The DPRK released footage on 8 January from a purportedly successful KN-11 SLBM test.
There have been press reports that the US intelligence community detected a failed ejection test in November, followed by a successful ejection test in December. “No additional details of the test could be learned,” Bill Gertz wrote, “including whether the missile’s engine ignited after the ejection or whether the missile took flight.”
Based on the footage though, we have a pretty good guess. “It went kablooie,” as Jeffrey says.
Along with several of my colleagues at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS)–Melissa Hanham, Bo Kim, Jeffrey Lewis, and Dave Schmerler–I created a video analysis, embedded below. Although the KN-11 appears to eject successfully, which is an improvement over November, we think that a catastrophic failure occurred at ignition. The DPRK has manipulated the footage in an attempt to obscure this result, but one clip plays for two frames too long. The rocket appears to explode. Compared to Soviet-era test footage of an R-27 launch–the KN-11 is based on the R-27–the failure seems clear.
Dave geolocated the test to approximately 7 km west of the Sinpo Shipyard using the mountains along the coast. Sinpo is the location where the SLBM program is based, hosting a launch stand, a barge for underwater launches and a submarine outfitted with launch tubes. Our best guess is that this footage is from December, based on the report that the KN-11 successfully ejected.
The footage, as released by KCTV, is heavily edited as a montage of brief clips. The launches are either slowed down or sped up. One clip is a mirror image of another. North Korea also appended footage of a successful Scud launch to give the impression of the missile soaring into the sky. Sorting out these clips to determine that they all showed a single event was time consuming. But when viewed against one another, it is clear North Korea only has a few seconds of footage of a single launch attempt.
That attempt appears to have ended in failure. Here is a comparison with a successful Soviet R-27 launch that illustrates what we think happened.
- Although the KN-11 successfully ejects, it does not ignite. The Soviet R-27 is already ignited.
- The KN-11 appears to belch black smoke. The Soviet R-27 is now underway.
- The KN-11 ignites with what appears to be an explosion.
- The KN-11 appears to experience a second explosion.
- The KN-11 appears to experience a third explosion.
- The KN-11 appears to rupture. Ejecta are visible in the video.
There are a number of cautions to this sort of analysis. Some of our colleagues wonder how closely the KN-11 resembles the Soviet R-27 and whether the ejection system is the same. We had hoped to examine this hypothesis, but the number of anomalies means at this point we can’t yet tell what the missile was supposed to do.
And, of course, the footage looks nothing like what the DPRK released in May 2015. We all thought that looked more like an animation than real test footage, a conclusion that seems even more unavoidable now.
But that is a subject for a future post.