With the president on vacation — or “working vacation” as he prefers — and many of us likewise enjoying some time off and therefore not paying much attention to world events, it is possible to overlook the quickly unfolding events surrounding North Korea. It appears that what was possible “five to ten years” from now may have already happened, or is about to happen.
North Korea has or is very close to having Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) with a range to reach the U.S. mainland, carrying nuclear weapons.
Kim Jong Un with nuclear weapons. That should give us all pause.
Given that North Korea is the toughest place on earth to penetrate for accurate information, no one really knows what they do or do not have. However, at the end of July they tested an ICBM that credible experts say has the potential to reach at least to Chicago. This afternoon, the Washington Post has a breaking story that reports that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) assessed in late July that the North Koreans have the ability to miniaturize nuclear weapons to fit on an ICBM. This is no small technical accomplishment and one that only earlier this summer analysts did not think was within their capability. Giving more weight to the assessment, the Japanese Ministry of Defense concluded that there is evidence to suggest that North Korea has indeed achieved miniaturization. It is still unclear whether they have reached the ability to keep the re-entry vehicle (the bomb) from burning up upon re-entry, but they will achieve that feat as well in due order.
To add to our degree of safety, according to the report, the North Koreans may also have as many as 60 nuclear weapons. Other analysts think the number is much lower, somewhere around 20 to 25. A comforting thought.
This past weekend a step in the right direction occurred when the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) voted unanimously to significantly increase the world-wide sanctions on North Korea. This is a noteworthy event as both Russia and China voted for the measure. Most times they veto almost anything proposed by the U.S. involving North Korea. It remains to be seen whether they enforce those sanctions, but it is a positive step.
History indicates however, that Kim Jong Un cares little for sanctions, no matter how debilitating they may be to his nation’s population. In the past, he allowed his population to starve by the thousands under previous sanctions. He just doesn’t care.
All this is not to say that we in the U.S., or anywhere else in the world, is in immediate danger. It does say that the equation changed. As I have written in this space before, such as on 27 May this year, I do not believe that there is anything currently on the table that will cause Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal. In his mind, those weapons are the key to his survival. Period. He gives them up, the regime will be destroyed. As I’ve written, all he has to do is look at Saddam Hussein and Moahmar Qadhafi, both of whom gave up their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs and ended up dead.
Likewise I do not subscribe to the theory that Kim is “crazy” or a “madman” or any other such characterizations of him. That is not the danger. The danger is that he is young, relatively unsophisticated and with little practical experience in world affairs. The possibility of a miscalculation is high. Unfortunately, it is even higher as President Trump talks about North Korea in belligerent terms. This afternoon at his golf course in Bedminster New Jersey, the president said that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen.” While deterrence is based on making a clear and credible threat of retaliation, and certainly we need to be clear about the fact that we will retaliate, this type of language increases the possibility of Kim miscalculating the threat from the U.S. It also is not clear as to what exactly the president means by that. However, again, Kim is all about survival, he does not have a death wish. The danger comes in him believing a presidential statement or Tweet and calculating that the U.S. and/or our allies are about to attack and therefore he decides to strike first. Cool heads must prevail and look to the long-term to solve this problem.
There is one other little discussed element of this problem. The North Koreans are all about being anti-American. A quick look at their history, and especially their terrible losses in the Korean War, help to explain their position. They may find it convenient to use a proxy, such as a terrorist group or other bad actor, to use one of these weapons. They could sell a weapon or the knowledge of how to build one in order to achieve two goals, hard currency and an attack on the United States.
When the dust settles, the U.S. basically has three options. Conduct a preemptive military strike, negotiate a freeze on further development of North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles or accept the fact that they already have them. All three should be pursued in their own way, but we need to be realistic as to their impact on the situation and understand that there may be no one answer.
Despite the president’s rhetoric, and rightly saying that all options remain on the table, the likelihood of the U.S. precipitating military action is small. Or it should be. As I wrote in May, the costs of a military conflagration on the Korean peninsula, that will surely spread to Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific, are just too high. Not that it could not happen, just that it is very unlikely in a rationale calculus. The one exception I might put out there is an attack to decapitate the North Korean leadership — Kim Jung Un and his cronies — but that is a very risky undertaking. If we miss, Kim will unleash his forces. Even if we succeed, there is no guarantee his successors will not retaliate. Complicating the issue is neither Russia or China desire regime change in North Korea and greatly fear its collapse. They will have a vote — real or in projected reaction — on how things play out. It is nearly impossible to expect a U.S. military preemptive attack to take out the missiles and weapons. They are in hardened locations and are nearly impossible to reach, even if we are sure where they are, which we are not.
The second option is to negotiate. The Russians and Chinese are trying to facilitate those negotiations even as we sit here today. Their proposal is to have the U.S. and South Korea pledge to never again hold military exercises on or near the Korean peninsula in exchange for the North Koreans freezing their nuclear and missile programs. This is a non-starter on two levels. The U.S. will not (or should not) abandon its allies. Secondly, over several decades, the North Koreans have never seriously sat down at the table for negotiations. Negotiations were held in the past, but it quickly became apparent that the North Koreans had no intention of acquiescing to anything. If Kim believes his survival means keeping his programs then there is no reason to believe he will negotiate them away.
The third option, accept the new development as we did when the Soviet Union and later China developed nuclear weapons, is not “giving up.” We have a credible deterrent in both nuclear and conventional weapons that can do great harm to Kim and his regime. He knows this. Additionally, the U.S. has Ballistic Missile Defense Systems (BMD) in California and Alaska that have been successfully tested. They were built with a regime like North Korea in mind. Additionally the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army have BMD systems. There are additional diplomatic and economic measures that can be taken to continue to contain the North Korean threat. It is not a hopeless cause and a North Korean attack is not inevitable in any respect.
Unfortunately, the world just became more dangerous. As a result, the U.S. and our allies must negotiate this new terrain very carefully. We should not take the threat lightly and it does change how we deal in the Pacific Theater. At the same time, never make a threat that will not be carried out. It results in a loss of credibility, which impacts deterrence, and may end up causing the very act that one is trying to deter.
Our national security team has its work cut out for it. Let’s hope they make the right choices.
Even a casual look at the news over the last few days reveals that the United States is about to undertake a military action against the Syrian regime in response to the Syrian’s near certain use of chemical weapons against its own population.
The opinion pieces and talking heads on TV, many of whom are former military officers or Defense Department civilian leaders, are full of cautions about embarking upon a military action without fulling understanding what the results might be. They are right to be cautious. Unfortunately, the United States is in a no-win situation. We cannot draw a clear “red line” that we would respond harshly should Bashar Al-Assad or his regime order the use of chemical weapons, or as they are commonly called, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and not do so. In order to credibly issue other such warnings in the future we must take action now. Deterrence is totally dependent on the credibility of a nation’s stated reaction to the act to be deterred. Every so often, nations need to act in order to show that their threatened response has credibility — that they actually can and will do what they say. On the other hand, there is no desire for a long-term United States military involvement there, yet the situation is going to become a significant long-term problem for the United States should we act.
I am guessing that the Obama Administration drew the red line over Syrian use of WMD to show that they were concerned with developments in that country and that we would not ignore what happens there. By taking a moral stand we could demonstrate that we actually cared what happens there. I do not think that the Obama Administration believed that Bashar would actually use them. After all, large-scale use of chemical weapons has not been done since the end of World War I. When nearly the entire world agrees that such use is beyond the realm of warfare, we need to take action. The question then becomes, what kind of action and how does it end?
The two most similar situations from the not too distant past are Operation Desert Fox against Iraq in December 1998 and the NATO involvement in Kosovo which began in March 1999. Both are instructive for what did and did not happen. In 1998, the United States and the United Kingdom began four days of Tomahawk missile strikes and bombing attacks from naval and air forces. The action was in response to Saddam’s refusal to comply with United Nations resolutions concerning WMD in Iraq. The Kosovo action was also a combination of NATO missile and air attacks to stop atrocities being carried out by Yugoslav troops against Kosovo civilians and fighters. After over three months of the air operation, the Yugoslavs agreed to withdraw and to allow NATO troops under United Nations auspices to enter the country as peacekeepers.
There are elements in both operations that reflect the current situation. In Iraq we thought we were dealing with WMD. In Kosovo we were dealing with mass killings and atrocities against civilians. Both exist in the current Syrian situation, but the context is totally different.
Operation Desert Fox was never intended to be an extended operation. The stated intent was to degrade Iraq’s ability to produce and use WMD. The United States never set out to totally eliminate any and all stockpiles or production facilities.
The air operation in Kosovo was intended to be of a similar nature — a short duration operation to convince Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw. He and his cohorts turned out to be much tougher than expected as it took him over three months to get the message. Most analysts feel that the air operation would have continued indefinitely if the threat of placing NATO forces on the ground in Kosovo had not been made. British Prime Minister Tony Blair was at the forefront of publicly pushing for a ground operation and Milosevic finally caught on that he could not last forever.
In Syria we have a totally different situation. In 1998 Saddam was not using WMD against his own population like Bashar is now doing. In Kosovo Milosevic was in essence leading an external force into Kosovo and it was possible to withdraw to allow for peacekeepers to enter. There are no external forces to withdraw from Syria — they are caught in a civil war. No credible leader is pushing for putting troops into that country. So what happens now in Syria?
Every military planner knows that no military action should go forward without a clear understanding of the mission. A mission statement must clearly answer the “who, what, where and when” questions of the action. However, most importantly, it also answers the “why” and provides the desired end state. We are going to go in and blow things up and kill people — so why do that and what should it look like when we are finished? The crafting of the mission is crucial to success but not easily accomplished. Everything else stems from this including the analysis of alternative courses of action. It’s impossible to know what to do if you don’t know why you are doing it. We should expect the President to articulate this for the nation just prior to or coincident with the beginning of hostilities. There are signs this may happen soon.
When choosing a course of action one must ask several questions relating to the mission. Is it suitable (does it accomplish the goal)? Is it feasible (are the resources available sufficient)? Is it acceptable (is the level of risk involved worth the payoff)? Is it consistent (is it in keeping with our core values and objectives)? We need to know that all aspects of the situation have been thoroughly reviewed.
Finally, planners must have alternative courses of action ready to go — a “Plan B” if you will. Nothing is certain in life and it is even less certain in warfare. Planners can project what will happen but cannot be certain that the opponent will react as expected. They must have alternatives ready to go and have thoroughly thought through the “next step” or the mission will not be accomplished.
So what will do in Syria? Perhaps a more important question is what should we do in Syria? My honest answer is “I don’t know.” Unfortunately, that is not an acceptable answer.
My guess is that the mission will be similar to Operation Desert Fox in 1998 against Iraq. The goal will be to degrade the ability of the Syrian forces to use chemical weapons again in the future. They will not be able to prevent future use, they will only be able to make it harder for them to do so and also to make it “personal.” We will not threaten to put troops into Syria as was done in Kosovo because that is a step too far for both the will of the nation and our national interests. Therefore the plan will not be for a long-term campaign, but rather a limited action with limited objectives. In other words, to send a message that certain actions in Syria are unacceptable (and perhaps just as importantly, send a message to other bad actors in the world that we will act as promised if they cross the line). Whether or not Bashar gets the message is a different question and we may let loose the dogs of war without really knowing what will happen in the end. An unsettling situation to say the least.
Here is the rough outline of what I think will happen. There will be a limited air operation involving Tomahawk missiles and aircraft from the United States, United Kingdom and some other token NATO involvement including some Turkish and French forces. All of the media attention is on the ships and submarines in the Mediterranean but there will be larger air forces launched from Cyprus and Incirlik Turkey among other places. I would expect token involvement from Arab states — probably a few aircraft from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The planners will expect the operation to last 3-5 days and then they will re-group to assess whether their goals were met. The operation will begin at night, perhaps as early as this Friday night — a weekend night in the Arab world — in the hopes of tactical surprise and also limiting civilian casualties. The exact timing may depend on whether or not the United Nations observers currently in country are gone. They will not hit the chemical weapons storage sites. They will try to take out the means of delivering those weapons such as launchers and command and control sites. They will not target Bashar or his family but it is likely that they will target key military commanders that oversaw the use of the weapons. I am sure that we have fairly good intelligence as to who those people are at the senior tactical levels of command and we will send a “this one’s for you” type message that things will get very bad for any other military leaders that decide to use such weapons.
Just as in the previously discussed operations, Russia will voice its objections in the strongest possible terms, perhaps even threatening some kind of retaliation. Just as in those previous operations, in the end they will be unable to influence the events or prevent them from happening.
There are some serious unknowns to me that I hope the planners and decision makers have a handle on. Foremost among those is whether or not Bashar thinks that his end is near and that he has nothing to lose — thus ordering ever more extensive use of the chemical weapons. This is where the success of the initial strikes will be critical in eliminating the means to deliver those weapons and whether the message gets through to subordinate commanders that their own health and well-being is in jeopardy from us if they follow those orders. Word of further defections by senior leaders in the regime will be a good measure of effectiveness as to whether the “message” hit home.
In the end, the United States and western powers must do something or our future credibility in such matters is seriously undermined. A quick, short duration attack focused on disrupting the Syrian military’s use of WMD in the future seems to be the best short-term approach. Only after that will we know what the future holds for Syria.