“Listen up, yo: I’m deterring you now”
In case everyone in Northeast Asia missed it, in spite of their intelligence and early-warning networks which have assuredly been tracking it in fine detail, the Obama Defense Department announced on Monday that the U.S. has been deterring North Korea by sending B-52 bombers on practice runs in its vicinity. The specter of nuclear deterrence was clarified by Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter:
Deputy defense secretary Ashton Carter said during a visit to South Korea on Monday that the bomber flights are part of the U.S. “extended deterrence”—the use of U.S. nuclear forces to deter North Korea, which conducted its third underground nuclear test Feb. 12.
Nukes! I say. Nukes! Pay attention, dudes.
As Bill Gertz demurely puts it, “It is unusual for the Pentagon to make such overt statements about the use of strategic nuclear forces in Asia Pacific.”
Indeed. That’s because such overt statements are a form of strutting and posturing that makes the U.S. look foolish. Kim Jong-Un may be a weirdo who hangs out with Dennis Rodman, but he knows we have nukes. North Korea wants nukes because the U.S., Russia, and China have them, and, in the crudest sense, they make us powerful – if not invincible, at least hard for anyone else to deter.
Making pointed comments about “extended deterrence” comes off as a novice’s imitation of what he thinks a tough security policy sounds like. It’s kind of informative, in fact: this is what the political left thinks is necessary for achieving deterrence. You have to remind everyone about your nukes.
It’s not like decision-makers in North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China have been unaware of our big exercise with the B-52 participation. Their radars track the B-52s all over the air space off the coast of Northeast Asia. Each of them has a foreign-forces guide that informs every soldier and airman of the nuclear role played by the B-52 in the U.S. deterrence arsenal. They fully understand what they’re seeing when the B-52s show up.
But to publicly emphasize the U.S. nuclear deterrent in this circumstance is misdirected anyway, if the deterrence target is North Korea. For Pyongyang, evidence of the U.S. commitment to South Korea has been shown most effectively by our conventional military cooperation, which includes thousands of troops stationed in the South. The nuclear threat is always implicitly there, but it isn’t needed to deter Kim Jong-Un. We can take him down without going nuclear. The audience for nuclear deterrence is Russia and China, and the point of it has always been to deter them from trying to settle the Korean situation themselves, to the detriment of our allies and interests in the region.
Is there any sense being fostered by anyone in the Obama administration that China or Russia needs special nuclear-deterring in the current situation with North Korea? Does anyone at all, even outside the administration, think that’s necessary? I don’t see that theme being retailed anywhere. It makes no sense to rattle the nuclear saber at Kim Jong-Un. But no case has been made that it ought to be rattled at Vladimir Putin or Li Keqiang either.
Nukes aren’t something you wave around like a drunk brandishing a knife. The current situation has that feel to it, however. Consider another aspect of it that the Northeast Asian nations are sophisticated enough to understand: that U.S. nuclear-armed submarines are not sitting “near South Korean waters,” as claimed in additional South Korean news reporting cited by Gertz. Sitting near South Korean waters would be pointless. If a U.S nuke were ever launched at North Korea from a submarine, it would be launched from out in the Pacific by a ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). We don’t have any other submarine-launched nukes today.
The nuclear Tomahawk missile (TLAM-N), formerly launched by attack submarines, was removed from U.S. ships and submarines in 1991 and put in storage. Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review recommended eliminating the TLAM-N from the U.S. inventory, and, as described by the Federation of American Scientists, the new 2013 version of the Navy’s baseline instruction on nuclear weapons contains no section on the TLAM-N. This indicates that the TLAM-N is no longer in the inventory of nuclear weapons.
All tactical nuclear weapons having now been retired from the U.S. arsenal, there is no submarine-launched nuke that could be fired from a position “near South Korean waters.” No one in Northeast Asia lacks the intelligence or resources to figure that out. How did that impression get left with the South Korean media?
Perhaps the Obama administration imagines that it’s appropriate to pointedly warn North Korea about our nukes because Kim has a nuclear weapon himself? The leap of logic here is fatal to stability, if that’s the thinking. Even if Kim expended his one or handful of nuclear warheads, it is in the highest degree unlikely that we would use nukes on him, for the simple reason that it isn’t necessary. If Kim getting one nuke causes the U.S. to begin treating North Korea like a credible nuclear power, then that one nuke has accomplished its purpose, and everyone else across the globe will want to try it.
There might be a neighborhood in which having a crude warhead or two makes one a member of an elite nuclear-armed “club” – but it isn’t Northeast Asia. North Korea has not achieved the ultimate goal of the nuclear-armed dictator: invulnerability to deterrence. Kim is still badly overmatched in every way by Russia, China, and the U.S. – and, in fact, is overmatched conventionally by South Korea and Japan as well, if it came to that. It is unseemly and off-kilter for the U.S. to get into a nuclear showdown with North Korea.
There might or might not be utility in giving a bit of “informational” emphasis to our exercise series with South Korea right now, with the North being so obstreperous. But there is no need to issue reminders of our nuclear capabilities. Doing so, in fact, comes off as uncalibrated and a bit hysterical.