“I’m not the man they think I am at home” — Elton John in “Rocket Man”
On Tuesday Mr. Trump gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that created controversy. It seems you either hated it or loved it. Some people agree with his “America First” pronouncements and others interpret his remarks as being muddled and inconsistent. Either way, despite the fact that much of the ensuing discussion focused on his use of the term “Rocket Man” in referring to Kim Jong Un of North Korea, there is much more to learn about Mr. Trump and about deterrence. (Besides the third grade use of nicknames to belittle people, perhaps some of our insight into Mr. Trump’s real thoughts starts with the lyrics above.)
You can read the full speech for yourself but the focus here is on his remarks about The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea. To me, it shows a lack of understanding of both international relations and the real ways in which nations influence other nations or deter them from taking actions counter to our own self-interests.
“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.” — Donald J. Trump at the U.N. on 19 September 2017
Mr. Trump’s supporters may give him high marks for his bravado and willingness to “tell it like it is.” Okay. But what did he really say?
Let’s put this another way. The goal of the United States and other nations is to “denuclearize” the North Koreans. As discussed previously in this blog, Kim Jong Un has no motivation to give up his nuclear weapons. He cares not what happens to his population as long as he and his ruthless regime survive. The lesson he learned from Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya is that if you give in to the West and give up your Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) your regime falls and you get executed. Not very motivational to someone like Kim.
Lesson number two comes from Mr. Trump’s speech. Whether one likes the nuclear agreement with Iran or not, we do not have the same situation developing in Iran as is developing in North Korea. Iran is not testing nuclear weapons. The criticism of the agreement has many parts, mostly along the lines of the United States not drawing enough concessions from Iran. No mention of terrorism, for example. Forgotten in the criticism is that the agreement is intended to be one aspect of a longer term engagement with Iran that does address other areas of concern to us and to them. It showed that a deal could be made with a regime that refused to have anything at all to do with the West for decades. It ensures that today we have only one “nuclear problem” to deal with and not two. I might also point out that it is a multi-lateral agreement. It is not a U.S. – Iran bilateral agreement as many in the current administration seem to address it. The agreement includes the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the European Union representing all members of that organization, and Germany. If the U.S. pulls out of the agreement, as Mr. Trump indicated yesterday that he will do, do not expect the other participants to follow suit. Additionally, any other diplomatic engagement with Iran by the U.S. will die. Iran simply will not trust that the U.S. will abide by any future agreements.
This is where we get back to North Korea. Mr. Trump demands that North Korea come to the table and negotiate a deal to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. Hmmm. Iran did that and now the U.S. calls the deal an embarrassment and threatens to abrogate the agreement. Or as Mr. Trump said of Iran and the nuclear agreement:
“The Iran Deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it — believe me.” — Donald J. Trump at the U.N. on 19 September 2017
So, let’s see this from Kim’s viewpoint. (Who cares what he thinks, some may say? Let’s not take any grief from those guys — Korean or Iranian. We should care only about ourselves.) Those sentiments are understandable and in a way, correct. Except for one thing. We cannot get Kim (or the Iranians) to do something they don’t want to do just by bullying them.
From Kim’s point of view, those that have trusted the U.S. when it comes to getting rid of their WMD are either dead or betrayed by the U.S. Not much of an incentive to give them up.
It gets worse.
Kim will not give up his missiles or his nuclear weapons as long as he thinks they are critical to his survival. Period. I cannot stress enough that he is all about his personal survival and the continuation of his regime — like it or not. Diplomatic efforts should focus on providing a way to convince him that his regime will survive into the future with some kind of guarantees from those that share a border with him — China, Russia, and South Korea. It might work. But probably not.
It keeps getting worse.
Deterrence is based on several factors, as I’ve discussed in this space in previous posts. Deterrence cannot work if the nation (or individual) that is the focus of the effort, doesn’t know what it is that they are not supposed to do. Additionally, clear and realistic (emphasis on realistic) consequences need to be conveyed and understood by those being deterred. They cannot do something if they don’t know what that is (or out of ignorance they may do it) and the cost/benefit analysis on their end needs to be clear and of a scale that not doing something is better than doing it. One may think that dying is not a good outcome, but it may be if living with the alternative is unacceptable in their calculus, not ours. Understanding one’s opponent is critical. We know very little about what goes on in the DPRK, but what we do know seems to be ignored by the current administration, or at least the guy in charge.
In sum, there needs to be a clear understanding of the behavior desired and a credible response that is unacceptable to the recipient.
With that in mind, let’s return to Mr. Trump’s U.N. remarks where he says, “…but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies…” (meaning if the U.S. is forced to do so). “Defend” against what? He does not say. In the past, North Korea shelled South Korean islands, sank a South Korean naval vessel, killed a U.S. service man in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and other provocations dating back to the capture of the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) in 1968. Not one of these incidents generated a military response from the United States. Expect Kim to test the efficacy of our intention to “defend” ourselves. What will be our response if he again shells a South Korean outpost? I would not expect that the response will be what Mr. Trump threatens, that “…we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” It is not a credible threat. The implication that we will “totally destroy” a population of 24 million, with the additional implication by Mr. Trump that it will be with nuclear weapons (the only way to totally destroy a nation) is preposterous. Or it should be in this scenario. Kim will not see it as a credible threat. Even if he does, it only solidifies his belief that having his own deliverable nuclear capability is his only saving grace. Boasting, bullying, and all the bravado Mr. Trump can muster will not change that and it certainly will not bring Kim to the negotiating table — other than as a delaying tactic to put the finishing touches on his arsenal.
This is why a long list of presidents, Republican and Democrat, warn that the United States “will respond at a time and place of our choosing” to provocations and attacks. It leaves open a wide range of options from doing nothing all the way to “totally destroying” but with a myriad of options in between. I guess that sounds wimpy to the current administration. But leaving one’s options open is the best course.
With no clear “red line” — a term that is misused and misunderstood — that puts realistic limits on Kim’s behavior, and with no credible response for Kim to weigh in his strategic calculations, there is no deterrence and certainly no incentive for him to give up his nuclear weapons.
Mr. Trump fails deterrence 101. There are, of course, many other branches and sequels involved in deterrence theory. But if one does not understand the basics, that empty threats may only precipitate the action one is trying to deter, then there is little point in trying to get the finer points into play.
Furthermore, since the Korean Armistice of 1953, Kim’s grandfather and father created and hammered home the cult of personality so that today the DPRK is Kim and Kim is the DPRK. Every citizen from the time that they can talk is taught that the Americans are the worst people on earth and that the Americans only aim in life is to destroy the DPRK. They believe it. The Korean War is the example taught over and over, given that North Korea was heavily damaged and lost millions of people, military and civilian, in the course of the conflict. To vilify and belittle their leader only adds gasoline to the fire. Mr. Trump handed the North Korean regime a propaganda coup with his statements about Kim and that we will totally destroy their nation. Roll the videotape! It reinforces everything that the population of North Korea has heard for their entire lives.
Which is not to say that we lay down and roll over. The number one role of our national government is to protect our citizens. If Kim pushes we should shove back. We need to continue to reiterate to Kim that he cannot possibly win any military conflict with us or our allies. End of discussion on that point. What is necessary is to convey clearly what we expect of the North Korean regime. Patience and incremental successes may be the path to a common understanding. We don’t back away from conflict where our national interests are at stake, but we also do not want to precipitate a war that will inevitably lead to massive military and civilian casualties on a whim or because we want to play around with cutesy phrases. If one studies the military conflicts which we have entered since the Vietnam War, a pattern emerges. Foreign adversaries continually fail to understand the nature of our society and misinterpret internal political arguments for a lack of will on our part to act militarily. Mr. Trump may reinforce that perception when Kim tests his proclamation with a relatively minor infraction that we ignore (again) or when we do not “totally destroy” his country.
Kim is not a crazy man, even if he and Mr. Trump are trying to out crazy each other in their rhetoric. It is totally sane to have as one’s primary strategic goal the survival of oneself and one’s regime. If the United States truly wants to remove the North Korean’s nuclear capability, the U.S. will have to be more imaginative and creative in our diplomacy. China, and now Russia which has inserted itself onto the scene, are the key players. It is not a mission impossible, but it will take cool thinking and lots of patience. It remains to be seen whether this administration is capable of either, much less both.
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.
United States policy for many past presidential administrations firmly states that a nuclear armed North Korea is unacceptable to our national security interests and is a threat to peace around the world. This stance continues with the current administration. Unfortunately, despite sanctions and diplomatic isolation, North Korea already tested five nuclear weapons between 2006 and 2016. Some intelligence reports, as widely cited in the media, indicate that there may soon be another such test. Meanwhile, the North Koreans continue to test ballistic missiles, ever-increasing their sophistication and range.
The threat of a nuclear armed North Korea becomes real when they reach the capability to mount a nuclear weapon on top of a long-range missile. Experts differ on that estimate. Some say it is “years” away and some say it could come as soon as 2018. No one knows for sure, but they do know that the pace of the Korean progress towards that goal is steadily increasing.
When that day arrives, a clear and present danger will exist for the United States and for our friends and allies in the Pacific area. Thus the question: How to implement our stated policy of preventing that danger from becoming real? There is no easy answer.
The Trump Administration, like those before it, states that “all options” are on the table. The implied but not so subtle threat is one of military action. To take such action is not so simple as it may seem to some. In practical terms, North Korean nuclear sites are underground and the intelligence community is not positive that it knows where all of those sites are located. Reaching a hardened underground site with a conventional missile or bomb is difficult, if not impossible. It is possible to destroy such a site with our own nuclear weapons, assuming we have it correctly located, but despite the facile way some people talk about nuclear weapons, no credible official thinks that taking a first strike with nuclear weapons is part of the solution at this point. A bomb without a delivery system is not able to reach the target. To stop the threat, eliminate the delivery system.
However, further complicating the issue is that part of the North’s missile development includes mobile Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that makes targeting the delivery system before launch that much more difficult. They have also tested submarine launched ballistic missiles, which are even harder to locate without sufficient warning and planning. So while the military option is and should be on the table, the practical aspects of eliminating the threat without a major conflict are daunting.
The ace in the hole held by North Korea is the fact that Seoul, the capital with a population in the city and suburbs of nearly 24 million, is only about 40 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The North amassed and maintains large numbers of artillery, rocket, and ballistic missiles along the DMZ, many with a range capable of reaching Seoul. This is a huge deterrent to unilateral U.S. or allied strikes. Additionally, North Korea already has operational ballistic missiles that can reach Japan, the Philippines, Guam and other locations with U.S. military bases and U.S ex-pats. There are other threats as well, but you get the picture.
The Korean War began in 1950, and technically never ended, although an Armistice was reached in 1953. The war resulted in approximately 2.7 million Korean deaths, with an additional 800,000 Chinese and 33,000 American dead. Since then Civil Defense capabilities in the South have vastly improved and the citizens practice taking shelter. Also new are the preemption plans of the United States and South Korean military that in the early stages of conflict would seek to take out the North’s ability to wreak wide-spread damage in the South. However, despite these plans and practices, the devastation of extended combat would be real and with a lasting impact.
The key to a non-military solution in North Korea is China. President Trump tried to impart to Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to the U.S. in April the importance we place on this issue and the need for Chinese influence to reign in the North Koreans. Presumably President Xi took the information on board, but China has their own interests on the peninsula. First and foremost, they do not want a united Korea, especially one allied with the United States. Secondly, they are unwilling to deal with the economic fallout of a massive refugee and humanitarian crisis on their border should the regime of Kim Jong-un fall. Kim is the ruthless Chairman of the Worker’s Party of Korea and Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or as we call it, North Korea.
Most of us know of the ruthless leadership of Leader Kim, including having his uncle and half-brother killed. He does not appear to be “crazy” as some would have it, but he is isolated, inexperienced, and convinced of his infallibility. For a minute, take a look at the world from his point of view. Assume that he is committed to his personal and the regime’s survival. Assume also that he believes his own propaganda and that the world really is out to get him. Here is what he sees.
Kim knows well of the fate of two previous strongmen, Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Both had programs to develop Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Both were pressured by world leaders, diplomatically and militarily, to give up their WMD programs. We now know that both actually did give them up. One ended up sexually violated and killed in the desert and the other was hung. Kim Jong-un is not about to fall prey, as he sees it, to the same trick. He will not willingly give up his nuclear and missile programs just because the U.S. threatens him or China cajoles him. Economic sanctions seem to hurt only the North Korean population, Kim and his cronies are immune from the deprivations that seriously impact his citizens. Rebellion from within is nearly impossible given the total control over the population wielded by the state and the total immersion into a way of life and a propaganda machine that influences the average citizens from the day that they are born.
During the Cold War, the superpowers possessed nuclear weapons and competed for influence and territory for many decades without nuclear war becoming a reality. There were many reasons for our survival despite some serious crises such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the lesser known 1973 Arab-Israeli War when the U.S. military world-wide went to DEFCON III (Defense Condition 3), the two closest instances of direct conflict between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Foremost among these reasons is the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (aptly known as MAD) where the chance of total and equal destruction deterred each side from using their nuclear weapons. (Although in fact, most nuclear war plans did not contemplate an all or nothing use of nuclear weapons. There were (are?) war fighting plans using nuclear weapons in limited strikes that may or may not escalate based on the war aims. It also has to do with hitting counter-value or counter-force targets — in over simplified words, hitting cities or military forces. But I digress, although it useful to remember this concept of counter-value versus counter-force targeting in thinking about North Korea.)
It is unlikely that North Korea can be deterred from using its nuclear force based merely on the concept of MAD. Kim does not want to die, he wants to survive, but he will not go down without a fight. If his survival is threatened in a way he finds credible, he may go down swinging.
Diplomatically, it is difficult to know what will bring the North to the table with a credible negotiating team willing to provide a solution to inhibiting or eliminating their nuclear program. On-site inspections and verification must be part of any solution, but Kim has signaled he will never allow them to occur. Past U.S. administrations have entered into negotiations with them only to find them unserious and uninterested in a real solution. They were only interested in finding out how much they could get from the West before opting out of any reciprocal actions.
There may be some value in taking a similar approach to the one that the world took with Iran. While President Obama is often and furiously “blamed” for “caving” to the Iranians, a few things need to be remembered about the agreement. First, it was not a bilateral U.S.-Iran agreement. It was a multi-lateral agreement that includes, among others, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the European Union, China and Russia. Second, it in fact did stop Iranian development of nuclear weapons, at least in the short run. The idea is that eventually Iran will benefit sufficiently economically without a nuclear weapons program that they will forgo it rather than suffer more sanctions in the future. Third, it did open the country to outside inspectors. No deal is credible without continued verification. The deal was a result of focused sanctions that hurt the Iranians where it counted.
Using this model may or may not be possible, but it could be a starting point for a meaningful international diplomatic effort to resolve the Kim issue. However, thus far other world leaders have been content to allow the U.S. and China to solve this problem as they are less threatened by the DPRK. China is the key to any solution, but particularly one involving meaningful sanctions. To be meaningful, they must hit Kim and his fellow oligarchs where it hurts — in their pocket books and life styles. So far there is no evidence that current sanctions are having any impact on the leadership, only on the population. Thus China (and others) need to meaningfully and consistently enforce economic sanctions.
For other world leaders that do not seem too concerned, they should consider what may be the biggest threat from the North Korean nuclear program. Cash strapped and looking for a market, it is conceivable that the DPRK will (and maybe already has) export their knowledge and expertise to the highest bidder. This may and probably will in the future include terrorist organizations and rogue states. That alone should be enough to get most of the world on board with solving this problem.
Finally, and, as it should be, a last resort, there are a number of military options that may preclude full-scale war. Cyber attacks that cripple the nuclear infrastructure for example could be carried out. (Remember reports in 2010 that the “Stuxnet” virus crippled the Iranian nuclear centrifuges in what is thought to be a combined U.S.-Israeli operation.) Other clandestine operations are surely in the U.S. playbook.
Should conventional military force be required, a counter-force strike aimed at limiting the DPRK’s ability to do damage in South Korea could be followed by an offer to negotiate with Kim.
Another option is to specifically target Kim and the senior leadership in a decapitation strike that removes the DPRK leadership and thus limits their ability to retaliate. This seems to have the biggest chance of success. If a pre-emptive U.S. military strike could lead to a massive conflict on the peninsula and surrounding areas anyway, then go for the leadership first in the chance that the command and control abilities and the will to fight may be eliminated before the conflict spirals out of control.
While the DPRK is increasing its capabilities, so are the U.S and our regional allies. While we may not be able to locate and eliminate all of the nuclear sites and mobile launchers on the ground, using increasingly sophisticated Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems the U.S. can limit the impact of a strike by destroying the missiles in flight. Current systems include Ground Based Mid-Course Defense (GMD) based in California and Alaska which tested well against ICBM targets, the Navy’s Aegis destroyers and cruisers have proven adept at hitting ballistic missiles and the Army’s Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems have as well, depending on the threat and the environment. You may recall that the U.S. is presently deploying the THAAD system in South Korea, although in April President Trump inexplicably called on the Koreans to pay us one billion dollars for the system unless they terminate or renegotiate a bilateral trade agreement — “a horrible deal.” For now, the deployment continues.
It does not take a crystal ball to determine that the Trump Administration will face its toughest international challenge in North Korea. Whether in the coming months, as the DPRK accelerates its testing of missile and weapon systems, or in the coming years, one should expect action in one form or another in the near future. It will take a confident and realistic combination of diplomatic and economic measures from the international community coupled with unparalleled military readiness. What is certain is that the problem will not go away on its own.
You may be aware that the United States Air Force is investigating cheating by as many as 92 officers on proficiency exams given to Air Force missileers responsible for our nation’s Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) force. That is 92 out of approximately 500 in the force, or nearly twenty percent. This is serious business on many levels.
In the way of a little background let me say that I have never been in the United States Air Force. I was a Navy officer. I also will point out that it has been too many years since I was in the service so I can no longer speak authoritatively on current practices. I did however, along with my shipmates throughout the crew on several of the warships I served on, have to go through proficiency tests to certify our ability to carry, and if necessary, use nuclear weapons. (I can neither confirm nor deny that any of those ships actually carried such weapons. Whether or not we actually carried them, the certification process was the same.)
Thus it was surprising, if not shocking, to read a quote from Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James stating that the cheating scandal appears to have its root cause in the nature of the work which creates “undo stress and fear.” Really? Doesn’t that come with the territory? (The entire transcript of her remarks may be found here.)
To be fair, there are a couple of points to be made. Secretary James was only confirmed as Secretary a little over two weeks ago. She is likely still learning the job. Additionally, as I understand it her remarks about stress and fear were directed not at the job itself (the destruction of the world can be stressful after all) but at the command atmosphere surrounding the units that they are in. In other words, the importance of the test was so high that if they did not get a perfect score — not merely passing, but a perfect score — then they feared they could be fired from the job or not recommended for promotion. Well, yeah. That’s how it’s always been, at least in my experience with the Navy. The deal with nuclear weapons is that nothing short of perfection will do. That is the basis of the “trust but verify” motto (which comes out of the Navy’s nuclear power program and not from Ronald Reagan who borrowed it).
The standards are very high — just as they should be. She is quoted as saying; “I heard repeatedly that the system can be very punitive, come down very hard in the case of even small, minor issues that crop up.” She goes on to say; “I believe that a very terrible irony in this whole situation is that these missileers didn’t cheat to pass, they cheated because they felt driven to get 100 percent. Getting 90 percent or 95 percent was considered a failure in their eyes.” I am not sure if she is saying that “good enough” is okay with nuclear weapons or not. It seems that if there is one area that everything needs to be perfect, it is with nuclear weapons. I should point out that I am not talking about mistakes during training. Training is undertaken under very controlled circumstances and never with actual weapons. I am talking about proficiency testing — the stressful but necessary certification process to make sure there are no mistakes.
Over the course of my career I saw some good officers fail for promotion because of minor mistakes in their certification process. Indeed, it sometimes seemed that the performance evaluations of the inspectors themselves depended upon how many ships they could fail in an inspection and they went at it with a vengeance. This could rightly be an area of discussion — what should the standards be or what do they need to be in order to protect the arsenal? That is a reasonable area to debate. However, once those standards are established, they must be met if we are serious about continuing a very impressive safety record in this area.
To help put it into perspective, recall that then Secretary of Defense Gates fired the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force in 2007 when an Air Force B-52 flew cross-country with nuclear weapons onboard that the crew did not know were real. He obviously thought that it was a serious business and I would have thought that the rest of the force would get the picture following that incident.
I do not want to jump too quickly to any conclusions. The inquiry into the incident is just getting underway and I have no first hand knowledge of how serious the situation may have been or exactly what part of the proficiency tests were compromised. None-the-less, I keep coming back to this thought: What part of maintaining and employing our land based nuclear deterrent is not serious business?
I suppose that Secretary James was trying to make the rest of us feel better when she said; “I want to reassure everybody again that this is the failure of integrity on the part of certain airmen. It was not a failure of the mission.” Somehow, that doesn’t make me feel better. The success of the mission starts with the integrity of those carrying it out.