North Korea released dozens of photos Thursday of the Hwasong-15, a new intercontinental ballistic missile it claims can reach any target in the continental US. The AP reports the photo dump, published in the paper and online editions of the ruling party's official daily, is a gold mine for rocket experts trying to parse reality from bluster. Their general conclusion is that it's bigger, more advanced, and comes with a domestically made mobile launcher that will make it harder than ever to pre-emptively destroy. But there's a potentially major catch: It might not have the power to go much farther than the West Coast if it's loaded down with a real nuclear warhead, not a dummy like the one it carried in its test launch on Wednesday. Here's a closer look:
- The Missile: The new missile appears to be significantly bigger than the Hwasong-14 ICBM tested twice in July. It dwarfs North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who stands about 5 feet 7 inches tall. Size is important because a missile targeting the US would have to carry a lot of fuel.
- The Launcher: North Korea boasted that the Hwasong-15 was fired from a domestically made erector-launcher vehicle. The photos back that up. Being able to make its own mobile launch vehicles, called TELs, frees the North from the need to get them from other countries, like China, which is crucial considering the tightening of international sanctions that North Korea faces.
- The Payload: North Korea claims the Hwasong-15 can carry a "super-heavy" nuclear payload to any target in the mainland US. But the heavier the load the shorter the range. Michael Elleman, a leading missile expert, has suggested that Hwasong-15's estimated 8,100-mile range assumes a payload of around 330 pounds, which is probably much lighter than any real nuclear payload the North can produce.
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