North Korea Demonstrates Ability to Strike U.S. Mainland on Short Notice: Hwasong-18 Brings ICBM Program Into New Phase

On December 19 the North Korean state run Korean Central Television aired footage of an intercontinental range ballistic missile (ICBM) launch which had occurred the previous day, with this confirming that the previously unknown projectile fired from the vicinity of Pyongyang at 8:24 a.m. had been a Hwasong-18 missile. This represents the third test firing of the missile, with the first having occurred on April 13 and the second on July 12. All three tests having been successful and demonstrated that the Hwasong-18 has the range needed to strike targets across the continental United States. The intensity of testing indicates that the missile is being priorities for entry into service potentially by mid-2024. Although it is North Korea’s fourth class of road mobile ICBM to have entered service since 2017, when the first two the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 were both successfully tested, the Hwasong-18 has represented a landmark in the East Asian country’s efforts to improve its nuclear retaliatory capabilities due to its use of a solid fuel composite – where the preceding three models were all liquid fuelled. 

Solid fuelled missiles can be stored fully fuelled and require significantly less preparation time before launch, which is particularly valuable due to their deployment from mobile transporter erector launcher vehicles to provide survivability through high mobility. Such missiles pose much greater challenges to U.S. and other adversary air units seeking to neutralise them. Where North Korea was previously able to synthesise liquid fuel for prior ICBMs domestically, it is uncertain whether the solid fuel composites for its newer missiles are also fully indigenous. The nature of Hwasong-18’s propulsion system requires it to be  launched from a massive canister mounted on a transporter erector launcher, which the missiles exit with a soft launch system. For North Korea the ability to strike the U.S. mainland remains of fundamental importance to the country’s security, with the United States having come close to launching nuclear strikes against it under the Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Trump administrations and strongly considered initiating unprovoked conventional attacks under the Clinton, W. Bush and Obama administrations. The ability to retaliate to possible attacks with strikes on American cities is seen as one of the surest guarantees of Korean security. Modernisation of the North Korean arsenal comes as the United States is increasingly struggling to develop and finance its first new ICBM in over 50 years, with tremendous difficulties and cost overruns raising the significant possibility that the Pentagon will need to abandon this arm of its nuclear triad altogether