Missiles and Machining

My wife’s grandfather was a mechanical engineer. The handbook he used during the fifties include a sizeable chapter on how to correctly dimension flat belt drives for power transmission, using leather as the material of choice. When I took up the same trade half a century later, the corresponding literature had abandon leather belts, computer-controlled manufacturing methods such as CNC milling receiving much coverage instead. This simple fact is something most people would acknowledge without further questions when confronted with, but it’s impact when discussing the North Korean weapons program is rarely discussed.

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Picture of a centralised flat belt drive powering a weavery in the early 1930’s. Via Wikimedia Commons

But let’s take it from the beginning. The speed of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs have shocked a number of commentators. How could a country best known for being dirt poor and ruled by a madman be able to master some of the world’s most powerful weaponry? While understandable, this reaction overlooks three fundamental issues: the strength of the driving forces behind the program, the nature of the regime, and the technical advances which has taken place in the last decades.

It is easy to dismiss the North Korean regime as a modern-day version of Game of Thrones with Chairman Kim in the leading role. However, there is preciously little to indicate that Kim Jong-un would be mad in the sense that he is crazy. Evil, yes. Ruthless, certainly. Ruling a bizarre country, without a doubt. But in the end, his actions are sensible and valid if his main goal is the survival of himself and the regime. The fate of recently deposed dictators does give ample room for concern for those still in power. Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević died in his prison cell in The Hague during a trial lasting several years, Saddam Hussein was hanged, Hosni Mubarak was only saved by the 2013 coup by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Muammar Gaddafi was lynched in a particularly gruesome way. The fate of Mubarak also shows that even purportedly friendly autocrats should be careful to trust the US administration when it comes to having their back in the case of an overthrow attempt.

That the US supports democratic movements and that crimes against humanity are punished are certainly positive factors for anyone believing in a society based on human rights combined with law and order. However, if you happen to be a vile despot, this is bad news, and should compel you to find a solution to deter any external attempts at your ouster. For Kim, the natural answer was nuclear weapons, and the surest way of delivering them unintercepted is long-range missiles.

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An Atlas ICBM in their later form being used as a orbital launcher. Source: RyanCrierie via Wikimedia Commons

But how could Pyongyang ever afford such a venture? It is true that the state of the North Korean economy is deplorable. At a gross-domestic product of $28.50 billion, it is a mere fraction of that of its southerly neighbour, with Seoul coming in at $1.34 trillion. Perhaps more relevant is the fact that according to U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis numbers, the US economy grew from around $300 to over $500 billions (today-dollars) between 1950 and 1959, the decade when the first US ICBM was developed in the form of the SM-65 Atlas. The comparison however overlook the fact that the underlying societies are fundamentally different. The US was and is a free market economy with only a part of the GDP being available for the state to allocate, and the state having to heavily factor in public opinion when deciding on how to spend its piece of the cake. In contrast, the North Korean regime exercises control over a vastly larger relative share of the economy, and has shown that it’s prepared to starve its own population if it judges the resources to be better allocated elsewhere. If Kim judges that a nuclear deterrence placing the continental US at risk is what guarantees him from suffering Gaddafi’s fate, there is no telling how big a share of the country’s (arguably limited) resources that are routed to the program.

However, what really sets the North Korean program apart from those of the recognised nuclear weapons states of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is the fact that neither intercontinental missiles nor nuclear weapons are modern inventions any more. It is easy to forget due to their limited service numbers, but the ICBM is actually a sixty year old invention, with the fission bomb being a decade older still. That doesn’t mean that they are easy to design and manufacture, but the work is considerably easier today than in the fifties. To begin with, while the detailed designs of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles are highly guarded secrets (which occasionally does leak), many of the basic concepts are known to researchers and academics through open sources. It is also close to certain that North Korea has actively at least tried to gather non-open information through either friendly sources or espionage. As such, even if Pyongyang wouldn’t have gotten complete blueprints or complete pieces of equipment, there would still be a number of healthy pointers to direct where to focus the research for maximum effect.

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The RD-250 engines of a Soviet R-36 ICBM. The design seems to be related to the engine of the Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 missiles in the North Korean missile program. Source: US DoD via Wikimedia Commons

This is also where the radical change in manufacturing comes into play. Modern materials and high-performance alloys available on the open market makes the production of highly advanced assemblies possible. To make full use of these materials, advances in manufacturing machinery means that even small machine shops are nowadays able to produce machine parts with tolerances measured to the fourth decimal of a millimeter. Computer-aided design, CAD, simplifies the design process, and makes it possible to model both the manufacturing processes (e.g. modelling if a casting form fills up correctly) and how the final assembly will operate. It is hard to overstate the impact this has had on how complex machines are designed and manufactured. The ability to simulate the behavior of the finished machine in such varied fields as strength, aerodynamics, and heat propagation gives valuable insight into the performance that can be expected (though it should be noted that exactly modelling something as complex as an ICBM in flight is hard, and the quality of the simulations highly dependent on how skillful the engineers are). Again, suitable hardware and software are available on the open market.

No rogue state is an island, and as such it is clear that part of the know-how behind North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction has been acquired abroad, either from willing channels (state or individual actors) or through outright espionage. However, writing off the country as stuck in the fifties and hence unable to produce anything more advanced than copies of Soviet tanks is an oversimplification. It does seem like Kim Jong-un feels the nuclear-armed ICBM is of crucial importance to be able to both deter the US from forcing regime change and to give Pyongyang more room to push its own agenda on the international scene. In addition, due to the nature of the North Korean society he is free to allocate significant parts of the country’s limited resources to the military (it might in fact be argued that the allocation of resources to the military is in part to blame for the rest of country being on the verge of starvation). Most importantly, the resources allocated provide significantly larger returns on investment due to the leap in manufacturing technology and being able to base their research on cues coming from earlier successful programs. Considering all of this, the speed of the North Korean ICBM and nuclear programs aren’t necessarily out of the ordinary.

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9K33 Osa in Vladivostok

Due to the increased tension on the Korean peninsula, a short video clip showing a convoy of seven [see Edit below] vehicles travelling through a city has caused some raised eye brows.

The vehicles in question are 9K33 Osa (NATO designation SA-8 GECKO) surface-to-air missile TELARs, meaning that a single vehicle transports the missiles in their launch containers and is equipped with a radar allowing it to acquire and fire upon any targets without outside assistance. At least six of the vehicles in the convoy are Osas, the lead vehicle is too blurry for an accurate identification, and could be a command vehicle.

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9K33 Osa-AKM. Source: Wikimedia Commons/DonSimon

The video is indeed shot in Vladivostok, at the western end of Russkaya Ulitsa, at a relatively recent date. The geolocation is based on the building to the left, visible at the very beginning of the clip, which holds a V-Laser store, as well as the small kiosk in front of it.

The Google Street-view image above is from 2013, and it seems some changes has been made to the area between the road lanes.

To the right, a large building with a slightly smaller one behind it is briefly visible. This is not found on Google Street-view, but Yandex somewhat newer imagery shows it under construction. The building in question houses the Mall Druzba Center.

All in all, the location seems quite certain, and while it is hard to say for certain how old the clip is, the inclusion of Mall Druzba Center means that really old footage can be ruled out.

The location is intriguing. As mentioned, this is at the very end of Russkaya, and there does not seem to be any logical place from where the vehicles would have come, unless they have been transported to Vladivostok by rail or sea, and are now choosing this somewhat low-key road to get out from the city.

As for the presence of Osas in Vladivostok, that in itself is no reason to worry. The movement of a handful of medium-ranged SAMs is well within normal routines. However, this does constitute a small piece of a pattern of current events and troop movements on and around the Korean peninsula which on the whole do give reason for concern.

Edit 15 April 09:40 (GMT +2):

Zvezda state that three motorized infantry brigades in the Far East has moved out. The Osas could very well be related to this.

Edit 15 April 10:50 (GMT +2):

A second video clip shows the forward part of the convoy, and together the clips seem to indicate that a total 13 vehicles are included in the convoy. Eight of these are 9K33 Osa TELARs, with a further two being the 9T217 missile transporter and loader, which carries reloads for the TELARs. The last three are then some kind of unidentified BTR armored vehicles, likely being PU-12M command vehicles. This setup does make sense, as it would mean that the convoy is made up of two batteries with four TELARs and command vehicles each, though the number of 9T217 does seem a bit on the low side.

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9T217 missile transporter and loader. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Wistula

Korean Sabre Rattling

It has probably escaped no-one that things are heating up along the 38th parallel in Korea. All began when earlier this month (04.08.2015) two South Korean soldiers were wounded by landmines placed by the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea (which certainly doesn’t warrant any of those titles, except ‘Korea’). Last Thursday (20.08) the DPRK fired artillery over the demilitarised zone, DMZ for short, aiming on propaganda loudspeakers set up by the Republic of (South) Korea, which promptly answered with a few salvos of 155 mm long range artillery. This evening (24.08) there seems to have been some sort of agreement reached, but the situation remains tense. This warrants a few observations.

North Korea is quite possibly the most militarised country on the planet. A large part of its equipment, including vehicles and weapons, are old bordering on antique. This includes fighter jets developed in the 50’s and apparently tanks that saw service in WWII (if rumours about T-34’s and Su-100’s still being active are correct). Still, while the main force would rely on numbers more than quality in any renewal of fighting, there are a couple of branches that may make things nasty for the South.

170 mm Koksan self-propelled gun. This is an ex-Irani gun captured first by Iraq in the 80’s and later by US forces. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Albert F. Hunt, U.S. Marine Corps

The first is the North Korean artillery. The number of artillery pieces, calibres ranging from 3’’/76.2 mm up to 170 mm, are unknown, but is measured in thousands, possibly up to 10,000. Some of these are stationed in hardened shelters dug into the mountains along the DMZ, reportedly with pre-determined targets on the Southern side of the border, including Seoul in the case of the mighty (but slow-firing) 170 mm Koksan self-propelled gun. Added to these are a few thousand (4-5,000?) multiple rocket launchers, as well as thousands of light, medium, and heavy mortars. The lethality of these are somewhat overrated, with graphic descriptions of Seoul being levelled by a wall of fire during the first hour of a possible conflict. In practice, only the heaviest systems, 200 mm rocket launchers and the 170 mm guns, have the range to reach Seoul, and due to their size they have a very long reload time. Also, the use of fixed positions makes them easy targets for the sizeable air force and artillery units operated by South Korea and the US forces on the peninsula, the main mission of the latter being counter-battery fire. However, the sheer number and protection of these gun emplacements mean that their destruction will take time, and while a Dresden-style complete destruction of Seoul is out of the question, they will still cause considerable damage during their short life spans.

Another much reported arm of the DPRK forces is the submarine fleet, which is one of the oldest and largest in the world. It is mainly made up of old Chinese copies of the obsolete Soviet Project 633 ‘Romeo’-class diesel-electric submarines, around 20 of which are currently in service. These are then backed up by a plethora of smaller vessels of the Sang-O/Sang-O II, Yugo, and Yono-classes, which are either used for insertion of Special Forces or for “traditional” ship-hunting missions. The latter was demonstrated when a Yono-class submarine fired a torpedo that sunk the South Korean corvette Cheonan back in 2010, becoming only the third submarine to have sunk a surface vessel since the Second World War. The US Naval Institute claims that as many as 90 of these smaller vessels might be in service, but also notes that serviceability is poor and many vessels are in reserve. Yesterday (24.08.2015) South Korean sources reported that 50 submarines of unspecified classes have gone to sea in an unprecedented move, and that these make up 70% of the entire submarine force (i.e. the ROK places the number of active submarines at 71 compared to USNI’s ~110). In response, South Korea has stepped up its air patrols to try and locate the submarines.

Sang-O class submarine which ran aground while attempting to insert commands into South Korea in 1996. Source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Forces Korea

While the submarine force is severely outdated, the Romeo is largely based on a hull-design pioneered by the Germans during WWII in the form of their Type XXI coupled with early-Cold War Soviet technology, they should not be underestimated. Diesel-electric submarines are extremely quiet, and as such hard to detect. If the submarines are able to take up positions before a conflict erupts, as their sheer number means that it is impossible for South Koreas 16 anti-submarine aircraft to keep track of them all. Even many of the lighter submarines feature heavy 533 mm torpedo tubes, being able to load a number of different Chinese and indigenous torpedoes, including wake-homing and passive/active seekers, making them extremely deadly if they can lie silently in ambush and wait for a target to pass by, as was evident in the case of the sinking of the Cheonan.

All in all however, the South Korean armed forces should be able to make up for their smaller size by vastly more modern equipment and training. There are uncertainties, such as the morale of the conscripts serving long times in remote (and unpopular) locations, and the whole system of conscription has been questioned. Still, in a fight for the survival of the country, one would assume that morale would not be an issue.

The big problem with Korea is that it is next door to China. And that there are a considerable number of US troops in the country. As was evident in 1950, while China might not be overjoyed by the seemingly dicey behaviour of their neighbours in Pyongyang, they vastly prefer it to having an US ally on the border. In fact, the response during the Korean War was so strong, it was one of the very few instances since the Second World War in which an US force have been decisively beaten on the battlefield. Still today, it is hard to imagine Beijing letting Pyongyang fall, no matter their opinions of Kim Jong-un and his regime.

Obviously, there is also the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons. They don’t have many, but even a single warhead aimed at Seoul, or any other target on the peninsula for that matter, would in a stroke transform the conflict. Some have stated that the treat of the US nuclear arsenal and a retaliatory attack by Washington makes this option unlikely, but I am less than certain. To begin with, Obama has so far proved to be a leader that likes to err on the side of caution in matters of foreign policy. Also, whether there would be a popular opinion in the US supporting even a defensive nuclear war on the Korean peninsula is highly dubious, especially with the possibility of the Chinese being dragged into it with their nuclear arsenal.

It might however be that Washington has no choice. With the amount of US troops in the area, there is a very real risk that they will be dragged into the fighting, and suffer casualties, before Obama even has time to gather his aides to discuss the war.

There are also a couple of interesting developments in the general area, none of which are by themselves really worrying, but they deserve to be taken into consideration:

  • China has apparently moved PTZ-89 tank destroyers to the border. These are specialised vehicle, featuring light armour but powerful guns, meant to take out massed tank units,
  • China and Russia are conducting a joint marine/naval exercise in the area, the highlight of which will be a joint amphibious and air landing,
  • The US Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, normally features the sole US aircraft carrier to be permanently forward based, i.e. having a non-US homeport. Currently, we are in the short window of time where no such carrier is in place, as the USS Georg Washington (CVN-73) which has been homeported in Yokosuka since 2008, has left Japan for San Diego. She arrived in the US two weeks ago (10.08), and her replacement, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) has yet to leave for Japan. In other words, the US forces that rapidly could take part in a conflict in Korea is missing the equivalent of a decently sized (larger than Finland’s) air force,
  • An explosion occurred late yesterday at the US Army base close to Yokosuka, Camp Zama. While the reason behind this latest incident is unclear, a suspected attack on the base by Japanese extreme-leftist was investigated earlier this year. This incident also places further strain on the relations between local Japanese authorities and the US forces in Japan,
  • This was followed by a huge fire at a nearby steel plant, which closed Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.