May, June 2006 Build-up to the Taep'o-dong-2C/3 Satellite Launch Attempt.
06-17-06, Updated 06-21-06
By C. P. Vick, Senior Fellow, GlobalSecurity.org
The fact that no Satellite launch took place on the 18th of June and none was expected on the 19th or the 20th, or the 21 st, of June 2006 according to reported Japanese officials’ remarks suggest that both the propellants have not been loaded or that some political policy or technical or weather or tight launch window related problems have interrupted the final launch operations for an unknown amount of time. At least one report on the 19th, suggests a Wednesday afternoon June 21 daytime launch from North Korea Hamgyong province, Musudan-ri (No-dong/Taep’o-dong) launch site. Other subsequent reports on the 20th, imply it was a few days to a month away.
Early expectations of the launch attempt appeared to have been premature for a prototype launch vehicle preparation operation based on world demonstrated practices. Early analysis at first would seem to point to a July or August flight test but events seem to initially suggest otherwise. If this launch does not occur within the next four weeks plus then it must be assumed that some political policy and or technical issue have scrubbed this attempt for some unknown period. Depending on when the rainy season begins in North Korea and the propellant status issues this launch window could be as much as a month or more long for this North Korean launch campaign effort. This is more realistic to the expected requirements for a successful orbital launch mission.
Previously this web site has reported that the Taep’o-dong-2C/3 launch was expected soon because of both the engineering progress subtly identified from both static test firings, launch site additions and the flight test of the No-dong-B on January 17th, 2006 out of Iran for both North Korea and Iran . This would appear to confirm President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” statement in a very blatant way as both Iran and North Korea thumbs their collective nose to the rest of the world’s desires. For further information on these see; http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/iran/missile-development.htm as well as from http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/dprk/nd-b.htm and the No-dong-B test flight http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/report/2006/cpvick-no-dong-b_2006.htm It also provided Iran with the Taep’o-dong-2C/3 technology base. Iran for some time now has been trying to get the Taep’o-dong-2C/3 for its own strategic and space programs. A successful flight test to orbit by the North Koreans would enhance it value to the Iranians.
This January 17th, 2006 test firing of the No-dong-B confirmed the end the North Korean long range ballistic missile self-imposed testing moratorium from 1999 through 2003 that was continued until March 2005.
This is when North Korea declared it was no longer bound by its self-imposed moratorium. It took place in the context of being near the end of what has now turned out to be part of a seven year research and development cycle dropping the original derivations of the Taep’o-dong-2 design culminating in a flight test to orbit for the new higher performance prototype Taep’o-dong-2C/3 and its satellite payload. For all practical purposes it is a Taep’o-dong-3 replacing the old Taep’o-dong-2 design concept mock-up seen in 1994 imagery. The highly successful No-dong-B operational deployed test flight out of Iran successfully demonstrated the performance of the totally redesigned Taep’o-dong-2C/3 second stage as well as the common propulsion system used in the first stage different from the Taep’o-dong-2 original conceptual satellite space booster, intercontinental ballistic missile launch vehicle design. That original design was based on the No-dong-A technology. In retrospect this appears to have been the real purpose of the North Korean so called self-imposed testing moratorium to buy time to develop this better performance launch vehicle design with no intentions of doing otherwise. The moratorium was a successful shell game on the World stage with all of its implications.
The expected possible orbital test launch of the Taep’o-dong-2C/3 was predicted for as early as Sunday or Monday Asian time May 18 th. or 19th, 2006 or during the following weeks according to published reports. The morning of the 19th of June 2006 has shown no launch attempt and none is expected on the 19th and again on the 20th. and again on the 21st.
First Reports and the Research & Development Process
The earliest published reports on the suggestion that North Korea may flight test it new larger Taep’o-dong-2/3 class booster were around May 19th, 2006 . North Korea is notorious for deploying early development weapons system in the field like the former Soviet Union to work the systems problems out as was observed for the No-dong-B deployment in 2003, 2004 before flight testing it as an operational system. Such confidence in weapons systems performance reliability can only be based on a through under ground, ground testing regime but by Western standards this is a very different way of doing such business successfully. So far this methodology has proven highly successful for the North Koreans.
DPRK Policy Driver
Based on the observed trends the North Korea regime is clearly determined to use its strategic launch vehicles and the associated weapons systems they carry as the instrument of State Policy leaving little room to hope that the authoritarian North Korea’s leadership under Chairman Kim Jong-Il will change its end game internal legitimization survival plans to the world’s desires. The world and especially the Pacific Rim countries desire a more normal negotiated economic relations activity without the nukes and missiles. This single act of launching an ICBM as a space booster would certainly deeply isolate this hermit Stalinist kingdom country from the rest of the world. To date it would appear that the DPRK is not listening and does not care what the rest of the world thinks. This is presumably because of its driving internal political issues. Presumably the North Korean military which is the State is behind the pressure to carry out this flight to orbit in addition to potential foreign customers desires. North Korea suggested on the 18th that its people should raise the North Korean (DPRK) flag and stay tuned to their radio’s and TV’s for an announcement from the State media around 5:00 GMT perhaps related to the up coming launch vehicle flight. Ultimately nothing appeared that was directly associated with the expected attempted launch except to strongly reiterate its attempt to continue to emphasize its strategic nuclear deterrents the limited back bone of their State Policy.
DPRK State Policy
Then on the 20th North Korea restated its past policy statement that “North Korea as a sovereign State has the full autonomy right to develop, deploy, test fire and export its missiles,” ie to conduct ballistic missiles and space boosters launches, test and that other outsider nations have no right to criticize or by inference interfere with its plans. They reaffirmed the March 2005 statement when North Korea stated it was no longer bound by its self-imposed missile test moratorium since the US and the DPRK is no longer talking directly to one another. They went on to suggest that if there are any issues with their policy that the US should seek to resolve the issues through direct talks on this and other strategic systems questions. For years now the DPRK has attempted to avoid the six-nation party talks on its nuclear programs for direct talks with the US which the US has consistently rejected.
What is interesting is the statement released by the DPRK on the 20th of June with North Korea espousing the Chinese space policy harangue of the “ US missile defense as fueling a dangerous arms race in space”. This whole drama for the West’s entertainment of the impending flight test and its forty tank trucks could be drawn out for weeks leading to no launch for quite a while. This would prolong the diplomatic horse trading on the missile flight testing and moratorium extension in addition to the nuclear program issues. This to a degree takes the nuclear issues pressure off the Iranians for a while that are also in one form or another festering in Iran that is also stalling for time.
Origin of the Reports
Apparently a open source Japanese commercial ground station for an American earth imagery commercial satellite (Japanese digital Globe or Japanese GOI) as early as May 6th, or 11th, 2006 caught the North Korean missile teams arrival with its road mobile booster stages and payload tarp covered transport trailers and tractor trucks in the vicinity of the 55 meter long and 20-30 meters wide MIK horizontal assembly ready testing building near the North Korean Taep’o-dong-2C/3 Musudan-ri (No-dong/Taep’o-dong) launch site.
The May 17th imagery showed that the signs of the initial vehicles personnel activity seemed to have disappeared except for the two trucks one near the assembly building and one parked near the two parked erectors on the No-dong-A circular pad. It appeared that on or before May 17th the booster’s first two stages had been installed on the 2.0 meter inside diameter raised pad that can accommodate the 2.2 meter diameter 107,400 kg thrust booster first stage.
This is probably when the so called “fall away equipment” test was observed by intelligence sources and methods. What they observed was probably the erectors being removed from the pad area while the umbilical fall away pull test are normal non destruct pre launch testing before propellant loading. North Korean missile military technicians would also carry out propellant tank pressurization and the feed lines umbilical test to check their integrity before propellant loading. These tests are among many basic kinds of quality control test done before a launch. This all would have been preceded by total electronic systems integration testing earlier in the weeks.
Ongoing Intelligence Operations
Based on open press reports the intelligence operations have been carried out by a US and Japanese and South Korean allied assets such as the three to six available USAF, U-2 spy plane or space based U.S. KH-12 and Japanese imaging observation satellites and HUMINT sources and methods assets. SIGINT monitoring has been reported via ship based and RC-135 radar SIGINT aircraft among others known. SIGINT has clearly been picking up the testing as it is conducted otherwise these press reports would not be appearing with the detail as they have. The new ship based and mobile land based SIGINT, RADINT assets have been based there in Japan and South Korea for some years now. Japan has deployed two Aegis destroyers in the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Japan according to published reports. The US Navy has deployed two Burke-class guided missile destroyers and other monitoring ships in the Sea of Japan off the coast of North Korea near the Musudan-ri (No-dong/Taep’o-dong) launch site to do the early tracking and data gathering from the launch. Such launches would first be picked up by infrared early warning satellite and the increased SIGINT satellite traffic with the launch subsequently be picked up by the Japanese home radars and then the Shemya radar station and probably the kwajalein Atoll radars.
Suggestions of shooting down the Taep’o-dong-2C/3 when its is launched due east out of the facility from North Korea Musudan-ri (No-dong/Taep’o-dong) launch site the trajectory ground track would head east and south towards the mid pacific equatorial crossing of 150-200 degrees West no where near Alaska or California but closer to the kwajalein Atoll. By the time the payload crosses the equator it will have already been placed into earth orbit. This brings into serious question the viability of such public discussions.
Presumably the observed launch vehicle telemetry only shows the operational launch planning of the first two stages while the third stage telemetry is essentially silent except that it may be buried within the first two stages telemetry via the Soviet/Russian practice. It would also suggest that the payload would remain silent until just seconds before separation from the second stage in the launch process as seen in Soviet/Russian commercial satellite launches. So the report of only the first two stages being there does not preclude the highly probable third stages presence for the obvious satellite launch attempt. The demonstrated presence of the third stage would indicate that this launch vehicle as an operational ICBM would be capable of covering most of the continental United States . Such a threat from North Korea and or Iran policy wise is totally unacceptable to the United States and many of the Pacific Rim countries.
The square dolly observed in the May 24 imagery outside the MIK horizontal assemble ready building is for the encapsulated satellite payload fairing and third stage payload which were hoisted and stacked by the gantry umbilical tower crane. It remains unclear whether the satellite payload has been stacked on top of the booster assemblage but this analyst thinks it has based on other reports that say the stack is completely assembled with the military technicians continuing preparatory work in the total infrastructure. Prior to this the second stage was erected and hoisted for stacking on top of the first stage by the gantry umbilical tower crane. Based on Japanese reports the encapsulated satellite payload fairing and third stage payload was apparently stacked some time on the 19th prior to the satellite imagery spotting technicians in the top of the gantry umbilical tower service levels.
Propellant Loading Constraints
The reported ten propellant and gases loading trucks later reported as forty arrived on site as of June 16th. The launch vehicle propellant loading was suggested as having been completed during the June 17 th. - 18th, 2006 period. At least eight to thirty six of those tractor truck tanker vehicles are evenly divided between highly toxic, corrosive, hypergolic UDMH ( Unsymmetrical Dimethylhydrazine) and IRFNA (Inhibited Red Fuming Nitric Acid) propellants while the other two to four tanker trucks are presumably the high pressure nitrogen and liquid helium gas tankers. Launch vehicle propellant loading should take about twelve hours or so with the underground reservoirs storage tanks being filled first. Those tanks would have the capability to maintain both the properly cooled temperatures as well as regularly stirring those storable propellants to prevent them from breaking down chemically which starts to occur with in two days to a month if they remain undisturbed. Those tanks and their plumbing pumps systems are used to load the propellants into the launch vehicle and top off the tanks just prior to launch for final launch preparation. Subsequently South Korean NIS (National Intelligence Service) sources indicated 40 tanker trucks for less than 65 tons of propellant for the booster and top off storage tanks and facility gantry umbilical tower plumbing lines near the pad but this begs the question of whether all the DPRK’s propellant tanker trucks have had to be requisitioned to this national effort? In any case this is apparently correct except that the NIS is probably wrong on the required propellant mass verses the volume capacity of the tanker trucks. In fact the propellants are different as expected from what the NIS thinks for this new launch vehicle which explains the mass volume discrepancy.
The unknown question is however whether the underground tanks were filled first for launch vehicle loading which is the normal safety practice or was the propellant pumped directly on board the launch vehicle from the series of four to eighteen fuel and four to eighteen oxidizer tanker trucks? These tankers would be arranged in series parallel plumbing groups of four to eighteen on two different sides of the launch pad to isolate the fuel and oxidizer from one another. Both would be run as separate operations at different times. This kind of arrangement is used for the loading operation for either the underground tanks filling or the loading of the booster tanks. It would be an arrangement for example much like the tanker arrangements seen in Cuba during the missile crisis in October 1962. Launch time is probably less than twenty four to fourth eight hours away our time in the US based on this operation if the propellants have been loaded on the launch vehicle which remains questionable.
Range Launch Weather Constraints
That is unless something else like weather and tight launch window requirements prevents the launch. It was in fact learned on Monday the 19th, that high altitude winds and cloudy rainy weather had apparently forced a hold in the launch attempt through most of Wednesday the 21st. Subsequent reports have indicated that the bad weather may extend to the end of the week. This tends to suggest that the earliest opportunity for a launch is Thursday the 22nd. through next weekend. This also, says a lot about the operational constraints of the launch vehicle that are very much weaker than normal on demand launch requirements regardless of the weather for strategic ballistic missiles. Further Strategic ballistic missiles normally use solid propellant but the Taep’o-dong-2C/3 is nearly all liquid propellant. It says it is a space booster satellite launch not a strategic ballistic missile launch in the indirect sense. This is certainly no land based mobile or silo based strategic missile since the launch facility is above ground and the booster is entirely too big to be made mobile which is only characteristic of a satellite launch vehicle.
More Propellant Loading Explanations
With the completion of the propellants loading operation this launch is essentially committed to flight for all practical purposes because reversing the operations to drain the tanks and lines and clean them of the very toxic corrosive propellants is a very dangerous arduous process. Exposing the booster tanks, propellant lines and engines to these propellants for long periods can be dangerously destructive unless the proper materials and seals are used extensively through out the systems. If the tanks were indeed loaded with propellants over the early weekend then the two day limit without stirring then has past with no launch expected on June 19th according to Japanese official’s reports. Subsequently no launch has occurred on the 20th or 21st. of June. A simple process of running nitrogen and helium gases through from the base of the tanks can in fact stir the propellants enough to both maintain the temperature and chemical make up for a month ultimately venting the gas out through the tank vents.
However it is the impression from a Bush administration official indicating that US intelligence was of the opinion that by Monday the 19th, of June that the propellants had been fully loaded on the three stage booster with some reports suggesting a June 20th Asian time launch attempt. Again the launch expectations have on the 20th proven to be premature. If the propellant tanker trucks have now been moved from the launch pad area and parked else where in the total launch infrastructure then it can be assumed that the propellants have indeed probably been loaded into the booster. On the 20th according to the Japanese and South Korean reports the forty tankers had remained in place around the launch pad through the weekend and were still there on the 19 th. This indicates the propellant loading of the launch vehicle has not been completed and perhaps not even started since only the with-drawl of the tankers from the area would confirm that the launch vehicle is fully loaded to go. Certainly by late on the 20th and the 21 st, no dismantling operations have been reported.
This brings into serious question whether the launch vehicle tanks were indeed fully loaded with propellants in the early part of the weekend. The propellants are normally loaded with inhibitors and the exposed surfaces in the lines, tanks and pumps are also lined with protective coating that can last quite a while in a storage state. This then would seen to indicate just how advanced the North Korean propellant storage technologies are for this launch vehicle and its supporting infrastructure. At this juncture there are clearly some unknowns on the fueling that only time will resolve the answers to through intelligence analysis sources and methods. Subsequently administration personnel have admitted on June 21, 2006 that the intelligence is inconclusive as to whether the North Korean military technicians have loaded any propellant into the launch vehicle. It could also indicate that the engineers and technicians are still running the electronic demonstration countdown non destructive testing before a weather clearance is given to proceed with fuel loading operations. This would almost certainly be preceded by the political State Commission approving and clearing the launch preparation operations for the ultimate launch. Not until then would this mission become real. This leaves the only certainty that the new launch vehicle has been assembled on the pad and that testing appears as expected to be on going perhaps leading to a flight eventually with in a month.
May 24th Imagery
The May 24th images confirmed the long expected introduction of the environmental curtains added to the gantry service levels totally enclosing the vehicle on the pad from being view from the top of the gantry to the bottom pad area. In all previous imagery the gantry umbilical towers twelve service levels were plainly visible with no identifiable curtains. Through the June 9th imagery this continues to remain the case.
June 9th Imagery
The June 9th imagery certainly indicated considerably more launch infrastructure vehicles and personnel activities confirming the reported launch build up suggestions. This imagery which suffers from considerable ground reflection sensitization is however quite revealing. At least two new vehicles in addition to the previous vehicles identified are parked in the vicinity of the MIK horizontal assembly building and a whole series of vehicles not identified before can be seen around the range launch control center. The launch pad area also seems to indicate some personnel and possible vehicle or facility activity. The lack of many visible personnel would seem to indicate a standing order to remain inside sheltered areas’ and that the total number of personnel involved is limited to strictly what is required for this launch build up. It is said that about 1,000 DPRK soldiers are guarding the region of the launch infrastructure. Presumably there are Iranian engineer and technician observers also present and participating in this build up operation.
Satellite Payload Background
Several years ago when North Korea opened an exhibit of a mock up of its original satellite at its science museum it also displayed a communication satellite mock up that was said to be several years from launching. This satellite presumably named Gwangmyeongseong-2 is assumed to be the payload of this first attempted Taep’o-dong-2C/3 (Baekdusan-2) launch. In any case we shall have to wait to see what will happen in the coming days if anything. The fact that the launch site is above ground exposed where a very great deal can be observed certainly holds that this is a satellite launch attempt not a strategic ballistic missile operation. If the launch were to occur from a coffin launch site or a large silo facility then it would be an easily recognizable strategic systems test. A true full range ICBM flight test is not at this time expected out of North Korea. There is very little difference between an ICBM and a satellite launch vehicle test since the delivery transport system is being commonly demonstrated.
This three stage launch vehicle test launch characteristics presumably will probably exhibit that it has the capability to travel between 8,000 and 12,000 kilometers with a 650 kilogram nuclear payload. If the payload was in the 250 kilogram range its capability would be somewhat short of 15,000 kilometer range but that is not expected for some years to go. North Korea is presumed to have both 1,000 kg and 650 kilogram first and second generation nuclear weapons one of which whose design apparently circumstantially may have been tested in Pakistan.
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