WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Air Force nuclear weapons command this month accused North Korea and China of each developing new cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, but analysts on Thursday cast doubt on the credibility of the military assertions.
China's CJ-20 air-fired cruise missile and the North Korean KN-09 could both be ready within five years, the head of the Air Force Global Strike Command indicated in briefing slides dated May 7 and made public on Wednesday by Hans Kristensen, who heads the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
Several issue experts, though, said Lt. Gen. James Kowalski exaggerated the threats in a possible bid to secure additional U.S. nuclear arms modernization expenditures.
A Defense Department report from earlier this month references only the "conventional strike capabilities" of China's B-6 bomber, the aircraft intended to carry the CJ-20, noted Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
Lewis characterized the Air Force nuclear command's branch's warnings as a "gimmick," and argued that any missile capable of carrying a 1,100-pound payload could be considered "nuclear capable."
North Korean missile specialist Markus Schiller offered a similar take.
"A missile doesn't care what you put on top of it as long as it is small and light enough, be it a hippo or a nuclear warhead," the aerospace engineer stated by e-mail. "The decisive thing is: It must go off when it should go off, and only then. And this is a task of the warhead, not the missile. Therefore, every missile is nuclear capable, depending on the available warhead."
A South Korean television station last month described the North Korean KN-09 as a ballistic missile with an approximate range of 62 to 75 miles, Kristensen said in his analysis. The Air Force, though, described the system as a "coastal defense cruise missile"; ballistic missiles follow an arc-shaped flight path that in some cases exits the atmosphere, whereas cruise missiles maintain a lower, more consistent trajectory.
Pyongyang could fire a coastal defense cruise missile at the South, but hitting a nearby U.S. aircraft carrier battle group would be the "most extreme" use of such a weapon, Kristensen said by telephone. The expert voiced doubt that North Korea would seek to expand its limited nuclear potential to embrace a "whole new type of mission."
Observers have disputed North Korea's present technical capacity to create a nuclear device capable of fitting onto a ballistic missile, and Kristensen said making one small enough for a cruise missile would pose "even more" of a technical challenge. “We don’t know the size of this system, but they tend to be smaller than ballistic missiles," he said by telephone.
One Air Force slide separately indicates North Korea has "fielded" its Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile, even though no trial launch of the weapon has taken place, Kristensen noted in his analysis. "In this case, 'fielded' apparently means it has appeared but not that it is operational or necessarily deployed with the armed forces," he wrote.
The briefing materials assert North Korea intends to field its KN-08 ICBM within five years, though analysts widely accused Pyongyang of rolling out fake versions of the weapon in a 2012 military parade, he wrote.
Kristensen says the Air Force presentation "glosses over" key U.S. and British nuclear weapons modernization activities, and Lewis accused Kowalski of comparing "apples and oranges" in the briefing.
"We have a bunch of systems that we could arm with nuclear weapons if we wanted to ... so you've got to count those," Lewis said, naming a hypersonic glider project as one example.