North Korea’s Missile Launches: The Unknown Knowns

One aspect of intelligence work I find fascinating – albeit frustrating – is the use of inference to identify bits of information you didn’t realize you had – what I guess would be called “unknown knowns”, in Rumsfeld parlance. (“The things we don’t realize we know”, in other words.) Something observable happens, and everyone gets really excited about the obvious aspects – so-and-so possesses the capability to do X, with a fair degree of reliability and competence, et cetera, et cetera. In amid the really obvious stuff, though, are sometimes observations that are just as valuable – and just as evident, once you start to think about them.

I’m not a maths geek or a weapons wonk, and nothing involving North Korea or missiles falls within my area(s) of expertise. (I generally avoid blogging about anything touching on my area(s) of expertise.) That said, I wonder if there aren’t some interesting inferences to be made about last week’s launch of seven ballistic missiles by North Korea.

Here’s what I know, from reading various news reports: North Korea fired four anti-ship missiles, and then a volley of seven Scud-family missiles a couple days later, all from one area on the coast. South Korean news reports seem to suggest the July 4th launches may have been intended to test improvements to the missiles’ guidance. According to the press accounts, those improvements may have been reasonably successful, as most of the launched missiles reportedly impacted reasonably close to one another.

Now, like I said, I’m not a missile wonk, but I wonder about these interpretations a bit. According to various open sources, North Korea’s various Scud-family missiles have reasonably fair accuracy for the type of missile they are – CEPs of 400-600 metres, down to a pretty respectable 50 metre CEP for the Hwasong-6. Accuracy of the Nodong/Rodong missiles has for some time been quoted as a 2km CEP at maximum range, but this seems to (intentionally?) discount an occasionally-mentioned improved (GPS?) guidance system that potentially improves the CEP down to 250m.

If I understand how inertial navigation systems work, of course they’re going to be more accurate at shorter ranges, so the South Korean interpretation of the launches doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, as demonstrating this doesn’t really prove a thing. And, as a show of force, aiming your weapons at anything less than maximum range doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, either. Isn’t the whole point to show, unequivocally, that you can hit Seoul or Tokyo?

I digress.

Anyway… where inference comes into play is this:

If you accept the “conventional wisdom” that the launches were a “response” to UN Security Council Resolution 1874, does the fact that such a response took twenty-two days to produce indicate anything about North Korea’s missile capabilities? (I don’t necessarily buy into the “response” theory, myself, and tend to think it was timed to coincide with the 4th of July holidays in the United States, but I may be in the minority view on this.)

Do the number of missiles launched indicate anything interesting? Reports seem to indicate the seven missiles launched on the 4th were of two different types – five of one variety and two of another. If you assume that each launch was from a separate TEL – that is, no TELs launched more than one missile on each of the dates in question – do the odd numbers of launches suggest technical problems? (And, if you assume the TELs were reloaded – one South Korea press report indicated the launches came about 45-minutes apart – what does the odd – literally – number of missiles successfully fired indicate? A shortage of available launchers, missiles or transport capability? A technical failure somewhere?)

I don’t like to promote conspiracy theories, but I wonder if there’s more to these launches than appears to be the case. I really don’t see a reason to fire ballistic missiles at anything less than full range, if you’re firing them as either a show of force or a technical accuracy test. I don’t want to be a victim or mirror-imaging or a faulty rational-actor hypothesis, but that just doesn’t make any sense to me.

Let’s posit some hypotheses, then: Why would you fire a bunch of missiles into the sea, at well under their supposed maximum range?

Hypothesis 1. Because you’ve bolted a much larger warhead on, and that’s actually as far as they can go.

Hypothesis 2. Somewhat obviously, you’re actually shooting at something that happens to be in the sea, there… like a U.S. submarine that was shadowing the ongoing naval exercise in the area, perhaps?

Hypothesis 3. Because these are a (new | different) type of missile than what everyone seems to assume was fired, with a much shorter range.

Hypothesis 4. You’re trying to distract international attention from something else that’s going on elsewhere.

Hypothesis 5. You’re intentionally trying to annoy and confuse armchair analysts all over the world. 🙂

That’s all I can think of, offhand.

Now, I suspect that hypotheses 1 and 3 are fairly disprovable from remote telemetry, but like I said, I’m not a weapons wonk, so I could be wrong there. Hypothesis 5 is mainly meant as humor, but I suppose it’s not impossible that the North Korea leadership really is crazy/eccentric enough to do strange stuff just to confuse the rest of the world.

That leaves us with hypotheses 2 – is it possible they were shooting at something out there in the sea? Trying to annoy a foreign submarine, perhaps, by splashing missiles down all around it? – and hypothesis 4, a distraction.

Anyone have any thoughts on those? 🙂

Published in: Geekiness, General | on July 7th, 2009| Comments Off on North Korea’s Missile Launches: The Unknown Knowns

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