Deterring North Korea in the Second Nuclear Age


2014-01-17 Case 4: Deterring North Korea in the Second Nuclear Age

For the United States, the deterrence of North Korea is no longer reduced to the defense of South Korea.  It is about deterrence of states emerging in the second nuclear age.

There is significant global cross fertilization from the lessons being learned about North Korean behavior and pressures associated with the possession of a small nuclear force and able to gain affect far beyond the position of this force.

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?

This is what Paul Bracken has called the coming 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.

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.

The US Air Force has struggled to find its post-Afghan role.

Clearly, it can find it by leading the effort to shape a deterrent strategy in the second nuclear age.  The prominent thinkers of the first were closely tied to the USAF and its long period of innovation in the post-war period.

We need the same once again, and this must include serious debate and focus of attention on both shaping new conventional options as well as introducing nuclear warfighting considerations other than counter-value deterrence. 

For a thuggish regime such as the North Korean regime, credible leadership decapitation is the only threat, which is real as a deterrent.  This could come via a re-shaped conventional capability, a combined conventional and nuclear capability or a low yield and very precise nuclear capacity.

No option should be off the table when debating options and developing capabilities.  The USAF has a unique position in the American forces and can provide a solid leadership role for this effort.

In part this could be about shaping new options such as deployment of hypersonic cruise missiles with various warheads including electronic warfare warheads.

Mark Lewis, the former Chief Scientist of the Air Force and now head of IDA’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, is one the leading hypersonic experts in the world.  Lewis has underscored that a hypersonic cruise missile is the low hanging fruit of the hypersonics revolution.

In considering the impact of a high speed missile with evolutions in warheads carried by such missiles one can see the breakthrough possibilities.

The goal would be to marry the missile with warheads, which have the ability to get inside the electronics, the fire controls, the signals, the sensors of your opponent flying at hypersonic speeds.

With a forward deployed stealth fleet doing target identification as well being available rapidly to prosecute combat advantage from the results of the strike, American and allied forces would be not only more lethal, but a much more effective deterrent force.

Hypersonic cruise missiles are part of the competitive landscape with the Russians, the Indians and the Chinese all investing in these capabilities.

We have allies like Australia and France as core players as well in shaping future capabilities.  This is not a race one wants to lose to the Chinese, notably because the roll out of the stealth fleet could make such good use of such a capability.

Clearly investments need to be made in this area or more to the point pooled to shape an effective outcome.

But it is not just about technology.

It is about adapting defense strategies and concepts of operations to provide the space within which innovation can occur.

Re-crafting the U.S. posture in the defense of South Korea would provide a great place to start in shaping Pacific perceptions of the impact of fifth generation aircraft not just on the air element, but on the joint force and the coming of distributed operations to the deterrence of North Korea as well.

Recently, Secretary Wynne suggested that as the USAF brings its first squadrons of F-35s into being, that the USAF deploy those aircraft along with F-22s into the defense of South Korea.  Then over a relatively short period of time all fourth generation aircraft would be brought back to the United States from South Korea.

This would maximize the focus of attention on shaping a very different concept of operations for the defense of South Korea.

Not only would the area covered by the aircraft become radically different, with a variety of vectors whereby the attack and defense enterprise could operate, but re-shaping ground element could be facilitated as well.

As Secretary Wynne has articulated the strategic opportunity:

This is clearly the theater of highest utility for the emerging F-35.  With the F-22 to be the guardian of the Pacific Expanse; and perhaps even used in a partnership with the F-35, and the ROKAF forces. 

This would have the highest probability of training as a ’1000 Unit Air Fleet’ and the ROKAF, equipped as they are with terrific fourth generation fighters; would yearn to be protected and supportive of this Air Battle Management System proposed and promoted for the F-35.

One can as well see in the Korean Theater where in lieu of Aegis; can Army systems connected via a C2 system as well be the wingman for the F-35A’s/B’s or CV Versions.  

Service identified targets that will be well within the range of tactical missiles currently fielded and/or well into their design cycle.

With the width of the Peninsula inside the range of Naval Missiles, one can see the real need is off-boarding targets and serving them appropriately. 

Real Time Bomb Damage Assessment and even real time Psych warfare may reduce population losses, as all are aware that Regime Loyalty is strongest at the top.

Frankly; the operational concepts born in this crucible for combat; the training; the turnaround for weaponeers, training for both a stealth and non-stealth operational elements; and the maintenance construct seem ideal for an early if not the first deployment for this new highly capable fighter. If there remains a belief in peace through strength; this would illustrate it best.

In other words, the USAF has a real opportunity with the North Korean challenge and the South Korean defense effort to show leadership.

Not just studies, not just briefing slides, but introducing new aircraft, reshaping concepts of operations and working with the US Army to reshape how ground based defense is done in such a constricted theater of operation. 

The distributed operations force re-set of the USN and USMC would be a significant contributor as well because of the diversity of precision strike and missile defense embedded in a seabased force as well.

Through the pressure to shape innovation in dealing with South Korean defense and North Korean regional and global deterrence there is the opportunity to craft what might be called an S Cubed force.

Sensors, combined with stealth combined with speed can provide a new paradigm for shaping the Pacific force necessary for the U.S. in working in the Pacific.

At heart of getting the policy agenda right is to understand that warfare is highly interactive.

Buying, building and deploying yesterday’s technologies against evolving threats is a sure fire way of being in the wrong side of the outcome.

In short, innovation can drive change, but only by real world shifts in concepts of operations, by the introduction of new equipment and re-leveraging older ones in an enhancement of deterrence.

As such a force is built, one can determine what kind of nuclear tip it might be most effectively armed with, rather than simply being left with a counter value deterrent structure or a disconnected tactical nuclear option.


This article addressed how American military strategy is likely to evolve as it addresses fundamental challenges within which it is already involved or likely to become involved.

Because allies are more central to the successful execution of American political-military strategy in the decade ahead than in recent history, how those allies re-shape their forces and innovate will be central as well to the broader understanding of “American” strategy.

But this does not happen without introducing new systems, reshaping capabilities and crafting an effective force for the 21st century.

The United States, and its Allies need to analyze, conceive, and then build towards the force for the future.

We have seen recent engagements as coalitions, and thus the inter operation of command and control, as well as the implementation of force elements need training and practice.

Indeed, in key exercises this is what the United States and its allies are indeed doing.  Exercises such as the Bold Alligator series in which the USN-USMC team lead a joint and coalition effort to shape a flexible insertion force are being used precisely to determine the kind of C2 and ISR capabilities needed in the future.

For example, the exercise highlighted the core need for the coalition force to be able to craft over time greater capability to transfer the deconfliction of air tasks to integrated data systems.

Strike and air de-confliction requires significant coordination, and more automation of the data generated will over time assist in the improved flow of force through the deployed ships.

We have focused on what we believe are some of the core 21st century mission sets. 

Training clearly is testing out approaches and weapon systems necessary to deal with these missions.

We have identified three types of conventional mission sets and one designed to enhance nuclear deterrence.  With Afghanistan, the reworking of how to partner effectively globally without having to have large ground forces in place, and to have an economy of force but global reach to deal with COIN challenges was discussed.  With Mali, we looked at how expeditionary logistics can provide significant tools for more effective insertion, transition and withdrawal forces.

With the USMC in the Pacific, the emergence of distributed operations as a key approach to providing presence, deploying scalable forces and creating reachback capabilities was highlighted.  And with North Korea, the challenge will be to shape US-led and regionally effective deterrent forces, capabilities and strategies.  Indeed, the ability to deter missile threats from North Korea can be a good reminder to other powers seeking similar means to understand the limits of their capabilities when facing a US-led coalition.

We don’t claim that in one short article we have exhausted all of the possibilities or have discussed all of the force structure development issues.

But we do believe that in dealing with current challenges and crises and folding in new technologies and concepts of operations, the United States can effectively develop its forces for 21st century operations.

And we certainly understand that when we conclude the article, we clearly are not concluding the subject.

We are publishing in five parts a full draft of the article which appeared recently in Joint Force Quarterly.


Note to our readers:

We are launching soon a comprehensive look at the attributes and impacts of the second nuclear age on the Second Line of Defense Forum.

Paul Bracken, our guest editor for the forum has focused on the emergence of the second nuclear age as a key 21st century strategic challenge.

In the forum, we will address this challenge in its various manifestations.

The core point is rather simply put: the rules that applied to the first nuclear age do not necessarily apply to the second.  The new nuclear powers are acquiring nuclear weapons or on paths to obtain them as part of a re-shaping of global dynamics within the 21st century and to re-shape global power balances.

Rather than relegating nuclear weapons to the dustbin of history, the new nuclear powers are seeking to make them center pieces of their global aspirations and ability to position themselves within their regions and beyond.

In short, we will address the emerging rules of the road as global powers compete to define the role of nuclear weapons within the second nuclear age.