North Korea and the Second Nuclear Age: The First Test for Chuck Hagel


2013-03-19 By Ed Timperlake and Robbin Laird

When the Senate Armed Services Committee was grilling the new nominee for Secretary of Defense, more time was spent on his views on the surge in Iraq than the focal point of his first test: North Korea. In fact, the subject did not even come up.

But North Korea is doing more than doing foreign policy maneuvers; they are pushing the military envelope.  This is a defense problem; not just a foreign policy think tank moment.

The core question is rather simple: how do you deter a nuclear power like North Korea when they just won’t play by the rules of conventional deterrence?  What is the U.S. and allied nuclear and conventional responses to the threat of war on the Korean peninsula?

And in a world of dynamic learning, the North Koreans have watched the NATO-Obama led operation in Libya and have learned an important lesson – nuclear weapons matter; giving them away is not such a good idea.

A North Korean source clearly made the connection between what happened to the Libyan regime and the defense of North Korea:

The present Libyan crisis teaches the international community a serious lesson.  It was fully exposed before the world that “Libya’s nuclear dismantlement,” much touted by the United States in the past, turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as “guarantee of security” and “improvement of relations” to disarm itself, and then swallowed it up by force.  It proved once again the truth of history that peace can be preserved only when one builds up one’s own strength as long as high-handed and arbitrary practices to go in the world.  The DRPK was quite just when it took the path of Songun and the military capacity for self-defense built up in this course serves as a very valuable deterrent for averting a war and defending peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. [ref]“Foreign Ministry Spokesman Denounces U.S. Military Attack on Libya,” KCNA (March 22, 2011), http:// index-e.htm.[/ref]

There has been a persistent avoidance of the nasty questions of what Paul Bracken of Yale University calls the Second Nuclear Age.

We interviewed Bracken recently on how best to understand the challenge of the Second Nuclear Age.

Although his book is entitled The Second Nuclear Age, it really is about strategy in a world of nuclear proliferation.

It is about deterrence in a very different nuclear world than one shaped by the competition and the rules shaped by the two nuclear superpowers.

Newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, right, and his wife, Lilibet, arrive for Hagel’s first day at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., Feb. 27, 2013. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy/Released) 2/27/03

Bracken has focused on the need to understand escalation and de-escalation in this new nuclear age, where the rules have NOT been established and crises will shape the nature of the rules, not the other way around. 

As Bracken put it:  Communication and bargaining, and escalation and de-escalation are at the heart of the use of military force, including nuclear weapons.  They are not so unique as to preclude such normal behavior.

Hagel now faces such a rule creating crisis with a nuclear power not playing by Cold War deterrence rules.  It is a military game of escalation and de-escalation, not simply a go to the UN and pile on sanctions moment.

And at stake is recognizing that not only will war or peace hang in the balance, but the nature of what Japan and South Korea will do with regard to their future capabilities in the nuclear arena.

We could well come out of this crisis with three nuclear powers being added to China and Russia in the region.

For all the critics of Chuck Hagel during the Senate debate, his first strategic instinct was to do the right thing. Secretary of Defense Hagel, a former Presidential Appointee of Ronald Reagan, is preparing America against a clear and present danger. Although it will take time, he has made an important necessary strategic decision to provide for the common defense.

Building on the Strategic Defense Initiative missile defense program started by President Reagan, three decades later Secretary Hagel is a Presidential Appointee of President Obama and just gave the enemies of America  an unambiguous signal  that the defense of America is a continuous evolution of technology advancement and continuity of political purpose that can transcend domestic  politics .

“The U.S. is deploying 14 new ground-based missile interceptors in Alaska to counter renewed nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday……

That will boost U.S. missile defense capability by 50 percent and “make clear to the world that the United States stands firm against aggression,” he said in a briefing at the Pentagon.”

Anyone who has received two Purple Hearts as an infantry Sergeant in Vietnam knows personally how to stand firmly against aggression. His announcement is a good first step but in the near term the drumbeat of war by North Korea’s rather deranged Kim Jong-un might be a combat decision not a deterrence signal.

In the current crisis with the two announcements by the North Korean new “Dear Leader” that they are at war AND reserve the right to make a preemptive nuke strike against America. A life and death decision is what the Administration does the next time the North Koreans ready a three-stage missile on a launch pad. By the rules of war US has every right to blow it to hell and back.

This is not an abstract issue. In the late nineties, a successful North Korean launch came down much closer to Hawaii then the American people were lead to believe. Consequently, the leadership of North Korea is presenting the US National Command Authority and especially Director of National Intelligence a fundamental challenge. Does the U.S. have significant credible intelligence to know what is really happening?  And beyond, the DNI, how will the Administration shape the rules of engagement in the Second Nuclear Age?

History has shown American intelligence  about capability and intentions of North Korea is murky at best and often wrong.

On Aug. 24, 1998, Gen. Hugh Shelton, a very decent and honest man, serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a letter to Sen. Jim Inhofe stating that there was at least a three-year warning of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile threat, such as Taepo Dong-2.

Unfortunately, on Aug. 31, 1998, a three-stage North Korean missile was launched over Japan and splashed down much closer to America than anyone liked. So much for the three-year window of analysis! Even though the launch might have been a three-stage Taepo Dong-1, the distinction did not matter to Japan or our fellow citizens in Alaska and Hawaii.

The deploying of new missile defenses is part of the approach.  But the shaping function requires more than this, and putting in play the new combat capabilities the U.S. has deployed including the “Cold War” weapon, the F-22.  An exercise last year highlighted some of the capabilities, which the United States is starting to shape prior to the coming of the F-35 as a fleet to the force.  This would be a time to remind the North Koreans of an integrated force structure approach.

Shaping the rules of engagement for the Second Nuclear Age entails forging capabilities to execute what we called in an earlier piece an “attack and defense enterprise.”

The evolution of 21st century weapon technology is breaking down the barriers between offensive and defensive systems.  Is missile defense about providing defense or is it about enabling global reach, for offense or defense?  Likewise, the new 5th generation aircraft have been largely not understood because they are inherently multi-mission systems, which can be used for forward defense or forward offensive operations.

Indeed, an inherent characteristic of many new systems is that they are really about presence and putting a grid over an operational area, and therefore they can be used to support strike or defense within an integrated approach.  In the 20th Century, surge was built upon the notion of signaling.  One would put in a particular combat capability – a Carrier Battle Group, Amphibious Ready Group, or Air Expeditionary Wing – to put down your marker and to warn a potential adversary that you were there and ready to be taken seriously.  If one needed to, additional forces would be sent in to escalate and build up force.

With the new multi-mission systems – 5th generation aircraft and Aegis for example – the key is presence and integration able to support strike or defense in a single operational presence capability.  Now the adversary can not be certain that you are simply putting down a marker.

This is what former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne calls the attack and defense enterprise.

The strategic thrust of integrating modern systems is to create an a grid that can operate in an area as a seamless whole, able to strike or defend simultaneously.  This is enabled by the evolution of C5ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Combat Systems, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance), and it is why Wynne has underscored for more than a decade that fifth generation aircraft are not merely replacements for existing tactical systems but a whole new approach to integrating defense and offense.

In Operation Chimichanga, the USAF demonstrated the impact of an integrated air force upon an adversary.  “The first sign of the coming U.S. air raid was when the enemy radar and air-defense missile sites began exploding. The strikers were Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighters, flying unseen and faster than the speed of sound, 50,000 feet over the battlefield.”

Rather than flying the F-22 out of the theater, which happened in the Libyan case, it would be a great idea to fly the F-22 precisely to be available in the theater as part of a combined force package.  As General Hostage noted in an interview last year: We are operating in contested air space, and need to shape a distributed air operations capability. The F-22s aggregated in appropriate numbers can do some amazing and essential tasks…

The North Koreans need to get the point, that the rules of the Second Nuclear Age are not simply theirs to shape.

A key perspective on what needs to be done was provided by the head of the 7th USAF last year in an interview with us. Lt. General Jouas underscore the key role which air power plays in shaping the overall combat credibility of the joint and coalition force, or why F-22s need to be part of the shaping function for the Second Nuclear Age.

Air power, not unlike in 1950, will initially stem the flow of aggression against the ROK. Historically, the reason we were able to establish a defensive perimeter in 1950 was because air power was able to slow the advance of the North Korean Army as it moved south. Air power is always able to attack in depth; we’re able to operate at the strategic level, the operational level, and the tactical level.  An air campaign on the Korean peninsula would follow that blueprint, establishing air superiority and creating effects across the spectrum of a joint battle space. In doing so we would provide ground and naval forces the freedom to maneuver and engage, so that we jointly defeat the adversary.

We need to be able to attack in depth.  We also need to be able to attack at the forward edge of the battle space. We need to be operating against targets that will create not just tactical effects, but operational and strategic. We need to be operating cross domain, and by that I mean kinetic and non-kinetic effects, one reinforcing the other. One of our greatest advantages is our air operation center that will oversee the entire air campaign, and where I will be situated as the air component commander.

In a conversation we had last year with a senior Navy official, with significant Pacific experience, this Admiral argued that shaping escalation and de-escalation was the key to dealing with the various threats which the United States and its allies will encounter in the years ahead.

How the United States shapes its force package as part of the response to a nuclear power like North Korea in the Second Nuclear Age will go a long way to shaping the new rules of the game.

Editor’s Note: It appears that Secretary Hagel has caught the attention of the PRC.  Perhaps the high level of tolerance which the PRC has demonstrated for North Korea’s nuclear buildup might be recognized by Chinese leaders to come at a cost.

And this piece was written by a New York Times reporter who was denied his media credentials in late 2012 by the PRC.

China said Monday that the United States’ decision to strengthen antimissile defenses in response to threats from North Korea risked deepening regional tensions, underscoring Beijing’s caution on further pressuring the North despite its third nuclear test.

Earlier this month, China backed a United Nations Security Council resolution imposing banking, trade and travel sanctions on North Korea after it held the test on Feb. 12.

China’s warning was in response to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s announcement on Friday that the Pentagon would spend $1 billion to put in place more ballistic missile interceptors to counter the growing reach of North Korea’s weapons.

The 14 new interceptors will be in Alaska, where 26 of the existing 30 are already deployed, and American officials said the decision was meant to show its allies South Korea and Japan that the United States would muster the resources needed to deter the North.

But a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hong Lei, told reporters in Beijing that the decision risked adding to regional instability.

“Strengthening antimissile deployments and military alliances can only deepen antagonism and will be of no help to solving problems,” Mr. Hong said, in answer to a reporter’s question about Mr. Hagel’s announcement, according to a transcript on the Foreign Ministry’s Web site.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on AOL Defense.

Themes discussed in this SLD article are part of our look at shaping a 21st century Pacific strategy to be published later this year by Praeger Publishers.

Robbin Laird, Ed Timperlake and Richard Weitz, Rebuilding American Military Power: A 21st Century Strategy,

Our look at the makings of a 21st century pacific strategy highlights shaping capabilities for the second nuclear age as one of the four key drivers for change.  The core drivers as we see it and our discussed at length in the book can be seen in the graphic below:

Credit: Second Line of Defense