North Korea said on Friday it had successfully tested a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile, marking a major breakthrough in Kim Jong-un’s banned weapons programs.
But what exactly is a solid-fuel rocket and why does it matter that Pyongyang has one now? Here’s what we know:
What is a solid fuel rocket?
In this type of rocket, the propellant — the fuel that propels it — is made from a solid chemical mixture, which is burned to create exhaust gases.
“This propellant is thrown into the missile’s airframe when the missile is being built: imagine a fireworks rocket, ready to go,” Ankit Panda, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told news agency AFP.
In contrast, liquid-fueled rockets typically require fuel and an oxidizer to be inserted into the rocket before firing — a slower and more cumbersome process.
Why is it better?
Preparing a liquid-fueled rocket for launch “takes time, just like pumping gasoline into your car,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute.
A solid-fuel rocket can be thought of more as a “portable battery” that gives the user much more flexibility, he said.
In addition, once a liquid-fuel rocket is prepared, “it has to be fired in a short period of time — and that’s not something you have to worry about with solid-fuel rockets,” he added.
Solid-fuel rockets must be carefully stored, maintained and handled, and if not done, the rocket’s quality could deteriorate over time, causing it to fail, Panda said.
But they are generally faster to deploy and launch during a war compared to liquid-fueled missiles. This “makes solid-fuel rockets very attractive for a number of military applications,” Panda added.
So North Korea definitely has one now?
In state media footage, it’s possible to see the rocket’s exhaust plume, which is “consistent with a dirty, smoky solid propellant at work,” Panda said.
“Everything looks consistent with a successful solid fuel ICBM test,” he added.
But even if the North Koreans have one successful test of the new weapons system, it still “probably won’t be credible in any way to be deployed in meaningful numbers,” said Joseph Dempsey, a defense researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
With North Korea’s main liquid fuel ICBMs having been tested repeatedly – but only on an elevated orbit, which is not how they would be used in a real situation – important questions remain about whether they are effectively operational.
But since North Korea’s “threshold for what is effectively deployed is likely to be different from others,” the new weapon can be considered operational, even if other militaries need more testing.
South Korea’s defense ministry said they believed Thursday’s launch was simply an early test and that properly developing the Hwasong-18 would require “additional time and effort.”
“Pyongyang still faces many technical hurdles and limited resources to actually deploy the missiles it advertises in the state media,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University, told AFP.
Who else has solid fuel rockets?
Most militaries “start with liquid-fuel rocket technology first, but soon move on to acquire solid-fuel rockets, which require more advanced technology,” said Cheong of the Sejong Institute.
However, not all advanced armies deploy solid-fuel rockets exclusively.
“The United States deploys all ICBMs and SLBMs on solid fuel, but Russia and China still use large liquid-fueled missiles,” Panda said.
For its part, South Korea has the technical capability for solid-fuel rockets, and even has a few in its arsenal “but their range is limited to the Korean Peninsula,” Kim Jong-dae of the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies told me. . AFP.
Is this a game changer?
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un claims the Hwasong-18 solid-fuel ICBM will “radically advance” the country’s nuclear counter-attack capabilities, and experts say it could indeed change the security situation on the peninsula.
South Korea’s self-defense plan is based in part on a so-called Kill Chain pre-emptive strike system, which allows Seoul to launch a pre-emptive strike if there are signs of an imminent North Korean attack.
The Hwasong-18 solid-fuel ICBM would be much harder to detect, which could disrupt this preemptive strike formula — though Seoul’s defense ministry on Friday dismissed those fears as “excessive concerns.”
But if North Korea deployed solid-fuel ICBMs, it would “be a sign of a game changer in possible warfare with them,” Kim of the Yonsei Institute told AFP.
“The South’s existing plan in the event of war with the North is to pre-emptively strike and destroy the North’s missile system after signs of launch preparations are confirmed,” he said.
“But there will be no such signs as the North Koreans prepare solid-fuel rockets aimed at the south.”
Reporting by AFP