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Chuck Hagel’s First Test: North Korea and the Second Nuclear Age

Posted by Robbin Laird on

How do you deter a nuclear power like North Korea when it looks as if 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? In a world of dynamic learning, the North Koreans watched the NATO-Obama led operation in Libya. They concluded that nucs are very useful to keep the United States and its allies at bay.

But in America there has been a persistent avoidance of the nasty questions of what Paul Bracken of Yale University calls 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 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.

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 faces just such a rule-creating crisis in North Korea. They are a nuclear power but they refuse to play by Cold War deterrence rules. Instead, they play a military game of escalation and de-escalation, not simply a go-to-the-UN-and-pile-on-sanctions moment. At stake is not only war or peace, but what Japan and South Korea will do about nuclear capabilities in the future.

North Korea’s actions could well result in three nuclear powers being added to China and Russia in the region. For all the critics lambasted Chuck Hagel during his Senate Armed Services Committee nomination hearing, his first strategic instinct was to do the right thing.

Secretary of Defense Hagel, a former presidential appointee of Ronald Reagan’s, is preparing America against a clear and present danger. Although it will take time, he has made an important and 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 just gave the enemies of America an unambiguous signal that our 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, Hagel announced 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 during an afternoon briefing at the Pentagon.

Anyone who has been awarded two Purple Hearts as an infantry sergeant in Vietnam knows personally how to stand firmly against aggression. Friday’s 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.

Jong-un made two announcements: first, that they are at war; AND, second, that they reserve the right to make a preemptive nuke strike against America.

This is an existential threat that must be dealt with. The next time the North Koreans ready a three-stage missile on a launch pad the administration may well face a life and death decision. By the rules of war US has every right to blow North Korea to hell and back. This is not an abstract issue.

In the late nineties, for example, a successful North Korean launch came down much closer to Hawaii than the American people were lead to believe. Now, the leadership of North Korea is presenting the US National Command Authority and, especially, Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper with a fundamental challenge. Does the U.S. have significant credible intelligence to know what is really happening?

Beyond the DNI, how will the Obama 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, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hugh Shelton, a very decent and honest man, wrote a letter to Sen. Jim Inhofe stating that there we would have at least a three-year warning of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile threat, such as the 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! 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 one part of Hagel’s approach. But the shaping function requires more than this. We need to put in play new combat capabilities the U.S. has deployed –including the “Cold War” weapon, the F-22. An exercise last year highlighted some of its capabilities. This would be a time to remind the North Koreans of how effective an integrated force structure approach can be.

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, new fifth generation aircraft such as the F-22 and the F-35 have been largely not understood because they are inherently multi-mission systems, which can be used for forward defense or fpr forward offensive operations.

In Operation Chimichanga, the Air Force 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 to be available in the theater as part of a combined force package. As Gen. Michael Hostage, head of Air Combat Command, 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 theirs to shape.

Many of these themes about how to shape a 21st century Pacific strategy, will be included in a book, Rebuilding American Military Power: A 21st Century Strategy, to be published later this year by Praeger Publishers. The authors are Robbin Laird, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, Ed Timperlake and Richard Weitz.

What do you think?