The Hwasong-15 (U.S. designation: KN-22) is an intercontinental ballistic missile under development by North Korea. It is the largest, most powerful missile North Korea has tested to date, and appears capable of ranging the entire continental United States.
Hwasong-15 at a Glance
Originated from: North Korea
Possessed by: North Korea
Alternate Names: KN-22
Class: Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)
Basing: Road-mobile transporter erector with detachable launch table
Length: 21-22.5 m
Diameter: 2.0-2.4 m
Propulsion: Two-stage liquid fuel
Range: 8,500-13,000 km
Status: In development
In service: N/A
North Korea flight tested the Hwasong-15 for the first time at 3:17 am (Japan Standard Time) on November 28, 2017 from a launch location approximately 30 km north of Pyongyang. The missile flew for 53 minutes, reaching an altitude of around 4,500 km before descending and landing within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The missile traveled a distance of 960 km from its launch point.1
Based on the energy required for such a high loft, one analyst has estimated that it could have travelled 13,000 km if flown on a range maximizing trajectory, putting the entire continental United States within range.2 It remains unclear, however, whether the Hwasong-15 was outfitted with a realistically weighted payload. If the missile was flown with a light or no payload, its range may be less when equipped with an actual nuclear warhead.
While it is also unclear when the Hwasong-15’s development began, it shares many technical characteristics with both the Hwasong-14 ICBM and Hwasong-12 IRBM, particularly in their shared propulsion systems. The fact that all three of these designs were tested for the first time in 2017 suggests concurrent development over the past 2-3 years. The U.S. intelligence community was aware of the Hwasong-15 prior to its maiden launch in November, according to reports, and may furthermore observed launch preparations for up to three days prior to the test. 3
|November 29, 2017||1||Flight time: 53 min; distance traveled: 950 km; apogee: 4,475 km.|
There are differing assessments as to whether the missile’s payload survived reentry. The Diplomat reported that an assessment by the CIA and NASIC indicated that the “reentry vehicle exhibited satisfactory performance during the November 29 flight test.”4 Other U.S. officials have reported that the missile broke up upon reentry.5
North Korea’s official statement on the Hwasong-15 flight test claimed that the missile can carry a “super-large heavy warhead which is capable of striking the whole mainland of the U.S.” It also noted that the missile had “greater advantages in its tactical and technological specifications and technical characteristics than [the] Hwasong-14,” referring to the ICBM North Korea tested twice in July 2017.
Initial estimates suggest the Hwasong-15 measures around 21.5 meters in length with a diameter of approximately 2 meters. This is notably larger than its immediate predecessor, the Hwasong-14.6 Some analysts have also noted the missile’s more spacious payload area. The space could potentially allow for the delivery of a larger warhead, multiple warheads, or penetration aids should North Korea develop or acquire such technology. 7
Also noteworthy is the Hwasong-15’s distinctive engine configuration. The missile appears to employ two bundled Hwasong-14 engines in its first stage.8 These engines are most likely domestic variants of the RD-250 engine, which is used in Russia’s R-36 family of ICBMs and Ukraine’s Tsyklon space launch vehicles. The absence of any external Vernier thrusters indicates the engine is gimballed, meaning the rocket’s two nozzles can rotate along two axes to control its flight path.9 This represents an improvement in terms of capability, as gimbled engines reduce the amount of thrust lost to maneuvering in boost phase, thus increasing the system’s overall range. The configuration of the second stage remains unclear. It may employ the same RD-250-type engine as the first stage, or a different type entirely.
The transporter erector (T/E) truck that carries the missile, believed to be the same Chinese WS51200 logging truck used for the Hwasong-14, has been modified with an additional ninth axel to accommodate the missile’s larger size.10 The erector also has a different arm configuration. Whereas the Hwasong-14 uses a single central heave arm, the Hwasong-15 uses two heave arms on either side of the erector.11 It is difficult to confirm how many of these vehicles North Korea has at its disposal, but some estimate the number to be no more than six.12 This would greatly limit the size of missile salvo North Korea could muster during a conflict.