North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un is seen alongside the newly developed intercontinental ballistic rocket Hwasong-15. Photo: Reuters via KCNA

The intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that North Korea fired on Tuesday probably used a ‘very small payload’ that lightened it to increase it’s range, according to analysis posted on Wednesday by 38 North, a respected website dedicated to analysis of North Korea.

The assessment by noted rocket expert Michael Elleman contradicts official statements by Pyongyang that its Hwasong-15 ICBM carried a “super-heavy warhead” that’s capable of hitting any target in the US. Though the launch demonstrates the North’s progress in developing a workable ICBM, the analyst says “a viable ICBM capable of reaching the west coast of the US mainland still remains about a year away.”

4 Soviet-design engines

Elleman notes that the higher apogee and longer flight time suggest that the Hwasong-15 is similar to a Hwasong-14 missile fired on July 28. But unlike its predecessor, he believes it has a second stage powered by four small engines derived from the Soviet R-27 missile instead of just two.

His analysis dovetails with that of post-launch findings posted by David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If the Hwasong-15 launched on November 28 had been flown on a normal trajectory, it would have reached distances perhaps as far as 13,000 km, which is reasonably consistent with the findings posted by David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists,” Elleman wrote.

But most importantly, Elleman agrees with Wright’s assessment that the Hwasong-14 and -15 missiles tested thus far likely carried very small payloads, which exaggerate the range that can be achieved with a North Korean nuclear weapon.

“Indeed, the engineering model used for this analysis indicates the missiles were tested with a 150 kg payload,” Elleman said. “It is doubtful North Korea can fashion a nuclear weapon that weighs less than 100 kg.”

Despite Pyongyang’s claim that it has mastered the intricacies of warhead miniaturization and re-entry, Elleman questions if the regime can currently build a 50 kg re-entry vehicle (not counting payload) that can survive the high temperatures and other rigors of descending into the earth’s atmosphere before striking its target. He says this casts doubt on whether North Korea’s latest ICBM can even reach Seattle.

Elleman concludes that North Korea still needs to conduct many more tests to establish the missile’s performance and reliability.

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