Meeting the North Korean Challenge: Building Out 21st Century Deterrent Capabilities


2013-04-22 By Robbin Laird

I had the privilege to study and work with Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski in my time as a student and for my first research job. With Brzezinski, one is always pushed towards the “Zbig” picture.  And for me, such engagement is always an important stimulus to re-thinking one’s assumptions and re-shaping one’s intellectual tapestry.

It seems the President got it right; it is time for the Pivot to the Pacific.

The challenge will be to shape an effective approach in this crisis and moving forward to ensure greater capability to manage crises in the region.

It was no different this week, when I visited him in his office and we settled down to discuss the current Korean crisis and the way ahead to deal with the crisis.  One concern which I have had in watching both the discussions about and the policy reactions to the crisis is the implicit assumption that what is occurring now is simply a replay of what has happened earlier.  To put it simply, the historical patterns seems to be the following: North Korea saber rattles, and uses the crisis to generate a new flow of revenue from those states most threatened by the saber rattling.

The North Korean crisis is establishing rules for the Second Nuclear Age. Washington clearly needs to focus on what we need to do to restore deterrence and to lay a foundation for the future. Credit Image: Bigstcok 


This crisis is different.

First, the North Koreans have a new leader, not necessarily engaged in following his predecessor’s pattern of behavior.

Second, North Korea has been evolving both warhead and delivery technologies, so a new crisis with new capabilities might lead to expectations of different outcomes than before.  Might nuclear threats reshape the military forces facing you in a positive way, from the perspective of the North Korean leader?

Third, Japan is different.  Japan may call their forces a self-defense force but they are becoming transformed into a “dynamic defense” force not simply willing to set back and take strikes.

Fourth, South Korea and Japan might well go nuclear in response to the evolution of North Korean capabilities and lack of restraint.  With the Administration publically committed to reductions in nuclear weapons and precious little focus on expanding deterrent warfighting capabilities, do Japan and South Korea want to depend on the “Battle of Benghazi” President?

It is clear that the current crisis is part of the learning process of the Second Nuclear Age as envisaged by Paul Bracken.  What those lessons are what rules of the road are being developed and we will know only when the current crisis has matured and receded in whatever manner in does so.

But for now, we can focus on what we need to do to restore deterrence and to lay a foundation for the future. 

Brzezinski emphasized the need for airpower to hold at risk the artillery capabilities of North Korea threatening South Korea, as well as being able to destroy delivery capabilities and being able to hold at risk the leadership.  And he emphasized the importance of discussing with the Chinese at the highest level what we were prepared to do, and that we would not accept an outcome dictated by North Korean threats.  We might even request their help in identifying targets with regard to holding leadership at risk.

Presumably, the Chinese might well take this discussion forward in providing advice to North Korea and providing a solid dose of reality.  It is important for the North Korean leadership to understand that the United States was not going to sit idly by and be blackmailed by North Korea and, more important than words, is mobilizing the capacity to underscore the reality of this position.

From my perspective, recovering a credible understanding of how the United States can leverage air and sea power to conduct significant strikes on an adversary like North Korea is crucial to shape positive outcomes in the Second Nuclear Age. Simply flying in a couple of B-2s and F-22s does not cut it.  It is more a PR stunt than a deterrent warfighting strategy.

What is needed is a ramp up of air and strike power integration and to build out from that integration effort over time the kind of attack and defense enterprise one will need for Pacific security and defense in the 21st century.

By deploying high-end airpower, F-22s and B-2s to start with, and better integration of the carrier strike force with high-end airpower; it will be possible to enhance the credibility of the deterrent power of an American strike force.  And crucial to this as well, will be the ability to integrate various subsurface and surface strike capabilities as well as target identification via various air-breathing and space based means as part of an integrated strike and defense force.

This crisis is as far from Afghanistan as possible. 

This is not a slow motion war in which ground forces are the key.  This is a fast paced crisis in which the invasion of North Korea is not the core deterrent force; an ability to eliminate launch vehicles and to hold the leadership at risk is. The US Army is not a centerpiece of Pacific deterrence.

As the crisis unfolds, winds down, or pauses, the Administration and the Congress might consider some budgetary actions which can show immediate attention to the detail necessary to enhance the warfighting deterrent character of US forces.

First, an immediate upgrade of the F-22s could be funded by putting the new MADL data link system into the aircraft to enable the fleet to operate more effectively as a strike fleet by communicating among themselves and back to the bombers more effectively.  With a Pacific F-35 fleet on the way, this would be an intelligent investment now and for the future.

It is also evident in such a crisis that an ability to go deep and destroy offensive and defensive systems deep in enemy territory is crucial.  Funding new weapons for the F-22, which could be used now and in the F-35 in the near future to play the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses or SEAD function, is crucial as well.  It is now time to prioritize the weapons revolution.

Second, establishing better data links between offensive forces such as the F-22 and B-1 and B-2 and defense systems such as Aegis and SM-3 would clarify that the response to threats like North Korea is not simply hunkering down to defend Anchorage. I referred to this in a Naval Institute piece as building the “long reach of aegis.”

Third, investment in a new strike system like the hypersonic cruise missile needs to be clearly and visibility made.  We are down to one last test; this makes little sense not only in terms of the crisis but also in terms of the strategic trajectory in the Pacific.

Fourth, Congress could fund the development and deployment of fuel tanks to extend the range of the F-22, which are integrated within the stealth profile.  According to Michael Wynne, 21st Secretary of the USAF, “such tanks are both doable and necessary to provide for enhanced time on station or range.”

We can re-enforce American deterrent capacity in the current crisis and build towards more effective 21st century at the same time.

As Ed Timperlake suggested about the impact of the crisis:

With the deployment of stealth aircraft, first B-2s and then F-22s, Hagel understood the importance of putting advanced US technology and capabilities up against the problem.  The B-2, now operating from more than 20 years, and in limited numbers and that “Cold War” weapon – the F-22 – suddenly recaptured recognition for what it is – part of deterrent warfighting capability against a lethal adversary with designs on American forces, lives and territory.

Instead of being a Cold War weapons, the question asked of the F-22 from the theater was a different one: how many can you send?

It is important to remember that all current 21st Century technology was built on the vision and commitment of bipartisan 20th Century politicians. We need a similar commitment by Republicans and Democrats to band together and build out the capabilities needed for the next decades of the 21st century.

This piece appeared earlier on AOL Defense.

A key problem are evident differences among key allies in dealing with North Korea.

For example, in this piece from The Japan Times there is a clear treatment of this theme.

The meetings Japanese leaders held this week with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Tokyo revealed subtle differences in their approaches to North Korea’s provocations, with Washington leaning toward dialogue to defuse tensions and Tokyo toward staying firm.

The differences are even more apparent between Tokyo and Seoul, which has sought direct dialogue with Pyongyang.

“Our choice is to negotiate,” Kerry said Sunday after meeting with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. “Our choice is to move to the table and find a way for the region to have peace. And we would hope . . . that they would come to the table in a responsible way and negotiate that.”

But on Monday, after agreeing to work closely in responding to the provocations, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Kerry: “You mentioned dialogue, but we have been betrayed by North Korea before. I don’t want you to forget that,” a source with knowledge of their conversation said.

The former Massachusetts senator also praised South Korean President Park Geun Hye’s offer Friday to resume dialogue with the North, saying her offer “should be welcomed.”

Kerry’s attitude toward Pyongyang was “more conciliatory than we had imagined,” a government source said in Tokyo.

The article adds the following:

Meanwhile, Washington appears partially motivated by concerns that the situation on the Korean Peninsula could spin out of control over misunderstandings with the North. In a sign of its shift to a more conciliatory approach, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama postponed the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile scheduled for April 9 to avoid the appearance of further provocations.

The United States is also seeking to strengthen cooperation with China, as the North’s longtime patron appears increasingly impatient with Pyongyang. Kerry praised Beijing for making what he said was a “strong statement of its commitment” to ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons.

Amid signs that the U.S. and China may be getting closer, Japan is uncertain how effectively it will be able to push its views should the stalled multilateral talks on denuclearizing North Korea resume.