North Korean Missile Hwasong-15 Could Carry Multiple Warheads to Strike U.S. Mainland

A view of the newly developed intercontinental ballistic rocket Hwasong-15 tested on November 29 is seen in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang November 30, 2017. KCNA/via Reuters

The intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) North Korea fired in the early hours of Wednesday is the country's biggest and most powerful yet, the size of its nose cone suggesting it could hold multiple warheads.

A careful review of the 42 photos and video of the missile North Korean state-controlled media released on Thursday helped experts establish the new level of threat the rocket represents.

The ICBM, named Hwasong-15, flew at a higher altitude (2,800 miles) and for a longer time (53 minutes) than its predecessor Hwasong-14 fired in two tests in July, despite being launched in the same so-called "lofted" trajectory that shoots the missile nearly straight up into space to avoid it hitting other countries.

Today's DPRK Missile test, launched out of Pyongsong and according to these numbers:

Note: impact location, acceleration, speed, etc. are all notional and for demonstrative purposes only. dat apogee doe

— Scott LaFoy (@wslafoy) November 28, 2017

"I'm particularly troubled by the excess capability in this missile. It can go much further than it needs to. That suggests that it is designed to accommodate even heavier payloads than whatever it was tested with. The nosecone is huge," Joshua Pollack, editor of the The Nonproliferation Review and a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies tells Newsweek.

"These two observations suggest that they may already be thinking ahead to putting multiple warheads on a single missile," he added.

A South Korean missile experts shared a similar assessment: "North Korea seems to have designed the protection cover of the re-entry vehicle in consideration of a possible multiple warhead system," Chang Young-keun, a missile expert at Korea Aerospace University, told South Korean news agency Yonhap.

"The missile is big, and bad news," Michael Elleman senior fellow for missile defence at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote on Twitter sharing his preliminary assessment of the missile's characteristics published on 38North, a Washington-based North Korea monitoring project.

In his assessment, Ellaman describes the missile as a two-stage, liquid-fueled ICBM powered by a pair of engines. Basing the assessment on flight data in the immediate aftermath of the launch, Elleman was initially wary of North Korea's claim that the ICBM could reach anywhere in the U.S. mainland because the country's capacity to build a light-enough warhead remained unclear.

The heavier the warhead, the shorter the distance a missile can cover. For a North Korean missile to reach the west coast of the U.S., it'd have to carry a nuclear bomb weighing less than 350kg (771.6 pounds).

After inspecting images of the missile, he has fewer doubts. Elleman's initial calculations suggest the missile could "deliver a moderately-sized nuclear weapon" anywhere on the U.S. mainland, and it is also large and powerful enough to carry "simple decoys or other countermeasures designed to challenge America's existing national missile defense (NMD) system."

"It now appears that the Hwasong-15 can deliver a 1,000kg payload to any point on the U.S. mainland. North Korea has almost certainly developed a nuclear warhead that weighs less than 700kg, if not one considerably lighter," he added.

North Korean engineers also appear to have improved mechanisms to steer the missile and adjust its position and velocity in space, increasing the its precision.

Questions regarding its accuracy and, most importantly, the re-entry vehicle's ability to protect the warhead as it re-enters the atmosphere, persists. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will have to order more tests to answer those questions—just how many more will depend on how reliable the North Korean leader wants its new missile to be.