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North Korean Space Launch a "Wolf in Sheep's Clothing"

Posted: February 26, 2009

An armada of air, sea and space intelligence assets are being deployed above and around North Korea in anticipation of the imminent test of a 105 ft. Taepo-Dong-2 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile disguised as a satellite launch vehicle.

North Korea
Image Atlantic Council.

The timing of the test is unknown, but expected soon. Key North Korean support hardware has been spotted moving into place around the launch site and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il visited the launch facility February 25.

Iranian hardware, including possible satellite components, are part of the North Korean test. Many of the same flight test objectives for demonstrating ICBM flight and guidance can be duplicated with a space launch, where the velocity of the upper stage is allowed to reach 17,500 mph.

Obama adminstration officials say any kind of test will immediately result in strong new sanctions against the North.

"I am worried about the threatened North Korean test," Rep. Jane Harmon (D-CA) chairman of the homeland security subcommittee on intelligence and risk assessment, said in Washington February 24. "This is very serious so it is important that the administration pay keen attention to the region," she said in an NBC interview.

This illustrates the necessity of monitoring how North Korea and Iran act in tandem, as well as individually where such critical weapons developments are involved.

As an added caution, elements of the still embryonic U.S. Missile Defense System have been activated and turned over to U.S. Strategic Command for possible use during the North Korean test.

These include assets such as the massive Cobra Dane radar in Alaska, a large X-band radar in Japan, a floating X-band off Hawaii and Aegis Surveillance and Tracking destroyers in the waters off North Korea.

There are also Aegis "engagement" cruisers and destroyers with Standard missile interceptors at strategic points along the most likely ground tracks. And should the flight move onto a trajectory hostile to the U.S. or Japan, the North Korean vehicle could be shot down by an Aegis ship.

U.S. Navy crews are being trained up on potential real life scenarios to be ready for what ever North Korea does.

"North Korea has successfully launched [large] missiles in the past but the third stage has never been successful," says Harmon. "Once they are successful with a third stage they would have a missile that could reach the western U.S. This is very serious and so it is critical that this administration play keen attention to this test activity.

"This combined with an advanced missile industry and a nuclear bomb making capability, forms a North Korean recipe that is truly scary," Harmon said. "And intelligence is the key to figuring it all out."

Rarely have so many military space intelligence capabilities been brought to bear on what North Korea is up to. With the Kim regime teetering the test could be the trigger point major leadership shifts in the country.

"We are watching closely with all the assets we have," says Marine Maj. Bradley Gordon of the U.S. Pacific Command. "We have all sorts of sensors deployed around the area."

These assets, linked with control centers, can maximize the U.S. and Japanese intelligence gained from the flight when it occurs.

Air and space based intelligence assets include continuous electronic intelligence patrols by advanced U-2 aircraft flying at 70,000 ft. and EC-135 Rivet Joint type aircraft flying lower with the hope of capturing North Korean voice transmissions, specifically involved with leadership discussions and decision making regarding the launch including the countdown. Special optically equipped C-135 and P-3 aircraft are in the area to image the climbing vehicle when it does lift off.

It is possible the North Koreans could launch smaller rockets to temporarily distract American assets. This was done in July, 2006 when the Koreans were able to "penetrate seams" in U.S. intelligence capability. Defense officials say measures have been taken to avoid a repeat of that shortfall.

In space, three or four Advanced KH-11 optical and infrared spacecraft pass over the launch site about four times a day and four times at night, while imaging birds from Japan and Europe do the same.

Launch Tower
New imagery of the launch tower does not reveal a missile or space launch vehicle. Semi-buried liquid fuel storage buildings are visible. Imagery Source: DigitalGlobe.

Major U.S. Lacrosse radar imaging satellites watch the site at night, as do new European and Japanese radar spacecraft aided by powerful change detection software that can characterize differences in activity over a few hours.

Further out, two or three U.S. Air Force Defense Support Program (DSP) infrared scanning missile warning satellite continually watch the area for the flash that would signify a launch. They are now also aided by two Space Based Infrared Highly Elliptical payloads that could provide more advanced data on the climbing North Korean launcher.

With all of these assets working to characterize the North Korean launch, the U.S. will have the data necessary to decide whether to shoot it down should the long range Taepo-Dong-2 ballistic missile deviate from a space launch trajectory toward a ballistic path toward Japan or Alaska or Hawaii.

Although U.S. and Japanese military commanders have practiced that scenario, U.S. analysts doubt that will be the case. But at the least the test will provide useful experience on American command and control, courtesy of Pyongyang.

The U.S. and Japanese response will also "send a message" to the Hermit Kingdom that the U.S. takes nothing for granted in dealing with the teetering government of the ailing Kim Jong-Il.

Analysts believe the vehicle will eventually be capable of delivering a small nuclear weapon and is capable now of delivering a biological payload as a terror weapon.

The 105 ft. two stage configuration of the Taeop-Dong 2 has a range of 10,000 km. (6,200 mi.) and the three stage version has 15,000 km. range (9,315 mi.) The two stage version could also launch a 300-500 lb. class satellite.

On February 25, Kim, still frail from a stroke, visited the Musudan-ni Launch Facility that sits along the rugged central North Korean coast facing the Sea of Japan. It is the same site used for a failed test in July 2006 when the vehicle nose shroud separated to early destroying the vehicle.

"New imagery taken on February 17, 2009 provided by DigitalGlobe, shows increased activity at the Musudan-ri launch site," says DigitalGlobe. The new launch center at Tongh'ang dong on the northern west coast is not complete and so the launch site at Musudan-ri is being prepared for one more launch.

New construction at the Vehicle Checkout Building. First observed in June 2008, a 30-meter extension to the Vehicle Checkout Building and a re-grading of the turning loop suggests support to a larger rocket/missile. Imagery Source: DigitalGlobe.

The imagery was taken during the visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to China and South Korea where she outright confirmed that intelligence showed test preparations are underway, saying any flight would be "unhelpful" to the lessoning of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

"Musudan-ri is approximately 28 miles or (45 km.) kilometer) from the nearest railhead at Kilchu. Rocket components and in fact all supplies to the Musudan-ri launch site must arrive over a rough dirt road that is probably not all-weather. Large bulk supplies can be shipped from the port of Kimch'aek to a nearby wharf at Tongh-dong," says DigitalGlobe

An analysis of the site was performed with the aid of Global Security.Org.

Imagery obtained at 60 cm. (2 ft.) resolution by the DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite shows the facility to be equipped with a modern and enlarged horizontal processing facility, large static engine test stand, and launch pad itself.

Although not the type of facility the North would used as an operational war fighting base, there are indications the North Koreans are constructing such facilities for that elsewhere.

Other intelligence assists have found what appear to be hardened silos for vertical launch ICBM or IRBMS under construction elsewhere in the country.