Missile Shields and the DPRK, or The Missile Defense Agency Can’t Save Us From Pyongyang

Note: This article was written before the events of August 8th and 9th, 2017.

There has been quite a lot of talk about nuclear weapons in the last few months. President Trump ran, and won, on a platform that advocated the buildup of American nuclear capabilities, even at the risk of igniting conflict with Russia, while (now former) President Obama made headlines with legislation that would invest billions of dollars to modernize the current US arsenal. Both of these policies have garnered considerable attention, and with good reason. Very little has been done to distinguish between the two, or to explain to the average voter why one policy is inherently reckless while the other is (or at least could be) a legitimate effort to make the country, and the world, safer. Then, over the last few weeks, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (otherwise known as North Korea) has done a series of ballistic missile tests, including one on July 28 that appears to be able to strike any military target of consequence in the continental United States (CONUS). This is a significant change in the status quo on the peninsula, and worthy of some study on its own. This essay is not a comprehensive assessment of either policy or the North Korean situation by any means, but it is an overview–meant to make the nature and consequences of each policy  and the changing situation on the Korean peninsula clear, in at least a broad sense, to the public.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the prevailing view held by policymakers and the public alike has been that the buildup of nuclear weaponry is a bad thing; that they present more capacity for harm than for security and that their eradication is an admirable goal. This has been such a popular view because, well, it’s pretty much correct. Mutually assured destruction (the idea that nuclear-armed states won’t attack each other for fear that they will immediately be counter-annihilated by their victim in the ensuing conflict) is a dangerous and often unstable way to maintain peace. Recall that this was the fundamental idea on which both sides of the Cold War formulated policy; recall how many close calls there were, and how many we have never heard about. Nuclear proliferation takes otherwise small, isolated conflicts and turns them into crises of unthinkable proportions, and “races” between already nuclear-armed states to out-build each other lead to dangerously high tensions and increase the likelihood of accidental war. As perhaps the prototypical bad example, consider North Korea. A rogue nation-state, still at war technically with an American ally, prone to bombastic pronouncements Khrushchev would be proud of, and since 2006 they have wielded nuclear weapons. Given these thoroughly studied and undeniably negative consequences of nuclear buildup, President Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about an “arms race” with Russia and his desire to “outmatch” and “outlast them all” (precisely who he intends to outmatch or outlast is ambiguous, but it makes little difference) is exceptionally distressing.

Similarly distressing, though not quite as headline-grabbing, are President Trump’s promises to invest in missile defense systems. This may sound like a reasonable, or even desirable, proposition now that the DPRK possesses the ability to strike CONUS with its missiles, but it demonstrates again a lack of understanding of even basic deterrence concepts. To understand why even defensive systems have the potential to upset the already delicate nuclear balance, though, the principles that define that balance must first be explained. Essentially, the gist is this: the world made it through the Cold War without demolishing itself in large part thanks to the slightly upsetting concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). As we mentioned earlier, MAD posits that nuclear war is unlikely between rational actors because no one can really win a nuclear war; if one side attacks another, the other counterattacks and the tit-for-tat continues until both sides have either suffered enough to stop or have lost the ability to continue.

There are caveats, one of which has to do with the relative capabilities of each side: Mutually assured destruction, and the modest stability it provides, only works when the nuclear states in question have what is called second strike capability. Second strike is important because if one actor (we’ll call him Actor A) has nuclear weapons, but feels that they could all be eliminated by the enemy (Actor B) in a first strike, then that actor has a reason to strike first; Actor B knows that A cannot retaliate if attacked and so could destroy A in one fell swoop. Thus, to preempt this attack from B, А may well attack B first in the event of serious tensions to make sure his weapons reach the enemy. This may seem convoluted and slightly ridiculous, but it is true nevertheless–if a nuclear state cannot retaliate to a nuclear attack, then MAD does not apply, in that, well, mutual destruction can’t be assured. If you have second-strike, now we have to start deep into deterrence.

Every major nuclear power has sought to possess second strike capability, in various forms. Land-based ballistic missiles are one launch method for nuclear warheads, and come in many range flavors from short range missiles like the Nazi V-2 rocket, the world’s first ballistic missile, to the intercontinental range of the notorious ICBMs such as the American Minuteman (our current land-based deterrent) and Peacemaker, and the Russian Topol (NATO reporting name “Satan”). However, unless they are mobile missiles (a rare and difficult technical feat only the Russians have consistently managed to make look like child’s play), their hardened silos can be identified by enemy reconnaissance and targeted in the initial strike. Developing a silo that can withstand concentrated nuclear bombardment is infeasible, especially financially, if technically possible, so ICBMs are only useful for second strike if the owner’s early warning sensors and command & control (C2) network is fast enough to authorize launch in time to get the missiles to safety once an enemy launch is confirmed. In the United States, the length of time President Trump would have to authorize such a launch is estimated at under four minutes. This crushing time requirement means the C2 network is under immense pressure to quickly and accurately identify a hostile launch as such, and mistakes could be apocalyptic. More than once over the last seventy years, the only thing between civilization and Earth-shaking annihilation was one calm head in a bunker insisting that the launch be held for one more minute to confirm the identity of an unknown contact (see: Stanislav Petrov).

A second method of nuclear delivery is air-dropped or air-launched warheads. These weapons could be dropped like gravity bombs from airplanes or tipping cruise missiles launched from long range. Cruise missiles can also be launched from warships and submarines, making this a potentially viable method of deterrence, as the warheads can be hidden anywhere the owner has the ability to launch those missiles. This is further aided by that bombers and cruise missiles tend to be cheaper than ballistic missiles, allowing them to be fielded in greater numbers. During the height of the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union maintained fleets of long range bombers to pummel their enemies to smithereens after the ballistic missiles flew, and fleets more of fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missiles to stop them. This is not a perfect second-strike capability of course, as cruise missiles and bombers can be detected on their flight in and shot down. There is also the thorny issue of verifying intent. That is, while there are many aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons, almost all of those aircraft are also capable of carrying conventional weaponry. The same problem applies to missiles; nuclear warheads on long-range missiles can easily be exchanged for conventional warheads of high explosives, with no detectable change from the outside. Once such an attack is detected, the defender must attempt to attribute the intent of the attack to discern if the incoming weapons are in fact nuclear and intended to destroy their own arsenal. If that is the case, the weapons must be launched. If not, a dangerous escalation takes hold. All in all, these are probably the most dangerous nuclear weapons delivery systems, made all the more ironic by their high technological feasibility, particularly for lesser nuclear powers.

The final major type of nuclear weapons delivery system is perhaps the most survivable, as well as the most expensive and technically sophisticated: submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). These are weapons like the American Trident missile, fired from the Ohio and Vanguard (Britain’s Royal Navy) ballistic missile submarines. The role of these submarines, known as “boomers”, is to “hide with pride”, disappearing into the depths of the oceans that make up 70% or so of our planet’s surface. Equipped with the most advanced silencing techniques, these submarines are the pride of their navies, and exquisitely maintained. Early submarine-launched missiles were not quite as capable as their land-based cousins, and relied on the submarine sneaking close to their target (“close” here means a thousand miles or so), but modern designs such as the aforementioned Trident have reach equal to the most powerful land-based missile. Because these missiles have shorter flight paths, a launch from a submarine near the coast of an opponent can reach its target with much less warning, flying a lower arc below radar coverage, and covering less distance. This creates the potential for such a weapon to be used in a decapitating strike, that is, an attack attempting to destroy or disrupt an enemy’s C2 networks so that a retaliatory attack cannot be ordered, thus neutralizing a second strike attempt. A submarine designed to do just this sort of attack was the focus of Tom Clancy’s first novel, Hunt for Red October.

The best nuclear arsenals combine elements of all three systems, to the specific requirements of the owner. As the point of a second-strike capability is survivability, mixing and matching capabilities can provide the best overall capability at the best (although certainly not cheap) prices. The United States, Russia, China, and India all maintain nuclear triads, meaning they have land-based ballistic missiles, bombers or cruise missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles with the ability to carry nuclear warheads. Each country has a tweaked setup suitable to its history and needs. For example, both the US and Russia possess arsenals that dwarf the rest of the list of nuclear states combined each, all of those warheads inherited from the Cold War when tens of thousands of warheads stared across the Iron Curtain. (Current figures are about 7000 warheads and 1700 launchers each, compared to a peak of approximately 60,000 warheads between the two.) China, by contrast, maintains a “minimum deterrent” policy, meaning they have exactly as large an arsenal as they believe necessary to stave off devastating attack by another power (such as the Soviet Union originally, or the United States today). Contemporary estimates put their arsenal around 200-300 warheads.

Other nuclear powers, such as France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, and North Korea maintain partial second-strike capability. The United Kingdom relies exclusively on its ballistic missile submarines, the Vanguard class, while the French used to maintain a full triad, and now use both submarines and aircraft for its nuclear deterrent. Pakistan’s stockpile of approximately 130 warheads is concentrated in well-fortified medium range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, as well as the potential to deploy the warheads aboard ships and submarines of the Pakistani Navy and for gravity use by the Pakistani Air Force, though it is not considered a true triad due to the lack of regular deployment of the air and sea arms. The joker in the deck is of course the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, otherwise known as North Korea. Despite repeated Western attempts to dissuade the Kim regime in Pyongyang, they have pursued an aggressive nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program, which regime sources claim have developed “backpack warheads”, as well as warheads suitable for missiles, either fired from land or the single aging ballistic missile submarine in the DPRK fleet. No one really knows whether those warheads are really ready for “prime-time”, but given the most recent advances in missile capability on the Peninsula, the prudent answer is to assume enough are.

By extension, other imbalances in nuclear capabilities could create similar dynamics of vulnerability and instability. Here is where strategic missile defense systems come into play. If one country (Actor A) has an effective, nation-wide missile defense system but their strategic opponent (Actor B) lacks one, then the one without (B) will feel vulnerable (believing that the one with missile defenses (A) can attack with relative impunity) and may lash out and attack (say, before the other nation (A) has actually completed the missile defense system). So, then, even entirely defensive buildup can breed instability and the potential for conflict. It really doesn’t much matter what form the anti-missile defenses take, whether it is ground-based anti-ballistic missiles, space-based lasers a la President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars”, or any other defense system. Because the United States held such a great technological edge over the Soviet Union during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, they viewed the Strategic Defense Initiative somewhat more credibly than it probably deserved, but that had no bearing on the extremely rapid change it would have brought to the delicate Cold War calculus.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t ways to navigate these issues carefully, or to make the United States less vulnerable to attack without starting a nuclear war. In fact, the same reasons that make strategic missile defenses capable of stopping a superpower’s barrage unwise actually encourage the deployment of limited systems capable of stopping a few dozen slower, short-range missiles at a time. The ability to credibly neuter the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea or Iran effectively relieves them of the ability to use those weapons to quickly alter regional balance of power. Without that, such countries have little incentive to either pursue those weapons, or expect their use to be to any positive effect. This is the primary motivation behind the development of systems like the American THAAD, currently deployed in South Korea and potentially in Japan.

There is a limiting factor here, and it is understanding; it is essentially true that in the time required for the US to develop and deploy a reliable strategic missile shield to protect the lower 48 states, the DPRK could field as many missiles as China. These missiles could also be true ICBMs, capable of reaching the continental United States or other far-reaching targets, rather than just regional targets like South Korea, Japan, Guam, etc. At that point, the question becomes when does a tactical missile shield like an enlarged THAAD emplacement transition into being a strategic shield? China and the United States are generally understood to be on a collision course of the Thucydides variety. THAAD’s existing deployments in South Korea and the idea of a Japanese deployment has already inflamed old tensions in the East Asian theater. Any attempt to to build a true strategic shield will provoke a harsh reaction from Beijing, of an unknown quantity. We will have toppled the old deterrent standing between our two capitals. And there’s Russia to consider as well. Due to the comparative weakness of its land forces, particularly with regards to China, Russian strategic doctrine relies very heavily on the deterrent power of its nuclear arsenal. The development of a missile shield will irreparably alter the balance that doctrine relies on, to unpredictable results. Unfortunately, President Trump does not appear to understand these ideas and seems equally uninterested in familiarizing himself with them.

This all brings us back to the original question: if Trump’s plans for building up America’s nuclear arsenal are dangerous and invite conflict, how is the investment the Obama administration pledged to make in modernizing the nuclear arsenal any better? The difference is this: where modernization means making nuclear weapons safer and more stable, buildup means building more nuclear warheads and actively expanding US nuclear capability. Modernization is not, like buildup, a response to geopolitical pressures or competition from other countries; it is an investment in keeping the citizens of the United States safe from their own weapons. Wait, what? Keep Americans safe from American nukes? Indeed. Though it seems extreme, this is actually an exceedingly important and often overlooked part of nuclear policy–even possessing nuclear weapons is, threat of foreign attacks aside, dangerous business.

The United States has had stark reminders of this on several occasions thanks to a slew of close-calls known as “broken arrows”, or accidents in which a nuclear weapon was involved. More than once, bombs have ended up in airplane crashes, whether in the forests of North Carolina, or off the coast of Spain. In other accidents, aircraft sent on training missions have taken off with live bombs on board, sometimes flying halfway across the country before anyone noticed the bombs were missing from their bunkers. In even rarer cases, lives have been lost or whole swaths of earth been made unusable as the result of inadequate maintenance or other kinds of equipment failure. While none of these have resulted in the detonation of a nuclear weapon, several have come close. As part of their design, all nuclear powers incorporate sophisticated safeguards into their nuclear weapons to prevent accidental detonations, but these features are never perfect, and no one can ever truly account for all possible scenarios. These near-misses are further indicative of a broader point–that to possess nuclear weapons at all, and certainly to possess one of the largest, most sophisticated, and most capable nuclear arsenals in the world, is a responsibility not just in times of conflict, and not just to the American people, but a constant and unrelenting responsibility to every human on the planet. Even with the reductions since the height of the Cold War, the US and Russia still each wield enough nuclear firepower a sustained, coordinated bombardment of the Earth’s poles could conceivably crack the planet into pieces with the resonance. Investing meaningfully in keeping America’s nuclear arsenal well-maintained and safe is part of that responsibility to civilization, and this small rock we share. This is all the more paramount as we consider how to handle the world’s newest member of the rarified ICBM club. It is a responsibility that we hope our President will take seriously, regardless of saber-rattling or escalating tensions the world over. The consequences are inconceivable should we fail.

As always, thanks for reading. This is the first in a series of co-authored essays with a colleague of mine; hopefully there will be more of these as time goes on. Feel free to comment and share. – GP


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