha; flight tested capability with relevant payload.

    On several occasions North Korea has indulged in parading poorly conceived missile mockups on Chinese trucks through the square in Pyongyang. Considering such unflown missile mockups as an immediate or credible threat is a stunning failure of judgment for both the responsible analysts and the decision making authorities using such work. Building ICBM airframes is a national priority effort lasting a decade or more with extensive flight testing for every nation (Soviet, US and Chinese) that built an ICBM force. Accepting the paraded articles as having credibility was a stunning analytic failure by the responsible ‘analyst’ and significant rescrubs of all such work for sources, missile models, and design experience input is indicated. Fundamentally; given the inherently small design margins of viable designs and energetics of propellant systems; any unflown long range missile is a mythical creature and deserves the same respect afforded to elves, fairies and unicorns. In the event that North Korea determines to launch a Musadan or a ‘KN-anything’ with hypergolic propellants off a TEL; I hope their leadership is appropriately downwind to enjoy the prompt BFRC.

    As to the overall mythical expectations of mobile long range missiles from North Korea doing things that neither the Soviets or the US did; the most likely hypotheses from competent open source analysis considers those missiles a “bluff”. See “Characterizing the North Korean Nuclear Missile Threat”, RAND TR-1268, Marcus Schiller, ISBN: 978-0-8330-7621-2, available at http://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/TR1268.html

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