In 1690, “Lord Torrington, commander of the Royal Navy forces in the English Channel, found himself facing a stronger French fleet. He proposed avoiding a sea battle, except under very favourable conditions, until he could be reinforced. By thus keeping his ‘fleet in being’, he could maintain an active threat which would force the enemy to remain in the area and prevent them from taking the initiative elsewhere.”
The phrase “fleet in being” has come to represent the influence of potential, rather than actual strength in military affairs. During World War 2, for example, the Nazi battleship Tirpitz hardly left port. But the British were obliged to keep a force many times strong in readiness to intercept in case she did. A fleet in being is like Casey At the Bat, more formidable in the anticipation than in actual use.
Fleets in being of a different kind are emerging in Asia. Henri Solski at the National Review online notes that “Japan may open a plant that can produce eight tons of plutonium a year — enough to make 1,000 to 2,000 nuclear weapons annually. That’s at least as many weapons as are in the entire U.S. operationally deployed nuclear force. … Japan already has ten tons of nuclear explosive plutonium stockpiled on its soil from previous reprocessing activities.” Not to be outdone South Korea is joining the game.
South Korea also wants to make plutonium-based nuclear fuels from imported U.S. power-reactor assemblies. In a Foggy Bottom press conference with secretary of state John Kerry on April 2, South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se made it clear that he wants to revise South Korea’s current nuclear cooperative agreement with the U.S. in order to allow Seoul to make such fuel. Kerry said he hoped to resolve the matter soon. He will visit South Korean president Park Geun-hye in Seoul later this month.
The parallels between the “fleet in being” concept and Japan and Korea’s reported build up of weapons grade nuclear material are obvious. It’s a giant potential arsenal that can be actual very quickly. It’s a massive Tirpitz that can sail at short notice. Neither Japan nor Korea may have an actually assembled bomb. But given their technological and industrial prowess the Japanese and Koreans can turn these materials into actual nuclear weapons in a very short period. How short a period? The Institute for Science and International Security estimates that given 25 kg of material, Iran could “sprint” to an actual bomb in 2 to 3 weeks.
Producing fissile material is the most technically demanding step in building a nuclear bomb, and the hardest to hide. According to IAEA officials, Iran already knows enough to create the non-fissile parts of a basic nuclear bomb. With this knowledge, a country such as Iran could manufacture nuclear weapon components, or even assemble complete bombs, in small, secret facilities. That is one reason why U.S. intelligence was surprised by how quickly China, India, North Korea, Pakistan and the Soviet Union obtained nuclear weapons—and underestimated Iraq’s progress in 1990 and overestimated it in 2002.
How short would Iran’s fissile-material dash need to be so as to be undetectable? Currently, the IAEA inspects two Iranian enrichment facilities on average once a week, and a third facility every two weeks on average. With this rate of inspections, Iran would need to produce 25 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium (enough for one bomb) from its stockpiles of lower enriched uranium in less than one week. The window might be widened to two or three weeks if Tehran blocked one or two inspections on the pretext of an “accident” or a “protest.”
If 25 kg and Iran’s relative crude manufacturing capability might produce a weapon in under a month, what can Japan do with 10 tons? Probably more. And South Koreans are no slouches either. A South Korean program would obviously doom President Obama’s dream of a “nuclear zero”.
Solski asks what exactly Kerry can do to dissuade the Koreans from embarking on a production program. The Obama administration is in the ironic position of having to undo the results of its own feckless policy. The arms race is at least partially of its own making; the result of the breakdown of US hegemony. Obama’s efforts to reduce US military dominance, to defund “unproven missile defense systems”; never to build future combat systems and create a “world without nuclear weapons” have created a a vacuum, i.e. a Japan and the Republic of Korea that no longer believe in the Administration’s nuclear guarantee.
And therefore they are looking to themselves for security guarantees. There is no other reason for their embarking on the creation of these gigantic, nuclear “fleets in being”. The mere fact that the Koreans want to use American raw material may itself be a concession. A courtesy for old time’s sake. Because the alternative to getting US cooperation on stockpiling fissile material is that the ROKs may proceed without Kerry’s cooperation. They can go on with Kerry or they can go on without Kerry.
At all events, the nuclear fleets in being are rapidly taking shape. And who’s been active in this area? France.
What the secretary will offer President Park, though, is still unclear. If he says yes to Seoul, Japan will be dead set on opening its plant at Rokkasho. This, in turn, is likely to prompt China to up its atomic ante. Beijing has been coy about what its true nuclear capabilities are, but it has been toying with the idea of having the French build it a plutonium-extraction plant nearly identical to the one in Japan. China wants to build the plant adjacent to one of its major military nuclear-production sites in Jiayuguan.
The scale of the potential is illustrated by this report from the Japan Times:
Since 1969, Japanese utilities have entrusted Britain and France with reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from their nuclear plants to produce MOX fuel, which had been considered a key part of Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling policy, which remains in place despite the Fukushima meltdown disaster and widespread domestic opposition to continued use of atomic energy.
The inconsistency in Japan’s stance has raised concern about nuclear proliferation, as the use of surplus plutonium generated in reprocessing remains unspecified.
At present, Japan has 44 tons of plutonium in the country and abroad. Of that amount, 30 tons is fissile material that could be used to produce about 5,000 nuclear weapons.
The real effect of 25 kg of weapons grade material in Iran or North Korea’s hands isn’t the 25 kg. It’s the massive response that it will elicit from its threatened neighbors. It’s the pebble that starts the landslide. The Dreadnought that has to be countered by neighboring countries that heretofore have avoided building one. The cost of allowing proliferation is that sooner or later it starts a process of universal armament that replaces the system of American hegemony.
The world had a choice of two security models. In the first only the cops could carry the guns; the “Scotland Yard Model”. In the second, the cops refuse to come out of the precinct house. With the Scotland Yard model dead everyone is forced to carry. This can be called the “Tombstone Territory” model where “your future’s just as good as your draw.”
Perhaps the Obama administration meant well by declaring a World Without Nuclear Weapons and starting by melting down it’s shootin’ irons. But instead of Scotland Yard, we are now on the way to Tombstone Territory.
If Pakistan, North Korea and Iran cannot not be stopped from proliferating, the US faces the position of Chicago in the era of Al Capone. When Prohibition failed to stop the bootleggers the only way to destroy them was to sell liquor legally. The speakeasies go out of business if you can sell alcohol in the corner liquor store. So if Iran, Pakistan and North Korea open a cheap nuclear grog shop, look for the Made in Japan label on your next shopping expedition.
If AQ Khan opens his bazaar, sooner or later someone will go him better with a nuclear Wal-Mart. If Obama cannot stop proliferation by rogue states then inevitably countries like France and perhaps other pacifist European countries will start selling nuclear materials technology to China, Taiwan, Singapore and others. If you can’t beat them, join them. The South Korean meeting with Kerry really represents an opportunity to get into the controlled nuclear proliferation business at the ground floor or leave the market to AQ Khan and Kim Jong Un.
There is one more thing to remember. Fleets in being can one day become part of a general “fleet engagement”. For years people complained about the cost of maintaining the peace. But maybe the cost of being the hegemon wasn’t really so big when you consider the alternative.