Why North Korean tests would be suicidal

2017-04-18 01:47:29pm

Why North Korean tests would be suicidal

US President Trump has reversed his stance on a number of foreign policy issues, including NATO, Russia, and China.

This leaves citizens in the United States and worldwide more unsure than ever of what to expect from the coming months and years.

Nuclear bombs have a strange quality: They are a type of weapon that countries spend enormous sums of money to develop but don’t actually intend to use. While chemical weapons have been frequently used in war, no country has detonated a nuclear bomb since the end of World War II.

Nuclear weapons are in their own category. Their efficacy comes from their ability to deter aggression, as the potential for massive devastation forces countries to rethink moves that threaten an adversary’s essential national security interests.

States, therefore, are unlikely to use nuclear weapons against one another.

However, the risk of a nuclear attack would increase if they were to fall into the hands of non-state actors that follow a different set of calculations that don’t necessarily take into account the defense of a predefined territory.

Nine countries currently have nuclear weapons with an assortment of delivery systems. The following graphics outline which countries possess or have possessed nuclear weapons, as well as some states capable of producing them. They also show how these weapons have reshaped the constraints that countries face in their geopolitical calculations.
The second aspect is the three delivery systems that comprise the nuclear “triad”: land-based missiles (usually ballistic missiles but sometimes also cruise missiles), submarine-launched missiles (SLBMs), and weapons carried by aircraft (usually bombers but sometimes air-to-surface cruise missiles loaded on fighters or fighter-bombers).

Land-based ballistic missiles—especially intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM)—provide long-range strike capability within a short period. SLBMs have retaliation capabilities in the event that a country’s land-based ballistic missile arsenal is destroyed in a first strike.

Warheads on aircraft are more flexible, since bombers can be recalled after a strike has been ordered, but they are slower to reach their target than missiles (except in the case where bombers are already in flight and their target is nearby). Each nuclear country has a different mix of delivery capabilities, but only the Uni ted States and Russia are known to definitively possess a full triad, while China and India are suspected to have it.

The third aspect is the large portion of global nuclear arms held by the United States and Russia. Currently, the US has approximately 4,480 warheads, and Russia has 4,500. These figures include both strategic warheads (which are meant to strike sites located far from any hypothetical battlefield) and nonstrategic, or tactical, warheads (which are intended to be used near a battlefield, and as a result, are usually less powerful).

The size of these arsenals, however, pales in comparison to each country’s peak inventory during the Cold War: The US had 31,255 in 1967, and the Soviet Union had 40,159 in 1986.

Throughout the Cold War, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction required a sufficiently large force that would allow for a massive retaliation even if a first strike eliminated a large portion of a country’s nuclear arsenal.

Additionally, during most of the Cold War, delivery systems were not particularly accurate, which required that nuclear weapons have very large yields to reliably strike a target that might be located miles away from the point of detonation (many hydrogen bombs were in the several megaton range).

As the accuracy of delivery systems improved, fewer nuclear warheads were required to maintain a credible deterrence threat, leading to a decline in both countries’ arsenals.

Nuclear weapons fundamentally alter the relations between countries because each country is forced to think more pointedly about its adversaries’ security imperatives. Developing a strong understanding of those imperatives is critical to avoiding a nuclear retaliation. While several “hot” wars and other tense moments occurred during the Cold War, none escalated to a direct confrontation between the Soviet Union and the US.

For a more recent example, consider the case of North Korea, which has received a lot of attention in the last week due to a recent missile test and the expectation of another nuclear test.

It is a poor country whose nuclear program has allowed it to punch above its weight internationally and force superpowers to approach it with great caution. North Korea’s deterrent capability would be eliminated the moment it uses a nuclear weapon, which would be akin to committing certain suicide. While many fear the irrationality of North Korea’s leadership, Geopolitical Futures’ current understanding of the regime is that it has persisted for decades throughout the Cold War and after the fall of the Soviet Union because it is able to make cautious calculations and has continued to choose not to inflict destruction on itself.

The first aspect is a distinction between deployed and reserve weapons.

Deployed nuclear weapons are already attached to a delivery system and ready to use. Warheads in reserve still require this final attachment step before they can be delivered.

Every country has a red line, past which its security imperatives will be threatened and it will be compelled to respond with force. Without a sufficient deterrent, potential adversaries incur less risk when they test where exactly that line is. Introducing nuclear weapons into these calculations, however, forces the aggressor to proceed with caution because the risk of massive retaliation is great. This is a difficult balance to strike when the addition of nuclear weapons by one party is itself the act that breaches the security imperatives of the other.

The world’s eyes are now set on North Korea for this reason: The United States is in the process of deciding whether recent developments in North Korea’s nuclear program have crossed this boundary and, if they have, what force constitutes an appropriate response. Though the US is not directly threatened by North Korea’s nuclear weapons (based on the current understanding of its ballistic missile technology), the safety of its allies would be jeopardized by a North Korean bomb.

British and French fears that the US would not make good on its nuclear guarantee led to proliferation in Europe. Similarly, if the US’s Asian allies question the credibility of its guarantee, the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region will grow.


This article first appeared on Maudlin Economics. See the original post here.

Read the original article on Mauldin Economics. Copyright 2017.