Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk

 

I’ve got a new column coming out on the allegation that Iran has a covert enrichment site in the Tehran suburbs called “Lavizan-3.”  Along with Paul-Anton Krüger, I tracked down someone who actually visited the site recently. It is precisely what Iran says it is: a facility to make identification documents. NCRI is full of it.

Anyway, my friend Phil Baxter, a PhD student interested in open source work, put together a little rundown of the claims.  I found it really useful, not least because it confirmed a bunch of things I thought but was too lazy to write down.  So, here is Phil’s analysis.

The Lavizan-3 Site

Phillip Baxter

On Tuesday, the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran announced that Iran had been hiding yet another nuclear-related facility. This time, in the heart of Tehran. The facility, known as the Lavizan-3 for the neighborhood in which it resides, is officially operated by Matiran Company and is used to process passports and identity cards. Unofficially, it is claimed to conduct illicit uranium enrichment using advanced centrifuges deep underground.

The group attempts to validate their claims with satellite images and photos supposedly taken inside the tunnel. The photos shows a vault door, which they also say is lined with lead to prevent radiation leaks. Additionally, that area is home to a number of licit Atomic Energy of Iran facilities and military housing, which they use to bolster their claim.

Wikimapia as even already updated their site with a new label for the site based on the group’s assertations.

However, there are several curious inconsistencies with their claim when examining the satellite imagery.

First, there is no electrical substation on site or high-tension power lines running to the facility. If the site is imagine a large scale advanced gaseous centrifuge operation at that location, they’re going to need quite a bit of power (most advanced centrifuges run at between 400-1000 amps). If you look at the facility at Natanz, there is a massive switching station to handle the power load. Here, doesn’t even look like a light-industry substation nearby.

The second inconsistency is brought to you by snow. If we look back to imagery from the winter months with snow on the ground, there aren’t any distinguishable dry spots on the below image that would indicate air venting. With any underground facility, going to need air circulated, which would warm the ground, melting snow. If underground where NCRI claims, you would see large areas of no snow in the circled area of the image. Air could be circulated through the buildings, but even those don’t appear to be able to provide the volume necessary.

 

Next, how do they move material in and out?! If we are talking an experimental facility, that’s one thing. But an enrichment plant is going to need the capability to drive materials easily to the locations they are needed. Doesn’t appear to be any tunnels for entrance and egress of trucks.

This last piece of evidence is bolstered a bit by the fact that after review over a dozen images over the last 10 years, there was never once an image taken with a motorized vehicle on the grounds. It seems a bit odd that a delivery truck carrying UF6 gas canisters are never spotted.

Additionally, if the facility has been in operation since 2008, you imagine that some trace of construction of a massive underground facility would linger. Nope. Not there. The ground where the stated facility is located is untouched since 2004.

One final point is on the lead lined door of the supposed facility. Uranium-238 and 235 are both undergo alpha-decay. A couple of sheets of paper would be fine. Inclusion of this tenuous evidence serves only to cast doubt on the group’s claims.

Is it is possible that Iran is hiding advanced centrifuges at a secret facility for the purpose of getting to a breakout point? Sure. Is it at Lavizan-3? Evidence really isn’t there.

Phil Baxter is currently a PhD student in the International Affairs, Science, and Technology program in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech. He completed his B.A. in Political Science and History at Grove City College and his M.P.P in Public Policy, with a focus in national security policy, from George Mason University. Prior to joining the Sam Nunn School, Phil worked in international security related positions in the Washington, DC area, including serving as a researcher at the National Defense University on a program focused on nuclear nonproliferation and as a Nonproliferation Fellow at the National Nuclear Security Administration. His current research focuses on international security issues, primarily with respect to nuclear weapons. In particular, Phil is interested in deterrence and strategic stability in the 21st century.

 

 
 

As fate would have it, I will be in DC for a talk about my new IISS Adelphi book, Paper Tigers: China’s Nuclear Posture. (IISS is being unbelievably civil about the fact that I am doing the talk at another institution.)

The talk is at 11:30 am-1:00 pm on Friday, February 27, 2015 , at the George Washington University (1957 E Street NW) . RSVP here.

I need to hurry back ASAP for family reasons, but will be around on Friday night.  Since the talk falls painfully close to my 40th birthday, I’ll be heading with some friends to the Big Hunt for a few beers after work (5-ish until late-ish) in a desperate effort to, however briefly, recapture my long lost youth.  If you’d like to see that trainwreck, I’d be delighted to let you buy me a beer and laugh at me as a fall down.

 
 

In 1958, the US Air Force lost a nuclear weapon off the coast of Georgia, near Tybee Island.  The weapon is thought to be irretrievably lost, despite a brief glimmer of hope in 2004.

So, I was pretty surprised to see a story claiming that a Canadian couple found it on a diving holiday.  But it’s not true.

Barbara Johnson of the World News Daily has a completely fictitious story about a Canadian couple finding the Tybee bomb on a diving holiday. Let’s be super clear: This story is complete and total bullshit.  Although, you know, you might have guessed that from the author’s bio: ”A former pornstar, she has rapidly reached the summit in her new profession thanks to her good looks and ‘social” skills.’” Her recent body of work includes stories like “California Man Gets 25-Pound Penile Implant to Become Pornstar.”

I’ve archived the story so you don’t have to give Ms. Johnson your clicks or worry about her deleting the post or its tell-tale pictures. It’s easy to establish the story is fake, using a reverse image search.

Here are the three pictures from the story: Two of “Navy” divers with the “bomb” and one of the happy couple who “found” it on a diving vacation.

A simple reverse-image search shows the images are taken from elsewhere on the internet.  The captions are just made up.

So, I think we can basically conclude that the story is a total fabrication.  The Tybee bomb is still missing. The reference images are below.

Update | Local WOTC reporter Don Logana picked up the phone and did what any good reporter would do.  ”I spoke with Tybee Police, Ocean Rescue and city officials,” Logana writes, “who all say they would have known if anything like this had happened.”

 
 

 

I’ve been trying to keep track of the really impressive rate of missile testing in the DPRK over the past year plus now — not least because I was the only weirdo for a long time arguing that North Korea was testing an extended-range Toksa. (You have no idea how much crap I got for this blog post  and column that in retrospect were correct, FYI. )

The pace of testing has been really high.  After a US official talked about “turning up the volume” on the message to Pyongyang to return to Six Party Talks, I suggested making sure it was loud enough for Kim to hear over all the rocket and artillery fire.

I ended up geolocating the Wonsan test site, which helped sort out some of the rocket types. I’ve noticed that Kim Jong Un has started appearing with a green backdrop that makes “over the shoulder” geolocation a bit more difficult. Perhaps a coincidence.

Anyway, below is my best guess at a running list of tests since the beginning of 2014. It’s not perfect, but I’d love to crowd-review it in the comments.  And, in case you like really, really loud music, I’ve stuck a little earcandy at the end for you.

2014-2015 DPRK Launches of Rocket Artillery and Ballistic Missiles

Date

No.

YTD

Type Description in ROK or DPRK press

1

1/7/14

4

4

300mm MLRS

2

2/27/14

2

6

Scud “Scud series”

3

3/3/14

2

8

Scud “Scud-C type”

4

3/4/14

3

11

240mm MLR

5

3/4/14

4

15

“300 mm KN-09″

6

3/16/14

25

40

Frog “assumed…to be the so-called FROG”

7

3/22/14

30

70

rockets “flown around 60 kilometers”

8

3/23/14

16

84

“30 FROG ground-to-ground rockets”

9

3/26/14

2

86

Nodong “Rodong class”

10

6/26/14

3

93

ER KN-02 “ultra-precision tactical guided missiles”

11

6/29/14

2

91

Scud “missiles travelled up to 500km”

12

7/2/14

2

93

“ presumed to be 300-millimeter … KN-09”

13

7/9/14

2

95

Scud “Scud-type”

14

7/13/14

2

97

Scud “two missiles … traveled around 500km”

15

7/26/14

1

98

Scud “Scud type”

16

7/30/14

4

102

“presumed … 300-millimeter” MLRS

17

8/14/14

5

107

ER KN-02 “ultra-precision high-performance tactical rocket”

18

9/1/14

1

108

ER KN-02 “presumed…new type of tactical missile”

19

9/6/14

3

111

ER KN-02 “novel tactical missiles”

20

2/1/15

1

112

KH-35 “ultra-precision anti-ship rocket”

21

2/8/15

5

117

ER KN-02 “new type of tactical missile…test-fired last year”
 

Sources: Yonhap News; South Korean Ministry of Defense, Japanese Ministry of Defense, United States Department of State. Thank you to Detlef Kroeze for assisting in the preparation of this table.

 Notes: There are 2 “phantom” rockets somewhere in the data set.  I am reasonably sure they are located in the artillery firings conducted between 16-23 March.  I have removed them from the cumulative total.  The Scud and Nodong launches are all accounted for. 

The ROK MND only belatedly admitted to misidentifying a number of extended-range (ER) KN-02 launches as being for a 300 mm MLRS. All references to a 300 mm MLRS have been removed.  In instances where I am not confident the system tested was an extended-range KN-02, I have left the missile type blank.

 
 

No, it’s not a rocket.

An Israeli television station has published a number of satellite images of a launch pad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center near Semnan in Iran that purport to show a new Iranian missile.

One problem: It’s not a rocket.

A simple understanding of how the launch pad works quickly demonstrates that the object in the image cannot be a missile.  It is an architectural element on the gantry, possibly an elevator.

I love satellite photographs, but you have to interpret them in context. It’s important to model the whole facility and understand how it operates. Otherwise, you make big mistakes.

If you want to watch the original Israeli newscast, it is here.

Norbert Brügge also has copies of the images. The darkish thing does sort of look rocket-ish, I suppose.

The layout of the Iranian launch pad in question, which remains under construction, is very similar to the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota, India.  Here is a comparison of satellite images of the two sites located at 13°43’59.33″N, 80°14’5.31″E (India) and 35°14’11.90″N, 53°57’1.73″E (Iran).

For a launch, the rocket is positioned over the flame bucket, next to an umbilical tower.  Once the rocket is assembled, the gantry retracts along rails. This arrangement is the same at Semnan in Iran and Satish Dhawan in India. My colleagues at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Melissa Hanham and Dave Schmerler, created a little gif showing the normal operation of the Semnan launch pad in question with a rocket in the correct location. (It’s nice having such capable colleagues.)

Imam Gantry

CNS produced a whole video on the Imam Khomeini Space Center for NTI in case you are interested.

Obviously, the object in the Israeli TV picture can’t be a rocket. It’s on the wrong side of the gantry. The “rocket” would have to mysteriously travel through back wall of the gantry and then around the umbilical tower to reach the launch point.  An Iranian ICBM isn’t half as impressive as a missile that can pass through walls and steel lattice-work. Here is a comparison using one of the Israeli satellite images of Semnan and a ground-truth picture from the Indian launch site that explains the problem.

Just to sure, we looked at construction photos to confirm that, yes, the back side of the gantry is closed.  I found the image on the left; RAJ47 provided the other one.

So, clearly, it’s not a rocket. What is it?  Tal Inbar figures it is probably an elevator.  I am wishing for a bas-relief rocket in boost, but am not getting my hopes up.  Someone will buy a new satellite photograph of the backside of the gantry sooner or later and we’ll get a better look.  But it’s not a rocket.

There is still the issue of the NOTAM. That’s interesting, but more on that in a bit.

 
 

Some time ago, I came across a funny story — did you know Taiwan tried to disguise cruise missile deployments as delivery trucks?  Guess how well it worked?  Well, you’re reading about it here, aren’t you?

The story was actually reported in near real time in Taiwan.  But I’ve never see a full write up of the cruise missile and the deployment fiasco.  So, I thought I’d write the rare blog post and do a podcast.

The HF-2E Land Attack Cruise Missile

For many years, Taiwan was reportedly interested in developing long-range missiles that could strike targets in China.  Reports of the notional ballistic missile used names like Tien Ma (天馬) and Tien Chi (天戟) to describe a long-range ballistic missile that would be developed by the Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology based on the Tien Kung SAM technology. 

As best I can tell, Tien Ma was a real program that started in the 1980s, but  ”never got off the drawing board” and was canceled in the early 1990s.  At least that is what a senior engineer who worked on the program told Defense News‘s Wendell Minnick.  There were also reports of something called the Tien Chi in the early 2000s, but noting solid.  One US official told Minnick in November 2003 that “There is a lot of smoke, but no real fire yet.”

That’s because, as Dennis Gormley might have predicted, the Taiwanese were investing in a new 600 km-range land-attack cruise missile called the HF-2E.  The name is misleading since Taiwan has an Hsiung Feng (雄風) series of anti-ship cruise missile.  But as best I can tell, the HF-2E does not share a common technology lineage with the HF-2 and HF-3 missiles. (There are reports of other names for the HF-2E like Chi Sun. There are also reports that Taiwan is developing a 1200 km-range cruise missile called Yun Feng 雲風 or Cloud Peak. Its hard to keep them all straight and some of this stuff might be vaporware.)

At this point, Taiwan has announced one LACM that goes by the name HF-2E, although there are reports of longer-range variants under development.  The National Air and Space Intelligence Center helpfully confirmed the  existence of the missile in the 2013 edition of Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat.  Michael Tsai described, a former ROC Defense Minister, has also described the missile in very general terms, including a February 2008 test, in his book God Bless Taiwan.

By the way, Taiwan was going to show off the HF-2E at a 10/10 parade in 2007, but a leaked cable suggest the striped pants cookie pushers at AIT scotched the idea.  Killjoys! (There are also reports that the US really tried to kill the program by denying technology transfers to CSIST.)

So, we’re left to guess at what the HF-2E looks like. On the outside.

Turbofan engine?

Despite having not seen a nice picture of the missile, we may have pictures of the engine. Surprising, right?

Two sets of images of an engine that is probably for the HF-2E have appeared.  This engine bears more than a passing resemblance to the turbofan engine that powers the US Tomahawk missile. I haven’t been able to determine the exhibition or who took the pictures of the first set of images, but a second pair of images was part of a  press conference by CSIST, where it seems an official explicitly said it was for the HF-2E.  You can see the little CSIST “trident” logo on the display.

It ought to be possible to make some guesses about the capability of the system using the image of the engine, but I am pretty busy right now.  It’s on my list, but I wouldn’t be sad if someone beat me to it.

Deployment Locations

Now for the really fun part. I’ve seen reports that Taiwan may produce up to 500 HF-2E missiles.  According to Minnick, the missiles were deployed in three squadrons under the 601 Group. In January 2013, Minnick published the lat/long for the three squadrons deployed HF-2E cruise missiles, spotting launchers in the open at two sites:

* Missile Command Headquarters | Taishan, Taipei County | 25°02’13.59″N, 121°25’14.90″E

* CSIST Site | Sanxia, Taipei County | 24°54’10.41″N, 121°21’17.18″E

* Former Nike SAM site | Yangmei, Taoyuan County | 24°54’07.14″N, 121°07’05.27″E

Pretty quickly, a blogger using the handle Hojiyi correlated the bases to images, apparently circulating on the Mobile01 forum, of apparently military vehicles painted to look like civilian ones such as delivery trucks.  Here is one image Hojiyi created.

I haven’t been able to find the images at Mobile01; I suspect they may have been deleted. But too late!

The truck isn’t really all that well disguised.  It looks a lot like a known ROC missile launcher — notice the similarities in the chassis compared to an HF-3 launcher.  They are not identical, but they clearly bear a family resemblance.

The similarities are more pronounced when compared to real delivery vehicles used by FedEx, DHL and other delivery services in Taiwan.  Real delivery trucks tend to be smaller, commercially-available vehicles (Isuzu is a popular brand) that are marked with advertising information such as a website address or telephone number. You know, in case you wanted to use the service.

After the blogger’s analysis, a reporter from United Daily News tried to look the company up. Nothing. A guy running a betel nut stand — a nice bit of local Taiwanese color — told the reporter he always wondered why there were suddenly delivery trucks all over his relatively quiet neighborhood.

The Taiwan Defense Ministry no commented the United Daily news story (see comments), but an anonymous Taiwanese defense official told Minnick the idea was “idiotic” and “embarrassing.”

The Missile Command site, one of the deployment locations, is pretty amusing. Here is a view of the front gate.  You can see the Nike-Hercules missiles on display from the street.  You don’t have to guess what sort of base this is, thanks to the historical collection.

The picture that Hojiyi posted online from this base wasn’t the greatest.  Here is a better image.  You can clearly see the white cabs that are apparently painted to look civilian.  Other vehicles are tarped up.

Moreover, this deployment yard was built in 2009, which coincides perfectly with public reporting about the deployment of the HF-2E. The Taiwan Defense Ministry may have no commented the stories, but in 2013 they confirmed them — they covered the lot to make it harder to see who was home.  Here are three images from 2012, 2013 and 2014.  Now you see them, now you don’t.

Of course, now by then it was too late.  They might as well have painted “SECRET LACM DEPLOYMENT SITE” on the roof, in simplified characters.

One can see the same kind of construction to cover the LACM deployment area at Yangmei. There was less change at Sanxia, but perhaps that site was always covered up.  Minnick didn’t see any launchers out in the open at that site.  If I had to guess, I’d focus on the covered vehicle sheds at:  24°54’13.63″N, 121°21’25.47″E.

The big take away is that it is pretty dumb, in this day and age, to try to disguise ground-launched cruise missile launchers as delivery trucks.  It’s hard to make a fake that is convincing enough to fool everyone.  Sure, lots of people wouldn’t notice, but someone will and then they’ll buzzing about it online. (Ask the Office of Secure Transportation.)  Once Minnick reported that Taiwan had deployed the HF-2E to specific sites, someone like Hojiyi was bound to put two and two together.

The legend didn’t survive the slightest scrutiny by a reporter who quickly confirmed that “Red Bird Express” wasn’t a real company.

Still, this probably isn’t the last we’ve heard of such ideas.  The Russians market the Klub-K in a nifty, hard-to-identify shipping container.  And our friends at the Oryx blog have noted the Syrian Arab Army’s preference for Mercedes trucks when hauling missiles around.  But what the Taiwan case illustrates is that concealing a missile deployment requires a lot more work than simply adding livery to a military vehicle. In the modern era, where it is tremendously easy to snap a picture with your camera phone and there share it with thousands of people, Defense Ministries are going to have to try a lot harder than this.

Well, I guess the upside is that Taiwan can include the HF-2E in the next 10/10 parade.

Hmmm.  Seems legit.

 
 

Ok, so I am biased.  The Carnegie Corporation of New York has always been a supportive funder for the arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation field.  The whole staff is filled with people who’ve been nice to me. And Carl Robichaud is one of my favorite people in the field.

But still, this is an awesome idea.

The Carnegie Corporation just released an RFP …

“… for innovative research projects that examine how new and evolving weapons systems affect nuclear deterrence, and under what circumstances they could lead to nuclear crises.

We are looking for interdisciplinary, policy-relevant research that can help policymakers and the public grapple with these issues, and are especially interested in hearing from new voices.

[snip]

The full details, including how to apply, are available on our website: http://carnegie.org/news/press-releases/disruptive-technologies-call-for-proposals/

By the way, I am pretty sure they are serious about the “new voices” thing.  The hardest thing in this field is to develop relationships with funders.  This is really a golden opportunity for folks with a technical background or laboring in the some dark basement to dip a toe into the policy pool.

 
 

I have long wanted Allen Thomson to take up blogging.  Allen is one of those old guys — you know, the kind who have forgotten more than you’ll ever know, but aren’t well known from the DC rubber chicken circuit or hanging out in various cable TV green rooms.

If you’re smart, you run stuff by people like Allen, a former intelligence analyst who prepares these little dossiers based on open source information.  He’s latest one is pretty amazing.

Allen has been documenting China’s construction of targets in the Gobi desert for anti-ship missiles:

In the course of a search for possible target areas for the failed Chinese hypersonic glide vehicle test of 2014-08-07 (*), it came to light that two and possibly three areas which appear intended to test antiship weapons recently became identifiable in an area of China previously known to have weapons targets. Although no connection could be made with the hypersonic test, the areas , arbitrarily designated A, B and C, seem to have intrinsic interest and are documented here.

Any further information concerning them would be greatly appreciated. Please email it to thomsona [at] flash.net and indicate whether the sender wishes to be acknowledged in possible future versions of this document.

You should read the whole document, entitled Appearance of Apparent Antiship Missile Targets in Gobi Test Areas during 2013, but here are the comparisons to whet your interest:

Area A
40.466 N, 93.521 E

I would add the adjacent airfield just happens to match the on located in Taiwan at:  23°27’34″N, 120°23’32″E.

Area B
39.150 N, 88.616 E

Sadly, I couldn’t find a decent overhead with aircraft lined up on deck — but this shot gives you the idea.

Area C
40.371 N, 99.859 E

This site has been widely reported in the press as a Chinese ASBM target.  (Although the person who posted it, apparently using the handle Charly015, rarely gets credit for his discovery.)  Charly015 didn’t give the lat/long but Allen found it anyway.

Harry Kazianis at The Diplomat asked “Did China Test Its Carrier Killer?”  Yes, but probably not here.

Allen notes that “it seems at least as likely that it is used for training the crews of the fighter-bomber aircraft based at Dingxin.” I tend to agree — the location is actually too close to the missile test complex near Jiuquan (~100 km to the missile pads) and the geometry is all wrong.  A short-range ballistic missile launched from one of the pads associated with missile testing at Jiuquan would overfly the civil space launch area and all the housing for the base, impacting within 7 km of the main airfield that supplies the site.

 

 

 
 

AS James Acton, Catherine Dill and I prepared our “Crashing Tiger, Hidden Hotspring” post, one of my students, Philippe Mauger, made a number of important observations including offering a possible identification of the rocket engine found among the debris. I asked Philippe to write up some of his observations.

Hypersonic loose ends
A short addendum to the “Crashing Tiger, Hidden Hotspring” piece.

Philippe Mauger

1.
Identifying Taiyuan as the correct launch site

A publicly announced satellite launch took place at Jiuquan at 1:45pm on August 9, less than two days after the crash. This fact should have immediately raised doubts about the initial reports that Jiuquan had been used as the launch site.

This local picture of the launch in Taiyuan, which shows the sun’s rays (top left) and a rocket plume (heading right, perpendicular to the rays), provides an additional hint that the launch was part of a military test. SunCalc can be used to fix the position of the sun in Taiyuan at the time of the test– but suffice to say that the East is, indeed, red. The rocket is thus westbound. As the main piece notes, nearly all satellite launches instead use an eastwards trajectory to take advantage of the Earth’s rotation.

2.
Liquid fueled two-stage rockets: drawing from the Soviet experience

As analyzed in the main piece, the debris markings and the fuel signature are consistent with–if not foolproof evidence of– the use of a China Aerospace (中国航天) Long March (LM) rocket. Although it is difficult to tell whether a first or second stage crashed (more on this below), it is reasonable to rule out a three-stage rocket, which would be overkill given the required performance requirements. Details about a Soviet/Russian hypersonic weapons program, published on Pavel Podvig’s blog, provide a useful reference point. It supports the two-stage-only claim, given that the Russians apparently use the two-stage, liquid-fueled SS-19 (UR-100NUTTH) as their carrier rocket.

Page 2 of the LM document referenced in the main piece provides characteristics for the entire LM rocket family. SS-19 characteristics, taken from Russia’s Arms and Technologies, Volume I: Strategic Nuclear Forces (p.69, 77-79), are reproduced below. UR-100N base characteristics are also included to fill in some gaps; these values are given in an older catalog: Russian Armament State Corporation’s Russia’s Arms Catalog, Volume VI: Missiles and Space Technology (p. 268). The two-stage Chinese LM-2C is a larger rocket than the SS-19 ICBM. Also note that the payload capacity values should not be blindly compared, given that rocket performance is highly dependent on the firing mode and mission range, which differs for both missiles. In all, even when allowing a conservative performance margin to account for a heavier and/or larger Chinese hypersonic warhead, the use of a three-stage LM rocket appears uncessary.

Characteristic Russian UR-100N Russian SS-19 Chinese LM-2C
Number of stages 2 2 2
Solid or liquid fuel(s)? Both stages liquid Both stages liquid Both stages liquid
Height (m) 24 43.0
Diameter (m) 2.5 3.35
Launch weight (T) 103 105.6 245
Lift-off thrust (kN) 2962
Payload capacity (kg) 4350 (ballistic, 10,000km range) 3850 (space launch to LEO)

3.
The engine in the debris field, and estimating the HGV’s test range

Given the above, the crash photographs are believed to be of a first or second LM stage. Identifying which stage, however, is nontrivial. One good quality picture of the crash debris shows a badly damaged engine. In its pictured state, figuring out which part used to go where is a 10,000-piece, 3D, puzzle. But while the identification is not definitive, the rocket engine does not appear to be part of a YF-21 cluster (a cluster of four YF-20 engines) used in LM first stages. The argument in support of this claim is two-fold.

First, according to a reference manual (section 6-7: Republic of China) hosted on the FAS website, an LM first stage should have a cluster of four YF-20 engines. According to the same document, an LM second stage has a single, different, engine: a YF-22 or a YF-25. The debris, despite begin densely packed, shows the remains of only one engine. It is possible that three other engines were scattered farther out in the crash, but this is less likely than the single-engine hypothesis.

Second, each YF-20 engine in a YF-21 cluster has a “pinched” zone at the top, which does not seem to appear on the engine pictured. The website http://www.b14643.de maintains a wonderful collection of rocket engine pictures for comparison, including one of a YF-21 cluster, a YF-22, and an extended YF-22 (YF-22E). The following composite image shows the relevant portion of the broken engine in the debris field, boxed out; the “pinched” zone on a YF-20 engine taken from the linked YF-21 cluster picture; and a standard YF-22 for comparison.

If the photographs do indeed show a second stage, what follows? Given that this presumed last stage still had fuel remaining and thus did not reach its designated range, it is reasonable to conclude that the NOTAM eastern keep-out zone was its planned drop zone. The warhead would thus have been expected to separate before the NOTAM eastern keep-out zone. The Chinese HGV would then have had an expected minimum test range somewhat in excess of 1100km (the distance between both keep-out zones) and well below 1750km (the Taiyuan-Western keep-out zone distance).

 
 

Don’t miss our podcast on the failed Chinese and US hypersonic launches!

Analyzing China’s August 7, 2014 Hypersonic Glider Test

James Acton, Catherine Dill and Jeffrey Lewis

September 3, 2014

By a lake in an Inner Mongolian desert, about 200 km south-east of Ordos—the oft-described ghost city that hosted the Miss World contest in 2012—lies a Chinese resort called the Bulong Hu Hot Springs Resort (布龙湖温泉度假区). On August 7, at about 11am, tourists in the resort were presumably doing what tourists at a lake-side spa do. Maybe a young couple from Beijing was soaking in the hot springs, enjoying a luxurious end to a hot and dusty trek around Inner Mongolia. Perhaps a retiree from Ordos, bored of watching Miss World highlights on Good Morning Ordos, was enjoying the relative excitement of fishing on the lake. Maybe a shepherd was grazing his sheep in the cultivated land just outside the resort. What we can safely assume is that none of them knew what was, almost literally, about to hit them.

The noise—a thundering crash—must have been the first terrifying indication of what had happened. Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate about what they saw because some of them photographed it: huge clouds of red smoke billowing up from the desert. Someone even got near enough to the crash site to take photos of it. Even to his or her (presumably) untrained eye, it must have been clear that the debris littering the area was from some sort of a rocket.

These cell phone images appeared online almost immediately. However, they seem to have been suppressed and quickly vanished from the Chinese websites where they first appeared.  But this is the internet, so nothing can be deleted.

Almost immediately, Chinese internet sources connected the rocket with a test of what the Pentagon calls the WU-14—a hypersonic glider, launched by a rocket, that China is known to have tested at least once before, in January 2014. (Technically, the term “WU-14” probably refers to the whole package of booster and glider, but it’s become the glider’s de-facto name).

Bill Gertz, of the Washington Free Beacon, picked up on these rumors and on, August 19, published a somewhat alarmist article, which appears to have been largely based on Chinese internet sources—although he also reported that two anonymous U.S. officials had confirmed that the test did involve the WU-14. Three days later, the South China Morning Post reported that the test was a failure. Chinese internet sources had said the same thing but Gertz did not, implying that such debris was to be expected.

It turns out that there is a wealth of open-source information about the August 7 test. It has allowed us to find the exact location of the crash site, and to make several important observations about what happened that day in a remote part of Inner Mongolia: the WU-14 hypersonic vehicle was almost certainly tested, but the test was probably a failure. More generally, our analysis indicates that the Chinese hypersonic glider program is probably significantly less ambitious than the U.S. Advanced Hypersonic Weapon—a U.S. hypersonic glider that was tested 18 days after the WU-14 and also failed.

1.
Geolocating the Crash Site

The rocket debris appears to have fallen in an inhabited area of Inner Mongolia.  Yes, there are people there.  Why are you laughing?

The debris clearly shows a Chinese booster marked with “China Aerospace” (中国航天).  Some debris appears to be an engine, possibly a YF-22 that one might find in the second stage of a Long March booster. Moreover, the plumes of red smoke are probably the N2O4/UDMH propellant used in the first two stages of all Long March rockets (See 3:13-3:18). They indicate that there were substantial amounts of unburned fuel on board when, as planned or otherwise, gravity got the better of the rocket.

Chinese social media postings provided good descriptions of location of the crash site, provided one is familiar with the lower-order levels of Chinese administrative units in Mongolia.  Or has access to Wikipedia.

中文 English Administrative Level
内蒙古 Inner Mongolia Province
鄂尔多斯 Ordos (E’erduosi) Prefecture
鄂托克旗 Etuoke Qi County
布龙湖 Bulong Hu Local place name

“Hu” means “lake” – there aren’t so many in the Gobi Desert.  (Ok, it’s technically the Ordos Desert. The Gobi is nearby.)

Many of the pictures of the debris and cloud appear to have been taken by a single user who was near the crash site and then apparently relocated to the Bulong Hu Hot Springs Resort.  Rocket propellant is extremely toxic so it’s not surprising that, according to social media accounts, authorities moved to relocate residents and tourists from the crash site and to the resort.  More surprising is that locals were able to take images that were later posted online.

The Bulong Hu Hot Springs Resort is a recently constructed eco-tourism site boasting thermal baths and other amenities.  It’s well-described online, including in the local news, and the architect’s website. Here is an image of the resort, which shows the distinct architecture of buildings.

Schematics of the resort also show plans for boat docks, although most of these had not been constructed at the time satellite images were taken.

Other images of the Bulong Hu Hot Springs Resort.  No, we have no idea what’s with the dinosaurs.

The three images of the plume were clearly taken at this resort – one outside the front gate, one from the grounds looking east across the complex, and a series from the lake – perhaps by the same person.  In all three images, the shape of the red plume is similar suggesting they were all taken from approximately the same vantage point.  The images are consistent with accounts that suggest the photographer or photographers, may have been evacuated from near the crash site.  Perhaps someone took additional photographs of the plume when entering the resort, then again on the grounds, and finally then went down to the boat dock to take a series of images not obscured by the resort buildings.  Or perhaps there were multiple photographers.

The first image is possible to match with moderate confidence.  The paved highway is relatively unusual in the area.  Moreover, along the right side of the road, vegetation has been planted in straight lines running along the road.  In satellite imagery, this feature is visible in front of the main entrance to the Bulong Hu resort.

We can match the second image with high-confidence. The unusual design of the buildings—especially the domes–is a signature of the resort. Moreover, the relative location of the buildings in the image matches the layout of the Bulong Hu Resort.

The final series of images, taken from the dock, can be matched with moderate confidence. The docks were not constructed at the time satellite images were taken, although schematics show plans for them. The shape of the docks in these schematics is a good match for the shape in the ground-truth images. The dock in these images, moreover, appears to be a temporary structure – the side of the dock is lined with tires to soften the impact of boats against the dock. Some images of the resort show what may be temporary boat docks.  Still, the presence of a lake large enough for boats in the desert is a relatively unusual feature.

Taken together, the images suggest that the crash site is a few kilometers east of the Bulong Hu Resort.  We can further use the line of site from three slightly different images to triangulate the likely crash location.

The first image has a line of sight directly down the paved road.  The second image looks directly east across the compound, facing the westernmost building.  The third series of images are taken from the  lake, with the resort buildings just off frame.  The approximate location of the crash site is roughly 6 kilometers east of the Bulong Hu Resort or 38°55’16″N, 107°34’54″E.

 

2.
Analyzing the Drop-zones

The Notifications to Airmen that China issued to warn pilots (or at least the male ones) of falling debris are another source of information on the test. There’s no official source for cancelled international NOTAMs, but we obtained them from two independent sources: KKTT’s blog and zarya.info. In addition to closing part of an international air route, China declared two keep-out zones, shown as yellow boxes on the map below.

First off, it’s clear that the launch site was the Taiyuan Space Launch Center (known by the US intelligence community as Wuzhai, which is where the WU in WU-14 comes from) and not the Jiuquan Space Launch Center, as originally reported. Subsequent media reports corrected this error, but the correct launch site is immediately obvious from the location (and orientation) of the keep-out zones. For good measure, there are also pictures on Chinese websites of a space launch from Taiyuan at the right time. Besides, an eastward launch of a glider from Jiuquan makes no sense since the glider would be aimed towards heavily populated areas.

Drawing further inferences is complicated by the fact that there were almost certainly other areas—in addition to the two keep-out zones shown in the picture—where debris was intended to fall. If the launcher was a two-stage rocket, as seems likely and has been reported by those who track launches, then you’d probably expect four keep-out zones: two for the rocket stages, one for the shroud, and one for the glider. Hell, even if we’re wrong and the launcher was a one-stage rocket (a retired DF-3 painted in civilian colors, anybody?), it would still most likely result in three keep-out zones.

In analyzing the limited information that we do have, it’s perhaps easiest to start by pointing out an obvious interpretation that’s probably wrong: that the eastern keep-out zone is the first-stage drop-zone and western keep-out zone is for the second stage. Drop-zones for rocket stages generally get larger the further downrange they are. Since the western keep-out zone is significantly smaller than (and a different shape from) the eastern one, it seems unlikely they correspond to the drop-zones for the two stages.

Instead, we think it’s likely than the western keep-out zone is the intended target, and the eastern keep-out zone is probably—but not definitely—the intended final resting place of the second stage.

There are two reasons for associating the western keep-out zone with the intended target—as others before us have done. First, it’s relatively compact in size (especially perpendicular to the flight path), suggesting that whatever was supposed to land there was guided. Second, it doesn’t make sense for the target to have been much further downrange because the landscape rapidly becomes mountainous (which would severely complicate ascertaining the exact landing place of the glider).

The association of the eastern keep-out zone with the second-stage drop-zone is more tentative. First off, the crash debris shows what looks like an engine for a second, not first, stage, although this is far from conclusive. Moreover, when the United States has conducted boost-glide tests, the first stage of the booster has been launched almost vertically, resulting in a first-stage drop-zone less than 100 km from the launch site. The rocket is then pitched over rapidly to flatten the trajectory. (“Why?” I sense you are wondering. Lisbeth Gronlund and David Wright’s discussion of the aerodynamic loading for “shaped” versus “symmetrical” depressed ICBM trajectories may contain the answer.)

If the Chinese booster followed a similar trajectory, then the eastern keep-out zone, which is about 600 km downrange, is probably the second-stage drop-zone. That said, we can’t entirely rule out the possibility that this keep-out zone is actually associated with first stage or the shroud.

The center of both keep-out zones and the launch site lie, almost perfectly, along a straight line—the red one in the picture—which is the most probable intended flight path. The crash site lies about 5 km south of this line, suggesting that the rocket lost control and deviated from its intended trajectory before crashing. However, another possibility is that the flight path was curved (after all, one of the big purported benefits of gliders in their midcourse maneuverability) and the crash site, in fact, lies on it. The blue line shows a notional representation of what such a flight path might look like.

Beyond that, it’s difficult to say much about the rocket’s trajectory; there are too many unknowns to model it. One intriguing possibility suggested to us is that the rocket’s second stage could have been used to drive the glider downwards to increase its speed—much as Jonathan McDowell tells us the Russians apparently do when testing new ICBM re-entry vehicles (more). This maneuver would help explain why a normally reliable booster, such as the CZ-2C, might fail (as, for reasons explained below, it appears to have done). But it bears emphasizing that the available evidence is also consistent with more conventional trajectories and doesn’t allow a conclusion to be drawn about the rocket’s trajectory during the second-stage burn.

A final observation is that the crash site lies someway outside the one declared drop-zone, raising an important question: Did the rocket crash short of this drop-zone (implying some sort of a failure), or did the rocket debris fall where it was supposed to, in an undeclared drop-zone? While we can’t rule out either possibility, it seems unlikely that the debris fell in an undeclared drop-zone. An air traffic route (the green line on the map) passes within 40 km of the crash site, and a search for NOTAMs within just two nautical miles of the desert spa generates hits related to that air route. This suggests that if rocket debris was supposed to land where it did, China would have declared a drop-zone there.

 

3.
So what?

Here are three conclusions and some food for thought.

The launch’s purpose was, almost certainly, to test a hypersonic glider. This is hardly news—but we can present concrete evidence for this conclusion. First off, space launches, with one notable exception, are oriented eastward to take advantage of the rotation of the earth. China follows this practice and its westward launches are generally missile tests. Moreover, we can be pretty sure that China tested a hypersonic glider on January 9, 2014. A senior U.S. official has said so unequivocally. And, the Chinese government has acknowledged it too—albeit more equivocally. Thanks to zarya.info we have the keep-out zones for that test. Actually, I should say keep-out zone, because there was only one—but it was identical to the eastern keep-out zone for the August 7 test. This strongly suggests that the two tests were of the same thing, that is, the WU-14. (Why there was only one keep-out zone for the January test is a mystery.)

The August 7 test was probably a failure. There are three pieces of evidence that support this conclusion. First, it’s unlikely that rocket debris would be intended to fall inside a zone featuring several development projects within a few kilometers, including a holiday resort. Second, there was a lot of fuel left in the rocket stage (or stages) that crashed near the desert spa. Third, the crash site lies outside the declared drop-zone (and it seems likely that China would have declared a drop-zone around the desert spa had debris been intended to land there).

None of these reasons is, by itself, conclusive. But together they would seem to confirm what “two sources close to” the Chinese military reportedly told the South China Morning Post –  the test was a failure. Moreover, if the test did indeed fail, it appears very likely that the failure was caused by a booster problem and that the glider was probably not deployed. (Remind anyone of any other recent hypersonic glider tests?)

The WU-14 appears to be significantly less ambitious than the U.S. Advanced Hypersonic Weapon. The location of the probable target zone for China’s August 7 test implies that the intended range was about 1,750 km and provides the first real evidence about the capability of China’s hypersonic glider. To put this range in perspective, the U.S. Advanced Hypersonic Weapon was successfully tested over a range of 3,800 kilometers in November 2011. The plan for the more recent failed American test, on 25 August, was to test the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon across a range of over 6,000 km and for it maneuver hundreds of kilometers cross-range. By contrast, the planned flight path for China’s most recent test appears close to completely straight.

It therefore appears as though the United States has a distinct lead in hypersonic glider technology, which is not surprising given the long history of U.S. efforts in this field. But, it does run contrary to a growing media narrative of China surpassing the United States. Exhibit A: the unsubstantiated claim that China’s glider can travel at twice the speed of the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon.

Finally, some food for thought: what is the significance of China’s use of a liquid-fueled booster?

Given China’s increasing use of solid-fueled ballistic missiles, the use of a liquid-fueled rocket for a boost-glide test came as a surprise—at least to us. Here are two possible explanations. First, if China’s glider is a bit overweight, liquid fuel may be necessary to achieve the required speeds. (Because liquid fuels generally have a higher specific impulse than solid fuels, a given quantity of liquid fuel can typically accelerate an object to higher speeds than the same mass of solid fuel).  Russia uses a liquid fueled booster, for example, to achieve the speeds necessary to simulate an ICBM reentry for its nuclear warheads.

A second possibility—which is not mutually exclusive to the first—is that China may be planning to deploy the glider on liquid-fueled missiles. This would be interesting because China’s liquid-fueled missiles are used exclusively to deliver nuclear weapons —possibly suggesting that China’s glider is intended to ensure that China’s nuclear weapons can evade US missile defenses. Indeed, at a hearing of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on January 30, 2014, Lee Fuell from the National Air and Space Intelligence Center testified as much. He didn’t give a reason—but perhaps he was thinking about propellants.