North Korean hypersonic missile tests rattle East Asia

North Korea fired off a second missile test in under a month on Friday, continuing a string of launches that has rocked East Asia and set Pentagon alarm bells ringing. Among the projectiles launched from both land-based pads and train cars, the Jan. 15 test from Pyongyang featured the second reported North Korean launch of a hypersonic missile. Relatively new to North Korea but well-established in other military programs, hypersonic projectiles further complicate the thorny issue of militarization on the Korean peninsula. 

Since September of last year, the Kim regime claims to have successfully tested a hypersonic missile several times. Though extremely restricted access from foreign observers and Pyongyang’s brazen reporting of its own military advances makes the process of confirming hypersonic reports more difficult, last Friday’s has been widely confirmed as such. Beyond demonstrating new hypersonic capabilities, these latest tests signal a renewed willingness from Kim Jong-un to challenge the status quo. 

Pyongyang’s demonstration shows an increased strike capability, putting it in the company of the United States, Russia and China, all of which have tested hypersonics in the past. The news that North Korea has seemingly achieved hypersonic missile technology in such a short time frame has heightened anxieties for regional neighbors South Korea and Japan.

Hypersonic missiles fly at speeds exceeding Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, covering vast distances in a matter of minutes. The three types of hypersonics all operate slightly differently but meet this same speed requirement. Despite a name that highlights their speed, hypersonics are more noteworthy for their ability to maneuver mid-flight and change course as they near their target — a feature that makes them much harder to detect and intercept. 

Intermediate and long-range ballistic missiles often travel much faster than hypersonics, sometimes reaching speeds of Mach 15. Importantly, hypersonic glide vehicles and cruise missiles do not follow the arching trajectory of conventional ballistic missiles. By staying lower to the ground, hypersonics can remain undetected by missile defense systems for much longer, giving them an advantage over faster, but more traditional, ballistics. 

Whether or not North Korea currently has the capability to update its arsenal with hypersonic technology is unclear. It is also unclear if such a missile could be equipped with a nuclear payload. Regardless, the Biden administration has pursued sanctions against North Korea and other parties it accuses of conspiring to arm the Kim regime. 

Sanctions on six North Korean nationals, one Russian national and a Russian firm associated with Pyongyang’s missile testing program aim to cut off the Kim regime’s ability to build and test new projectiles. Washington is keen to limit Pyongyang’s access to this tech, in part because of the danger it poses to Japan, South Korea and American troops stationed in both countries. While current North Korean hypersonic tech is not expected to be able to reach the United States, it is easily able to target neighboring countries and the tens of thousands of American soldiers serving there. 

When it comes to the race to develop hypersonic weapons, the United States has lagged behind China and Russia. In August 2021, Chinese military tests stunned observers after demonstrating hypersonic missile tech that used heat-seeking technology, advancements Washington wasn’t expected to reach until 2025. For the U.S. Airforce, which admits that 90% of aircraft lost since the 1980s has been taken down by heat-seeking missiles, the danger posed by hypersonic, low-flying heat-seeking projectiles is evident. 

Russian advances in hypersonic tech are less flashy but nonetheless significant; Moscow is still seen as the global leader when it comes to hypersonic projectiles. President Vladamir Putin has touted Russia’s new hypersonic missile Zicron in a number of tests, one of which was held in the Russian Arctic. Revealed in 2018, Zircon joins other existing Russian hypersonic weapons to make up a significant arsenal for Putin at a time when tensions with the West over Ukraine are at dangerous levels. 

That leaves the United States woefully behind in the race to develop hypersonic capabilities. As Russia, China and even North Korea make progress in their respective programs, Washington continues to drag its feet when it comes to this new technology. The United States ran a successful hypersonic test in late September last year — the first such test in over five years. Even so, American tests have been slow to start and do not compare to strategic rivals who have years of research and development on American programs. Washington’s focus on aircraft carriers as the primary means of projecting power around the world now seems shortsighted; a carrier group will come into range of hypersonic missiles long before carrier fighter groups can launch their own strikes. 

Under Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden, money has been channeled to hypersonic programs and million-dollar contracts for military contractors Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman. Whether or not this funding can close the gap between the United States and its adversaries when it comes to emerging hypersonic weapons technology will become clear in coming years. If nothing else, the recent North Korean tests should serve as a long-overdue wakeup call to Washington. 

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