How mature is PyongYang’s submarine launched missile program?

North Korea recently conducted a test of an ejection launcher that U.S. intelligence agencies assess is part of Pyongyang’s recently discovered submarine-launched ballistic missile program. Despite those alleged facts, analysts question the maturity of the North Korean missile submarine program.

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The U.S. publication said that U.S. intelligence agencies observed the land-based test of the ejection launcher in late October at a facility known to be a key development center for the communist state’s submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) program. Photo via Google Earth.

 

North Korea recently conducted a test of an ejection launcher that U.S. intelligence agencies assess is part of Pyongyang’s recently discovered submarine-launched ballistic missile program – the [ismember]Washington Free beacon[ismember][nonmember]Washington Free beacon[/nonmember] reported. “The test simulated the initial stage of boosting a missile out of a submarine launch tube and is a sign that the rogue state is moving ahead with plans for underwater missile strike capabilities for a future nuclear-tipped missile”, the Beacon quoted defense officials. The story was first aired by[ismember]38 North[/ismember][nonmember]38 North[/nonmember] website last month.

The U.S. publication said that U.S. intelligence agencies observed the land-based test of the ejection launcher in late October at a facility known to be a key development center for the communist state’s submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) program. The source speculated that the launcher also could be used by North Korea to launch ballistic or cruise missiles from the deck of a freighter or other kinds of surface vessels.

U.S. intelligence agencies several years ago reported that North Korea acquired SS-N-6 SLBM missiles covertly from Russia. That missile was adapted by the North Koreans into a new intermediate-range ballistic missile. The missile was designed to be ejected from a submarine launch tube prior to ignition.

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38 North analysis determined that the submarine spotted in this satellite imagery of Sinpo naval base is significantly smaller and bears a close resemblance to the former Yugoslav SAVA and HEROJ-class patrol submarines, neither of which carried ballistic missiles. Photo: Digital Globe via 38 North.

Earlier in November the South Korean publication [ismember]Yonhap[/ismember][nonmember]Yonhap[/nonmember]  reported that North Korea has launched a new submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles. Yonhap quoted military and government sources in Seoul. “The communist country “is believed to have completed construction of the new submarine after importing a Soviet-era Golf-class diesel submarine and reverse-engineering it,” a government source said on condition of anonymity. The Soviet vessel was built in 1958 and decommissioned in 1990.” Yonhap said. “The new submarine is 67 meters long with a beam of 6.6 meters, and has a dived displacement in the 3,000-ton range,” the source said.

[ismember]The Russian 3,500-ton Golf II class submarine carries the R-21 SLBM, a single-stage, liquid-propellant missile with a 1,180-kilogram warhead and a maximum range of 1,420 kilometers. Despite a series of reports on Pyongyang’s possible development of a new submarine, Seoul military officers have said Pyongyang has not yet acquired technology to deploy submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

“According to the analysis of satellite imagery revealed by 38 North, a ground test facility for the SLBM launch has been up and running at the Sinpo shipyard,” he said, adding a dozen more tests would be required to perfect the technology.

Arms expert Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. said in his report aired on 38 North this month that North Korea has built “a new test stand” at Sinpo to research and develop SLBMs. He said that the installation has a 35-by-30-meter concrete pad with an approximately 12-meter-high test stand. “It would take one or two years before the North completes the test for the vertical launch of missiles from the sea,” said a military source in Seoul, expressing security concerns as Pyongyang has also been working on miniaturizing nuclear warheads for its missiles.[/ismember]

While the initial report has captured headlines, the 38 North site that provided much of the preliminary facts is raising caution about the true capability of the submarine and level of maturity of the North Korean SLBM program.

“The new class of submarine we identified at the Sinpo naval shipyard is not a Cold War-era GOLF II-class Soviet ballistic missile submarine. Our analysis is that the submarine is significantly smaller and bears a close resemblance to the former Yugoslav SAVA and HEROJ-class patrol submarines, neither of which carried ballistic missiles.” 38 North cautioned, adding “We have not identified any hatches, missile launch tubes or other indications that this new class of submarine is configured for the vertical launch of ballistic missiles.”

[ismember]38 North also noted that developing both a functioning submarine vertical launch ballistic missile system and the submarine to carry it appear to be underestimated in recent media reports. “The challenges in developing such a system are great although it is quite possible that the North is exploring this possibility. As our analyst, Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., states in the piece, “While the potential threat from a future North Korean capability to launch ballistic missiles from submarines should not be ignored, it should also not be exaggerated.”[/ismember]
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“The new submarine is 67 meters long with a beam of 6.6 meters, and has a dived displacement in the 3,000-ton range” South Korean sources said. Photo via Google earth
This submarine base near Iwon, in North Korea, bases some of the DPRK's operational submarines. The majority are obsolete Whisky class and Romeo class subs, both diesel electric powered, of Russian origin. Photo via Google Earth
The submarine base at Chaho near the coastal town of Iwon, in North Korea, bases some of the DPRK’s operational submarines. The majority are obsolete Whiskey class and Romeo class subs, both diesel electric powered, of Russian origin that are not designed to carry vertical launchers for ballistic missiles. Photo via Google Earth