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I have a new column at about the 1987 Institute for Defense Analyses report,  IDA Memorandum, Report M-317 Critical Technology Assessment in Israel and NATO Nations.

The report is now widely available online, but copies have been floating around for years.  The picture atop the post is my copy. (You can tell the provenance of any copy by the upper right hand corner which notes “Copy 2 of 5 copies” and so on.)

In the column, I didn’t have space to point out how many times this document has already been mentioned in the press.  I do here.

The document is hardly secret.  I am pretty sure IDA announced it’s publication in the Technical Reports Awareness Circular so people could order it.  (Although I need to find the right volume.) No matter. Here you go:

And, since that is hard to read, here is the entry for six IDA reports covered by this volume of TRAC, including IDA MR-M-317 Critical Technology Assessment in Israel and NATO Nations.

One thing I wanted to point out is how often the report has been referenced publicly.  After all, I tracked down a copy because I had heard about it and seen it cited many times.  Here is a short list.

The first instance I can find is a 1989 article by Michael Gordon in the New York Times.  Gordon wrote:

A 1987 Pentagon-commissioned report, which was disclosed this week, asserts that there is close cooperation between the Israeli universities and Rafael, a military research and development institute, and SOREQ, a scientific center that does research in advanced physics, which the report asserts can be applied in the development of nuclear weapons.

The Pentagon-commissioned report was published by the Institute for Defense Analyses, a Government-financed research center. Information in the report was gathered by a group of American consultants who visited Israel. The material on Israel’s program of nuclear research, for example, was prepared by R. Norris Keeler, a head of physics at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 1971 to 1975. Collaboration Seen as Worrisome

The report asserts that Israel is ”roughly where the U.S. was in the fission weapon field in about 1955 to 1960” and adds that SOREQ is developing computer codes that could be useful in ”in studying the implosion of nuclear devices.” The report also states that Rafael and Technion have collaborated ”on the development and simulation of ballistic missile re-entry vehicles.”

See: Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Sees Israeli Help in Pretoria’s Missile Work,” New York Times, October 27, 1989.

The second instance is W. Seth Carus’s Cruise Missile Proliferation in the 1990s.  Carus wasn’t interested in nuclear weapons, but noted the report contained “the first description of the Delilah” cruise missile.

The third instance is a book by William Burrows and Robert Windrem entitled, Critical Mass: The Dangerous Race for Superweapons in a Fragmenting World (Simon and Schuster, 1994). I think they had a copy, although it isn’t exactly clear to me from the text.

That’s just for starters.  There are now plenty of copies floating around.  I am not certain, but I suspect there might be a copy in the Paul Leventhal files at UT-Austin. Someone should take a peek there, as well as with our friends at the National Security Archive.

But that’s what the comments are for!



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




Type Description in ROK or DPRK press





300mm MLRS





Scud “Scud series”





Scud “Scud-C type”





240mm MLR





“300 mm KN-09″





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





rockets “flown around 60 kilometers”





“30 FROG ground-to-ground rockets”





Nodong “Rodong class”





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





Scud “missiles travelled up to 500km”





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





Scud “Scud-type”





Scud “two missiles … traveled around 500km”





Scud “Scud type”





“presumed … 300-millimeter” MLRS





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





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





ER KN-02 “novel tactical missiles”





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





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.


The full details, including how to apply, are available on our website:

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] 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

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.

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)

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 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).