In a previous post, I asked the question whether the use of drones for targeted killings could be become habit forming. President Obama’s speech on U.S. counter-terrorism policy at the National Defense University constituted a good-faith effort to answer this question. I appreciate that he avoids bumper-sticker answers to hard problems. So please bear with me for an overlong post.
The other day, I posted an entry at 38North outlining three scenarios for North Korea — that North Korea would eventually test a Musudan, that China has stayed Kim Jong Un’s hand for the moment and that North Korean politics have aligned against a test.
Two readers — Markus Schiller and Anon O’Moose — wrote in to observe that the piece would have been stronger had I considered a fourth scenario: what if the Musudan is not real at all?
I happent to think the Musudan is real for reasons I will explain, but I admit the piece would have been stronger had I considered the alternative possibility. Consider this compensation for that oversight.
In November 1996, I had the good fortune to attend an ISODARCO conference in Chengdu, with the added bonus of a side trip to visit China’s nuclear laboratory complex at Mianyang. Back then, ISODARCO – an enterprising Italian NGO founded in 1966 by Edoardo Amaldi and Carlo Schaerf — had somehow managed to corner the market on Track II conversations on strategic issues with Chinese counterparts. Not sure how the Italians managed to do this.
To my knowledge, the Mianyang visit was the first of its kind. Needless to say, foreign visitors were on a very short leash, but our entry was a significant gesture by our Chinese hosts, demonstrating serious intent to engage on strategic issues. These doors were soon closed as a result of the Cox Commission inquiry and report.
Jeffrey, our ACW information-gathering omnivore, somehow got ahold of my trip report and passed it along. My seventeen year-old assessment demonstrates, in dismaying detail, how ritualistic the anxieties over missile defenses have become. Countries of concern may have changed – back then, coercive PLA missile tests prompted debates over selling TMD to Taiwan — but not much else. Have a look:
After escaping the clutches of a term paper draft, it returns!
Associated Press | Whoops. Seems like the people in charge of the most powerful weapons known to man just weren’t up to the job, and needed a bit of extra training. Not the first mistake of this manner.
Navy Live | Apparently, the Navy actually listens to talk about nuclear force cuts. Hint: it doesn’t really like it.
Breaking Defense | The SM-3 Block IB missile seems to be working, following three successful tests since May of 2012.
Bloomberg | Gary Milhollin sees Iran’s nuclear plans as a long-term, not a near-term, threat.
We hope you enjoyed this installment of FYRP.
I have a new column up at Foreign Policy (“Death Wears Bunny Slippers”) considering this recent story at the Air Force has suspended 17 ICBM launch officers are Minot Air Force Base and initiated proceedings against another.
The column is largely an act of media criticism. After several Air Force mishaps relating to the handling of nuclear weapons systems came to light in 2007 and 2008, many of us began to argue that declining competence in the nuclear field was the inevitable result of the declining mission for nuclear-armed ICBMs and bombers.
What is interesting about the AP story about the disciplinary actions at Minot is that it represents an attempt to reframe that argument, blaming Global Zero and other arms control efforts for the loss of focus. As I note in the piece, the timeline of mishaps and disarmament talk simply doesn’t support such an inference. The increase in disarmament talk is, like the increase in mishaps, the effect of the declining utility of these systems.
Having said that, I wanted to explore the relationship between readiness and reporting in a way that I couldn’t fit in the column.
I touched briefly on the issue of politics inside North Korea, but wanted to have an extended discussion of the recent rumors of an assassination attempt against Kim Jong Un.
The reason for the rumors? North Korean awarded one of Pyongyang’s traffic wardens — a woman named Ri Kyong Sim – the title of “DPRK hero” for “safeguarding the security of the headquarters of the revolution in an unexpected circumstance.”
What sort of unexpected circumstance you ask? Maybe an assassination attempt?
The reality seems to be a little disappointing. New Focus International reported that Ri had extinguished a fire near a poster bearing the name of Kim Jong Un, a possibility also suggested by Andrei Lankov (subscription only).
Assassination is, of course, more interesting. There is a reason that Frederick Forsyth had the Jackal try to kill DeGaulle, rather than merely defacing his portrait.
Still, the fire-near-a-poster story strikes me as plausible. I thought maybe I might try to explain why.
Aspiring wonks, here is your end-of-semester exam question: It’s not OK to use cluster munitions in metropolitan areas, but it is OK to use nuclear weapons against targets that fall within or close to them. Yes? No? Under some circumstances? Explain.
States that possess nuclear weapons are reluctant to argue whether and how their use applies to the laws of armed conflict. To do so would risk undermining deterrence by nullifying battlefield applications, except as a last resort and for responses in kind. Even here, I suppose legal scholars, like The Hague Court, would have more than a few words to say.
Cluster bombs are not supposed to be used in built-up areas because they can have indiscriminate and long-lasting effects. Nuclear weapons, on the other hand, are widely presumed to be targeted against command and control, war-supporting industry, and leadership targets in and around cities.
Over at our Proliferation Prevention Program blog, you can see what my boss and I wrote regarding “The Dog That Didn’t Bark: Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation at the US-ROK May 2013 Presidential Summit.”
The first result of the decision to delay for most in my former line of work is likely to be relief. But two years is not that far away. And in terms of difficulty, may not be enough time to agree on a longer-term, 30- or 40-year agreement if the South keeps pushing on the enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) door. Congress has a role, and while it may be an imperfect place, our Constitution and our laws give us no other for adjudication of such matters.
It’s incumbent on the Administration to submit proposed language allowing this “extension” to come into force, and on Congress to examine it. At a minimum, the cognizant Committees ought to hold a hearing to establish clear legislative history, just in case we find that in 2015 we see another extension of this agreement being considered along side other, tough 123 agreements.
So far, only Voice of America has covered this matter. Note to Jack Spencer over at Heritage.org: What exactly is “proliferation-resistant used-fuel-management technology”? What makes it resist proliferation? And if it’s so good, why don’t we let everyone use it?
One of our more engaged commentators sent along the following open letter to Representative Michael Turner (R-OH), commenting on some of the more interesting statements in his latest letter to the President Barack Obama. He chose the nom de plume Anon O’Moose.
An Open Letter to Mr Turner, a Representative from Ohio
As an American taxpayer with engineering expertise in and historic experience with the topic of your letter to President Barack Obama on the 17th of April; I would like to address certain issues of fact in that letter. Missile Defense development consumes significant national treasure and personnel effort so careful adherence to fact based discussion is important to the security of the nation.
Over the years, I’ve been very interested in North Korea’s development of a new IRBM — called variously the SS-N-6 (US designation of a Soviet precursor system), the Musudan (US designation of the DPRK version) and the BM-25 (used in reference to kits allegedly exported from the DPRK to Iran), as well as a few other names.
The new IRBM is interesting because it represents a better base technology, in terms of more energetic propellants, than the Scud. One of the big debates about the community of people interested in North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities turns on the level of North Korean competence. Do they do it themselves? Do they have help? How far can they stretch and stack what are basically Scuds?
And now, does this new technology open up new possibilities, like a three-stage road-mobile ICBM?
Some, like Robert Schmucker and Markus Schiller, are skeptical. In our comments, Markus expressed his doubts:
[My] first impression by reading open source literature is either that the Musudan is based on the SS-N-6 because everybody knows that NK mastered SS-N-6 technology, or that NK mastered SS-N-6 technology because everybody knows that the Musudan is based on the SS-N-6. This is not a good starting point for further analysis. Remember: In assessments, it is way too easy for the author to confuse “we know” with “we think we know”!
As for me, I find this is a bit unfair — quite a lot of people, especially on this site, have spent plenty of time musing over whether the SS-N-6/BM-25/Musudan was just a paper missile or not. We’ve spent too much time trying to separate what “we know” from what
we think we know” to be accused of being confused. Wrong? Sure, it happens. Confused? Not so much.
So let me recount what we know, and think we know, about the SS-N-6 aka Musudan aka BM-25.