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Musudan Could Be Operational Sooner Than Expected

17 October 2016

North Korea seems to have tested its Musudan missile seven times this year, with only a single clear success to show for it. But the North Koreans aren’t simply repeating old failures.  And they aren’t taking the slow path to developing a reliable system, with a year or so between each test to analyze the data and make improvements. That has been their practice in the past, and it is what we expected this time once they had one successful flight for the cameras. Instead, they are continuing with an aggressive test schedule that involves, at least this time, demonstrating new operational capabilities. That increases the probability of individual tests failing, but it means they will learn more with each test even if it does result in failure. If they continue at this rate, the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile could enter operational service sometime next year–much sooner than had previously been expected.


The Musudan (also called Hwasong-10) pictured during a test on June 23, 2016. (Photo: Rodong Sinmun)


There are still many unanswered questions about Friday’s test. The US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) reported that the launch had occurred near the city of Kusong and “exploded immediately after launch.” The North Koreans have not broadcast the sort of propaganda imagery that follows their successful tests, so a failed test of some sort is likely. But STRATCOM has been wrong before about exactly what sort of missile is being tested–misidentifying last month’s Scud-ER test as a trio of Nodong missiles. The Musudan is distinctive enough that it’s unlikely anyone with STRATCOM’s capabilities would mistake it for anything else, but we should still treat this report as unconfirmed.

Assuming it is a Musudan, the noteworthy difference for this test is the location. North Korea’s previous Musudan launches have been from sites associated with their Musudan-ri test facility – that’s not a coincidence; “Musudan” is our name for the missile, not theirs, given because we first saw it at Musudan-ri and didn’t have anything better to call it (the DPRK has referred to this missile as “Hwasong-10″). Musudan-ri is where North Korea keeps the engineers and technicians who built these missiles, with all of their laboratories and workshops. These are the people who figured out how to put grid fins on the Musudan when the first four tests tumbled out of control. People you want looking over your shoulder when you are launching an experimental rocket, but can’t count on being available in wartime.

Moving to a roadside near Kusong is like taking the training wheels off the bicycle, seeing if you really have mastered something new. But Kusong is on North Korea’s west coast, near Pyongyang–why such a long move? One possibility is that a west coast launch allows the North Koreans to achieve a longer range without overflying other countries. Previous tests from Musudan-ri were limited to 400 kilometers or so to avoid Japanese airspace; the North Koreans were able to partially compensate for this by using a lofted trajectory, but probably did not demonstrate the missile’s full performance in an operationally realistic manner. From the west coast, launching south, a North Korean missile could fly 3000 kilometers or more before splashing down in the Philippine Sea.

Another possibility is security. Kusong is home to several secure military sites in the province of Pyongyang, the most heavily guarded territory and airspace in North Korea. It is as close to the Musudan’s likely targets as North Korea can get while still remaining safely north of the DMZ, and so well suited to serve as the Musudan’s operational basing area. If the North Koreans were hoping to hide this test from prying eyes, moving from the east coast to the west clearly didn’t do the job for them–STRATCOM watches the whole country by satellite. But we may have just been given a clue as to where North Korea intends to base its operational Musudan force, once the field crews demonstrate that they can launch the things without factory tech support close at hand.

There is a saying in our military that amateurs practice until they get it right, but professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong. The North Koreans have just shown that they can still get it wrong, but they are still practicing.  Let’s review the scorecard. Four tests of the original Musudan configuration, all failed. Two tests of a new configuration with stabilizing grid fins, conducted with full engineering support from Musudan-ri, with one success and one partial success. And now one test in the field, a complete failure. Seven launches in seven months–a rate greater than most US strategic missile programs. After a decade of keeping it on the back burner, the North Koreans are clearly committed to the Musudan. Another seven months of training and practice could bring them to a real initial operational capability. We, and STRATCOM, will be watching closely to see when and where the next tests occur.

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13 Responses to “Musudan Could Be Operational Sooner Than Expected”

  1. o.m. says:

    What is an appropriate definition of “operational” or “initial operational capability” in this context?

    In their public statements, the DPRK talks quite a lot about war. It appears as if the DPRK goverment genuinely feels threatened by US and ROK forces. Isn’t it likely that there are contingency plans to put some sort of warhead onto these missiles and to launch them if the war ever turns hot again?

    Sure, most may explode on launch. But some may also explode on the target. Do they have enough nuclear warheads to risk them on an unreliable missile? That depends on how they view their other delivery methods.

    We certainly can’t ignore the possibility that the DPRK considers the missiles reliable enough.

  2. Clay Ramsey says:

    So I’m supposed to believe that 50 missiles were constructed without testing, to launch 50 warheads that don’t exist. All this while Plutonium supplies having long since been exhausted and even with Iranian help, enough Uranium for a bomb available every year or two (at best). Me thinks, very little need for many missiles at all. Imagine if you will, some number of SS-N-6 missiles were obtained from a supplier who were themselves unable to find a use for. The goal being to replicate the technology in a home built missile of their own. For the sake of argument, hypothetically assume all the technology found within *was* able to be accomplished domestically. At that point, tell me why said technology would be used to construct an even larger version of that very odd missile. It’s not like the SS-N-6 was brainlessly copied, the Musudan is a whole different missile, but yet it retains the same expensive, difficult to construct design that needlessly adds unnecessary failure modes, and is hopelessly difficult (and permanently restricted from) effective maintainance and check out. That just is not a believable story. Somebody wold have added a regular intertank and engine bay that you can actually get to. It’s not like it’s going to be inassessable in a submarine launch tube.

    Btw, I’m assuming the GPS being mentioned is so that you can keep track of where the launch pad is during the flight, right? I though *I* was the only one that still referred to Nitrogen Tetraoxide as NTO, I used to get chastised at work for doing that. ‘Lofted’ is an odd word to use in that context too, yet it has occurred twice (that I know of), by two different authors, hmmm. The thought of a bunch of guys bumping along the road with a fully fueled Musudan kind of makes me laugh.

  3. Lewis Franklin says:

    The first few sentences seem to set a tone that is inconsistent with the facts on the Musudan development testing process. And the first seven tests are inconsistent with your projection that “another seven months of training and practice could bring them to a real initial operational capability”. Really? Given that the Musudan is generally believed to be designed as a Nuclear weapon, would Kim put a nuclear device on a missile which has failed catastrophically 6 times out of 8 in the first few seconds of flight. Without a Nuclear warhead, a much smaller CEP would be needed which has yet to be established. Since the 7 & 8th October flight attempts failed very similarly as the first 4, there must be a root set of design flaws that have yet to be identified and fixed or redesigned. These root causes have inevitably resulted from the flawed DPRK military missile development plan of not having an integrated system testing process; of focussing on the earliest manufacturing schedule to participate in Pyongyang parades and cameo peeks of missiles TELs apparently deploying; and not developing an instrumented flight test-range and rocket instrumentation strategy and capability. By comparison, the civilian-led UNHA SLV program, which has no production-manufacturing or with no deployment needs, has two dedicated test ranges (Tonghae & Sohae) with well equipped shops and staging areas and a permanent computerized launch control center with radar tracking, rocket telemetry and GPS to monitor the launch progress. Why did the DPRK not take advantage of either of these? In fact the first and only No-dong tested was launched in 1993 from what is now called the Tonghae Space center — ironically the first western name given to this facility was the Musudan Launch Pad for the Unha-2 failed satellite launch. But no part of the Musudan missile was developed or tested here except for launching the Unha 2, which has a second stage with some similarities, possibly use of the fuel/oxidizer of UDMH/NTO, to the Russian SS-N-6/R27 and the Musudan.

    To better understand how their simplistic testing program might have led to the high failure rate, the following is my synthesis of missing facts about the first six tests. The first 4 Musudans were transported from their depot by train and loaded on their TELs and driven (or barged) to a military base on the Kodo Peninsula (ref 1) North of Wonsan, 250 km South of Tonghae, a rural farming and fishing area with a small military base that was discovered by Jeffrey Lewis (38 North, Oct.21, 2016) to be the testing base for KN-02 launches in 2014, which Kim attended. Subsequently this base had a major expansion in 2015, adding a large drive-on pier to a small island in Wonson Bay and constructing a paved road/causeway connecting directly to the KN-02 launching area of the base. A large blue-roofed garage-like building (~27 x 16 m) was built in the nearby small base headquarters area, probably in anticipation of the upcoming Musudan program. A semi-circular concrete possible launch pad was also build closer to the beach, and connected with an un-paved road to the Garage. Finally, a new connecting road was build from the causeway into a large fenced area that connects to a U-shaped paved concrete road that could serve as a launching pad for the Musuden TEL. There are also numerous rectangular concrete pads found scattered along the Kodo peninsula beaches the base and to the South end of the peninsula, which become somewhat camouflaged by blowing sand. The first 4 Musudans were probably launched from several of these simple concrete pads or roads, and probably supported by sparse facilities that previously conducted KN-02 missile tests. After these four failures, which were likely attended by Kim, it must have been recognized that the causes could not be determined without a change in venue with better technical support and facilities. There has been no released DPRK reporting on these failures.

    A top level decision was made to move the testing program to the Wonsan Kalma International Airport, where there is a large presidential private Hanger and terminal, both adjacent to the beach. Construction of two concrete pads was detected in commercial imagery in late May on the beach at the end of a road leading to the Hanger. The first Kalma launch, again a failure at lift-off, occurred on 31 May, from the SE pad, based on commercial imagery in June which showed rocket debris surrounding the pad amid a cleanup effort. The next 2 launches were conducted on 22 June two hours apart using both pads. Both Musudan’s were successfully launched, the first flew an unknown trajectory but incurring an reported explosive failure 200 km downrange, and the second flew a lofted trajectory of 1400 km apogee and impacting 400 km downrange. This latter missile was the subject of a video using photos taken during the emplacement onto the concrete pad, with a view of several seaward islands that allowed confirmation that the launch was from the Kalma beach; showing Kim and his lead Generals directing the preparations; showing the hydraulic piston on the TEL erect the Musudan; and finally showing the full ignition sequence and early flight of the missile from numerous vantage points. What’s missing are the missile fueling activity, suggesting that the missile is pre-fueled before being driven to the launch pad, or maybe at the factory, similar to the procedure used by the Russians on the R-27.

    As the missile slowly rose clear of the TEL, the grid fins could be seen, but it is not known whether they were added to correct some problem in the previous failures ; my guess they were present on all the test firings, as their potential improvement in dynamic stability doesn’t kick in until higher velocities are reached, which the previous failures never reached. Crude sheetmetal flame skirts surrounding the TEL’s tires were in place, but only partially containing the rocket exhaust, and as the missile rose, the tires and underside of the TEL were on fire, probably leading to destruction of the TEL based on post launch commercial imagery of the launch pad. This is suggestive of a design flaw in not accounting for the higher flame temperature of the Musudan propellant compared to the Nodong which uses a similar smaller TEL but has a less energetic propellant. The video also showed images of Kim in a field tent with computer screens showing simplistic data of the flight, including several missile telemetry channels, and a distance vs altitude planned trajectory screen plot superimposed with the changing flight progress parameters. The predicted trajectory in red is similar to the in-flight trajectory ending at a red dot, probably burnout. A celebration seems to be taking place at about this time. A colored map on the table shows the coastal area of Wonsan and the North Korean East coast to Russia and covers the Sea of Japan and Japan to the East. A narrow red colored sector about 4.3 degrees in width and centered on an a azimuth of ~76.4º suggests the second missile’s approximate launch azimuth if not both. What’s missing here is is any indication (a video?) of the RV surviving reentry or impacting in the ocean near a moored barge target. The launch monitoring facilities shown still seem sparse, with the video of mostly photos showed Kim in a tent with three simple computer screens on the map table. Kim’s guests at his side in the tent are senior uniformed military, with several others in military fatigues, probably neither the launch crew nor civilian engineers. It is doubtful that this is the basic military control center to deploy, target, evaluate weather, fuel, initiate and follow a countdown of the TEL, Musudan and RV and give a final launch command. Or, such a capability doesn’t exist yet, and the system is nowhere near to IOC, only ready for Youtube Show and Tell internationally.

    Postscript. While preparing this for submission to the comments, two additional Musudan launches occurred 5 days apart on October from near the Kusong military airfield, ~120 km NNE of Pyongyang and ~40 km from the West coast. A distinctive feature of Kusong is that the runway is connected to three buried hangers by a 1.4 km taxiway, providing an ideal secure hiding place for the Musudans, and numerous concrete roadways and taxiways to use as launch pads. The significance of these two launch failures is that they must have believed that the failure problem must have been fixed after the two 23 June launch successes, but both failed at initial liftoff identical as the previous 6 failures. On the assumption that North Korea has already manufactured 50 or more Musudans now either deployed or stored in depots, which must now all be considered failure-prone and militarily untrustworthy.

  4. J_kies says:

    Now at 1 ‘success’ and 7 failures with no evidence of data collection or re-engineering to fix the causes of the failures; its hard to not view the Musudan as a political vehicle not a military threat.

    Regardless of whether the propulsion is OEM Soviet or domestic product, the ‘stretch’ of the R-27 is a flawed design. The flaws are noted from both flight dynamics (added grid fins) and wasteful application of propellant load fighting gravity losses.

    I hope they keep up the tempo of failure; eventually even the BMD fan-boys have to understand a missile that is likely less than 12% reliable to leave DPRK airspace isn’t a delivery means for unsafe nuclear weapons.

  5. Steven M Hayden says:

    What a rare moment. Kerry a diplomat actually considers a claim of DPRK.
    Kerry said “claims from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that he needs nuclear weapons to defend against the U.S. defy common sense.” They make perfect sense to all people DPRK. Travel there sometimes and learn how they think.Almost no one in state department has really visited for 65 years. Anyone expressing the DPRK point of view is usually labeled an extremist , a supporter of human right abuses ,or a traitor.
    Kerry said:
    “The United States has had the power to wipe out North Korea for years, for years. And if indeed that was out goal, we wouldn’t be sitting around waiting” while they get additional nuclear weapons, he said.
    The Truth Is: The UN already tried to destroy DPRK. Without even a declaration of war a UN “peace keeping force “bombed every house and building in DPRK without success.One third of the people were killed. Duh .The US already tried and failed.
    That is what the public talks about in DPRK. The US refuses to adopt resolution abiding by the US Constitution War powers allowing congress to declare nuclear war. “Trust me” did not work for Gaddafi or Saddam.Without nukes DPRK would be Libya part two.
    The firing of the Musudan during war games was political statement not a scientific experiment. Read KCNA and Rodong sometimes. Every argument has more than one viewpoint. Sadly you can not express that opposing arguments have any merit even in supposedly free country.

  6. Clay Ramsey says:

    A deterrent from what?

  7. Chris V says:

    The plan may be to make the Musudan missile their standard nuclear armed, land-based, deterrent. That could explain the high frequency of launches. The DPRK could want the deterrent operational as soon as possible.

    So far we’ve seen a heat shield tested that appears to be for the Musudan. Among the pictures of Jong Un with the compact device there is one diagram in the background that shows the device fitted into something similar to the Musudan’s nosecone (if it’s not meant to be the KN-08 which is probably not a workable design).

    I had always imagined the Nodong being used as the DPRK’s standard nuclear armed missile. A deterrent is no good if the other side doesn’t at least believe you have it. On the other hand the DPRK may be hyper-sensitive about any nuclear armed missile units.

    Perhaps the Musudan is meant to be a step on the way towards the eventual KN-14. I don’t believe this is all theater. The DPRK is simply putting in too much effort for me to believe these things are make believe designed to fool the world.

  8. Clay Ramsey says:

    Intentionally misunderstanding me at this point (re: 4D10) is counterproductive, I’ve got this thing nailed tight. Even though the fly-away speed would be kind of slow for a missile like that, I admit, it’s a pretty good fake and if a real version of it were ever made it should actually fly. I wonder; why build a missile for a warhead that doesn’t even exist? Ah, but when you look at this Musudan thing, it does all but scream the existence of a deliverable nuclear warhead. But alas, When you gaze upon the Disco Ball, one does become skeptical, especially when measured against the nuclear program itself. Yes, but I see now how each cleverly implies the existence of the other, but in reality neither is real, and there is no actual evidence to suggest that either are. That’s what’s missing, the credibility. Yes, faking a program like that on your enemies can be very satisfying. But don’t take it too seriously, for one, you’re assuming everyone else is. Big mistake.

    Btw, there is no ‘et al’. I swear on a stack of bibles 10 feet tall and all that is holy and good that I’m not working with anybody, It’s just me. In fact, it’s been made painfully clear that they hate me here every bit as much as there. Actually, more.

  9. John Schilling says:

    Clay, et al: The Isayev 4D10 engine definitely exists, the USSR built about 2000 of them, and produces a bit over 250 kN of sea level thrust. A stock R-27/SS-N-6 missile weighs 14,200 kg; with 2.5 meters of additional tankage that comes to about 19,300 kg. So launch acceleration of about 1.35 G, same as our early Jupiter and Thor IRBMs. Workable, but likely to scorch a TEL. And the early flight dynamics are going to be different than a stock R-27.

    For a decade or so, the North Koreans drive around Musudans without fins on an unmodified TEL, perhaps imagining they have an operational system. They test it four times, reportedly destroying at least one TEL and losing several missiles at an altitude that suggests transonic instability. Then they come back with a system that works, showing us grid fins on the missile and extra shielding on the TEL.

    I’d love a detailed radar track or telemetry from the last two launches at Musudan-ri, but I think I’m on pretty solid ground inferring that they learned something from their mistakes and have built a credible system.

  10. J_kies says:

    Dr Shilling; ‘improving’ as a result of failure is only possible if you understand why you failed. The instrumentation and telemetry necessary should show up like a rash in all remote data sources. It should appear in DPRK social media. Do we have public evidence of ANY data collection tools or exercises occurring on any Musudan tests?

    The only public ‘evidence’ I am aware of showing Musudan’s without grid fins were historic parade articles.

  11. Clay Ramsey says:

    Giving all benefit to the doubt, the engine shown for that vehicle (which you would have to believe exists in the first place) would generate no more than 64,000 lbs thrust, and that is being generous. Assuming a mass ratio of 10 for that vehicle (which is super generous!), you would need a flat pad to launch it since the launch acceleration would be extremely low. Realistically speaking, that missile is a good 5 feet too long even in a perfect world (and the acceleration would still be lower than SS-N-6). Maybe cut off another 2 feet to account for the fact that the actual mass ratio wouldn’t come anywhere near 10. If radar data shows a more traditional SS-N-6 ascent profile, the missile shown is not real and actual SS-N-6’s are being used to simulate a Musudan launch.

  12. John, how do you know that the first four tests lacked the grid fins, and they started using them at the fifth? Unfortunately, I have not seen any footage from these tests.

  13. Steven M Hayden says:

    There are still many unanswered questions about Friday’s test. Last Friday Musudan test occurred while US and SK forces attempted to intimidate DPRK with naval joint operation occurring just a few hundred miles away. The DPRK chose to launch the Musudan from Yongbyon near the symbol of their resistance their nuclear reactor that mass produces lithium deuteride for nuclear weapons. It was intended to be demonstration that they are not intimidated. They possess enough nuclear material and completed missiles that they would provoke the US to attack during a US decapitation drill. The point was to prove that neither the nuclear nor missile program will stop. They are well prepared to keep their promises for nuclear annihilation. They have enough missiles to use some on sending a message. They do not tremble. The launch triggered initial US response which will be studied by DPRK for future attack against US. After missile was launched and purposes served it was self destructed. The DPRK proved that intimidation with US naval group was counterproductive. Both the missile program and nuclear weapons program are full steam ahead.

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.