Lost in the overall frenzy of North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missile test last July was a peculiar detail of understated significance: While the United States, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea all agreed that the Hwasong-14 was an ICBM, one country did not.
Spoiler alert: It was Russia.
Russia instead claimed the missile was only an intermediate range (and not intercontinental) ballistic missile. In July, The Diplomat walked through some possibilities of what this might mean, be it technical error, political gamesmanship, or a genuine deficiency in capability.
After the second North Korean test of an ICBM in July, Russia again refused match the rest of the world in declaring the ICBM test as an ICBM. This repeated failure suggests a limitation in current Russian early-warning radars.
From The Diplomat:
Gaps and limitations in Russia’s early warning capability have long been documented by foreign observers. And while North Korea has never been the adversary Russian radars are designed to watch, a failure to see North Korean ICBMs could mean Russia instead detects missile interceptors fired by the United States as a unique threat, rather than a response to a launch by Pyongyang. (Joshua Pollack explored that possibility, complete with diagrams and maps in 2009.)
In December 2016 Russia boasted that it completed construction of its early-warning coverage, and in December 2017, Russia’s Air and Space Forces announced the start of combat operations at its last three early warning sites.
And there remains a curious omission: Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov took until December to acknowledge that North Korea had any ICBMs at all, and even then, only acknowledged the November test of the much larger Hwasong-15.
All this leaves a distinct possibility that, should North Korea launch a Hwasong-14, Russia would be unable to see the smaller ICBM as what it actually is, and in what would invariably be a tense hour, might misread actions and intentions after that point. Which, in turn, casts a lot of doubt on the success and utility of even the newly completed early warning system.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.