A view of the newly developed intercontinental ballistic rocket Hwasong-15's test that was successfully launched, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. Photo: Reuters via KCNA

Michael Elleman, a US missile expert, has upgraded his assessment of a long-range missile fired by North Korea on Tuesday, saying that it is larger than first believed and may be capable of carrying decoys and other counter measures to thwart US missile defenses. The weapon could also be combat-ready as early as 2018, according to the analyst.

Elleman wrote in a Thursday post for 38 North, a website that covers North Korean affairs, that the Hwasong-15 launched on November 29 “could deliver a moderately-sized nuclear weapon to any city on the US mainland”, and is not a modified version of the earlier Hwasong-14 rocket. The analyst also believes the missile boasts a new steering mechanism that is more efficient and simpler than the methods used in North Korea’s other missiles.

Elleman, however, reiterated his previous view that further flight tests are needed to validate the Hwasong-15’s performance and confirm its ability to withstand the stresses of atmospheric re-entry.

“Additional flight tests should be performed to determine the missile’s reliability, establish its accuracy and verify the re-entry protection system,” Elleman wrote. But he added: “If low confidence in the missile’s reliability is acceptable, two or three test firings over the next four to six months may be all that is required before Kim Jong-un declares the Hwasong-15 combat ready.”

MIRV capable?

Others say that Pyongyang’s latest rocket could carry multiple warheads or MIRVs.

“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, told Newsweek.

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

A South Korean missile expert reportedly gave a similar assessment. “North Korea seems to have designed the protection cover of the reentry vehicle in consideration of a possible multiple warhead system,” said Chang Young-keun, a missile expert at Korea Aerospace University in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, told the country’s Yonhap news agency.

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