Ten Minutes To Tokyo

Of course they're bluffing

Depending on how you view it North Korea is either a nuisance or a growing threat to world peace.  Today North Korea fired a submarine launched ballistic missile from a port off its east coast to a point more than halfway to Tokyo. “The missile was fired at around 5:30am (local time) from near the coastal city of Sinpo, where satellite imagery shows a submarine base to be located, and flew about 500 kilometres before splashing into the Sea of Japan, US and South Korean officials said. The projectile landed in Japan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ), an area of control designated by countries to help maintain air security, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported.”

Getting closer

Getting closer

North Korea’s “SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) technology appears to have progressed,” a South Korean military official said.” The North Korean missile is based on the Soviet Russian R-27. It’s primary targets are clearly Japan and South Korea. Wikipedia writes “the KN-11 is the first sign of a North Korean sea-based nuclear deterrent, which complicates the U.S. and South Korean ability to preemptively destroy the country’s nuclear capabilities by threatening a second strike. While there is a chance to take out land-based nuclear sites, ballistic missile submarines ensure that a retaliatory strike could still be launched before it can be found and neutralized.”

North Korea’s unique circumstances limit the ways such a capability could be employed. The Korean People’s Navy has no nuclear submarines, and no diesel-electric submarines equipped with air independent propulsion (AIP), so the launch submarine’s range (and by extension the missile’s) is limited and assuredly prevents it from threatening America’s western seaboard.

Given their submarines’ insufficient power to outrun U.S. Navy nuclear attack submarines and lack of aerial and surface coverage to protect them out to long distances, they cannot venture far out to sea, although a scenario where a missile-equipped sub travels into the Sea of Japan on a “suicide mission” to fire the KN-11 before it expects to inevitably get destroyed is not implausible given the loyalty of the elite crewmen of the submarine force.

A more likely scenario would be to deploy along the Korean coastline within its local air and surface cover to silently creep into or out of various hiding spots like bays, inlets, and outer isles before reaching its pre-designated position to stay quietly submerged by running on batteries; because of its finite power capacity, the sub would have to surface or snorkel for air to recharge its batteries if it remains hiding for an extended period, making it vulnerable to anti-submarine warfare (ASW) efforts.


The other possible non-Russian operator of the R-27 is not surprisingly Iran. “R-27 copy, BM25/Musudan-1 – Based on leaked, classified U.S. State Department cable, although Iran has never displayed the missiles causing some U.S. intelligence officials to doubt the missiles were transferred to Iran.”

North Korea’s growing ability to threaten Tokyo implicitly raises the murky issue of whether the use of tactical nuclear weapons, which may be essential to stop a North Korean suicide missile firing sub, is forbidden under the proposed Obama “no first use” nuclear doctrine.  “In April 2009, President Barack Obama made clear that he sought ‘to put an end to Cold War thinking’ and pledged to ‘reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same.'”.

On June 6, 2016, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes pledged that the president “will continue to review whether there are additional steps that can be taken to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our own strategies and to reduce the risk of inadvertent use.”

Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin reported earlier this week that among the changes under consideration is the adoption of a clear no-first–use doctrine. Such a shift would build upon earlier adjustments made to U.S. nuclear policy in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which said the United States should pursue the objective of making deterrence against a nuclear attack the “sole purpose” of the nuclear arsenal.

By declaring that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, Obama could unwind dangerous Cold War-era thinking, reduce the risk that a conventional military conflict turns into a nuclear catastrophe, and enhance U.S. and global security for decades to come.

What if it takes a nuke to stop a nuke?

Despite the fact that the old tactical nukes have mostly been withdrawn, they are effectively about to be replaced.  Obama’s declaratory no first use policy runs counter to his other legacy, a nuclear modernization program which will replace the old city busters (countervalue) with much precise and controllable weapons whose best use is against military targets (counterforce). As the New York Times put it, As U.S. Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, ‘Smaller’ Leaves Some Uneasy.


while the North Koreans have been thinking big — claiming to have built a hydrogen bomb, a boast that experts dismiss as wildly exaggerated — the Energy Department and the Pentagon have been readying a line of weapons that head in the opposite direction.

The build-it-smaller approach has set off a philosophical clash among those in Washington who think about the unthinkable.

Mr. Obama has long advocated a “nuclear-free world.” His lieutenants argue that modernizing existing weapons can produce a smaller and more reliable arsenal while making their use less likely because of the threat they can pose. The changes, they say, are improvements rather than wholesale redesigns, fulfilling the president’s pledge to make no new nuclear arms.

But critics, including a number of former Obama administration officials, look at the same set of facts and see a very different future. The explosive innards of the revitalized weapons may not be entirely new, they argue, but the smaller yields and better targeting can make the arms more tempting to use — even to use first, rather than in retaliation.

Gen. James E. Cartwright, a retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was among Mr. Obama’s most influential nuclear strategists, said he backed the upgrades because precise targeting allowed the United States to hold fewer weapons. But “what going smaller does,” he acknowledged, “is to make the weapon more thinkable.”

This means the new American nuclear arsenal will be perfect for what Obama will promise never to do. National Public Radio calls it Obama’s Nuclear Paradox: Pushing For Cuts, Agreeing To Upgrades. In the Obama policy is a hidden conflict. On the one hand he is building a new generation of nuclear weapons designed for counterforce but on the other hand there is his “no first use policy.”  He’s buying an offensive toolset and promising never to use it.

NPR describes this schizophrenic outcome as the result of bad luck.  If only things had gone according to plan. “Obama’s legacy is partly the fault of history and partly the result of his own actions … The first-term Obama, fresh from his election and eager to pursue a ‘reset’ with Russia, did not anticipate that Putin would invade Ukraine and chill relations so profoundly.” Moreover he found that in order to sell Arms Control he had to give the military a modernization program.


Obama and his administration did, however, know exactly what they were doing when they tried to sell the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to the Senate, Bronson said.

The administration tried to appeal to pro-nuclear senators by agreeing to invest in the nation’s nuclear labs and nuclear weapons infrastructure, which set in motion policies that may long outlast Obama’s term.

Anti-nuclear groups hope the president will use the time he has left to do something big.

The result is the present paradox.  The Wall Street Journal notes that Obama administration cabinet officials have warned that Obama’s “no first use” declaration may set off an arms race.  “A proposal under consideration at the White House to reverse decades of U.S. nuclear policy by declaring a ‘No First Use’ protocol for nuclear weapons has run into opposition from top cabinet officials and U.S. allies.”

The opposition, from Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, as well as allies in Europe and Asia, leaves President Barack Obama with few ambitious options to enhance his nuclear disarmament agenda before leaving office, unless he wants to override the dissent.

The possibility of a “No First Use” declaration—which would see the U.S. explicitly rule out a first strike with a nuclear weapon in any conflict—met resistance at a National Security Council meeting in July, where the Obama administration reviewed possible nuclear disarmament initiatives it could roll out before the end of the president’s term.

During the discussions, Mr. Kerry cited concerns raised by U.S. allies that rely on the American nuclear triad for their security, according to people familiar with the talks. The U.K., France, Japan and South Korea have expressed reservations about a “No First Use” declaration, people familiar with their positions said. Germany has also raised concerns, one of the people said.”


The surprising concern of the allies is due to that other dirty little secret: it was the cheap US nuclear deterrent which allowed these Europe and Japan to under invest in defense and build up their welfare states. During the Cold War it was widely assumed that the Russian tank armies would be stopped by American tactical nukes. the European armies couldn’t and were never meant to.

Now all the contradictions between pacifist politics and military reality are being highlighted by the feckless North Koreans.  Should Tokyo fear imminent attack what could it do?  Imagine a scenario where the Japanese cabinet is told one of North Korea’s Sinpo submarines has put to sea with a 1 MT warheaded missile and intelligence indicates it is on a suicide mission to attack Honshu, what do they do to make sure the missile is never fired? Take the chance North Korea won’t? Authorize a conventional attack on the sub? Or hit it with an atomic depth charge?  This is the problem which North Korea is slowly posing and which the Obama doctrine has constrained itself from answering.

Perhaps in his heart of hearts president Obama believes there is no answer; that we are trapped between our godlike technology and our infernal human impulses.  So he just spends the time reassuring everyone, both hawk and dove, that there is nothing to worry about.  In the meantime he prays to the God that liberals don’t believe in and hopes for the best.

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