North Korea’s Missile Boats

10 September 2016

Saturday


The Dear Leader watches a SLBM test.

The Dear Leader watches a SLBM test.

The missile boat (SSBN) — a submarine capable of launching ballistic missiles (SLBM) while at sea — was the ultimate weapons system of the Cold War, and now North Korea has them. North Korea has just conducted its fifth nuclear teat, and before that it conducted a successful missile launch from a submarine. Thus North Korea possesses all the elements necessary to mount a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile and to fire such missiles from a submarine at sea.

The official North Korean news agency has made the connection between ballistic missiles and the most recent nuclear test explicit in a press report DPRK Succeeds in Nuclear Warhead Explosion Test:

“The standardization of the nuclear warhead will enable the DPRK to produce at will and as many as it wants a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power with a firm hold on the technology for producing and using various fissile materials. This has definitely put on a higher level the DPRK’s technology of mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic rockets.”

There are only nine (9) nation-states that possess nuclear weapons (the US, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel, the latter a non-declared nuclear state), and seven (7) nation-states with a nuclear SLBM capability (the US, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, and North Korea). This is a small and exclusive club — half the number of nation-states who operate aircraft carriers (i.e., 15) — but, as we see, it is a club that can be crashed. If a nation-state like North Korea is willing to neglect the needs of its citizens and invest its national resources in weapons systems, even a poor and isolated nation-state can join this select club.

It should be noted that all of these advanced weapons systems — weapons systems such as submarines, ballistic missiles, and nuclear weapons, which require years, if not decades, to produce — have been developed or acquired while North Korea was actively engaged in “peace” negotiations (the “six party talks”), as well as throughout the era of “Sunshine Policy” diplomacy by South Korea (which was in place for almost a decade, from 1998 to 2007), which era included paying North Korea about 200 million USD to attend the June 2000 North–South summit. The most obdurate forms of denialism would be necessary in order to construe either diplomatic negotiations or the Sunshine Policy as possessing even limited efficacy, given that North Korea has developed its missile boats under these diplomatic umbrellas. We should not try to conceal from ourselves the magnitude of this failure.

Why would North Korea choose to invest its limited resources into the development of missile boats rather than providing for the basic needs of the North Korean people, such as food, electricity, education, hospitals, and shelter? John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies, was quoted on the BBC as saying:

“Above all else, North Korea’s nuclear programme is about security — it is, by their estimation, the only reliable guarantee of the country’s basic sovereignty, of the Communist regime’s control, and of the rule of Kim Jong-un.”

This quote perfectly illustrates the imperative of what J. Rufus Fears called “national freedom” (and which I recently discussed in Eight Permutations of Freedom, Following J. Rufus Fears): North Korea sees itself as securing its national freedom, i.e., sovereignty and autonomy, first and foremost. The imperative of sovereignty and the imperataive of regime survival, moreover, are identical when national sovereignty and the regime are identified, and this identification is usually a key goal of propaganda.

Given the imperatives of sovereignty and regime survival, why a missile boat? Why not a supersonic bomber? Why not an aircraft carrier? Why not build a hybrid warfare capacity? I have already noted above that the missile boat was the ultimate Cold War weapons system. Why was the missile boat the ultimate Cold War weapons system? Because it is difficult to track submarines under the sea (when submerged they can’t be seen by satellites), and because submarines can approach the coastline of any continent and fire missiles at close range. A missile fired off the coast of a nation-state on a depressed trajectory could reach its target with a nuclear warhead in ten minutes or less, which is too short of a response time for even the most advanced anti-missile systems. The US would have a reasonable chance of taking out a land-based ICBM launched from North Korean soil, but there is little that the US could do about an SLBM a few minutes away from a major coastal city.

Missile boats were originally conceived as a “second strike” capability; that is to say, if a major nuclear exchange took place between the superpowers, it was assumed that land-based ballistic missiles and air bases (which could put nuclear-armed bombers in the air) would be mostly destroyed in the first strike, but no nuclear planner was so optimistic as to believe that even a massive, thorough, and precise first strike could also destroy all missile boats at sea. Thus a nuclear “sneak attack” could not achieve a perfect counterforce result (i.e., disarming the enemy), and the attacker would still bear the brunt of nuclear retaliation. Nuclear deterrence was guaranteed by missile boats.

Understood as a second strike weapon upon its introduction, the SSBN was conceived as an integral part of the nuclear “triad,” which also included land-based ICBMs and nuclear-armed bombers. Continuing technological advances transformed the SSBN from one leg of the stool to the primary strategic weapon. Missiles became more accurate, and MIRVed warheads allowed one missile to carry multiple warheads. The only reason that ICBMs still exist today is because they have a political and economic constituency; there is no longer any military need for ICBMs, which are the most vulnerable part of the nuclear triad. There is still good reason to have nuclear-armed bombers, but submarines can carry more missiles than a bomber, can stay away from its base longer than a bomber, and is more difficult to find than a bomber. All of these advantages have contributed to making the SSBN the primary strategic weapons system.

Given the status of SSBNs as the primary strategic weapon, submarine warfare become increasingly important throughout the Cold War. Soviet and American subs tracked each other through the world’s oceans. There is an entire book devoted to the Cold War submarine theater, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage. I strongly recommend this book, as it describes in detail the technologically sophisticated but also dramatically human story of the attempt by both the US and the USSR to track each other’s missile boats at sea, which was a grand cat-and-mouse game that endured throughout the Cold War, and indeed probably endures to this day in a modified form. Now the impoverished and paranoid nation-state of North Korea is a player in this game.

Given the technical difficulty of submarine warfare, we should not expect North Korea’s first efforts to be any match for the Russians or the Americans, but the point is that, as they enter into this deadly game, they will incrementally improve their technology and operations. One would not expect that North Korean missile boats could patrol the west coast of North America without being discovered, at their present level of technology and operations, but in ten or twenty years that might change. At the present moment, the US and NATO allies possess definitive technological superiority over North Korean submarine assets, but we can easily predict that these assets will not be effectively employed against North Korea, because the same technological superiority was not employed to prevent them from developing these weapons systems in the first place. As long as no nation-state has the stomach to confront North Korea, it will continue to improve its arsenal of strategic weapons. By the time it becomes necessary to act to counter North Korea’s strategic weapons systems, these weapons systems will be better than they are today, and the confrontation more costly than it would be today.

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Note Added 03 October 2016: Several articles have appeared today noting new satellite imagery that suggests North Korea is building a larger missile boat than anything presently in their submarine fleet, cf. North Korea Building Massive New Ballistic Missile Submarine For Nuclear Strikes.

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Thursday


An official photograph of Kim Jong-un from a KCNA on 'WPK Central Committee Issues Order to Conduct First H-Bomb Test'

An official photograph of Kim Jong-un from a KCNA on ‘WPK Central Committee Issues Order to Conduct First H-Bomb Test’

An official announcement has been made that North Korea has successfully tested an H-Bomb; global response to this announcement has been both skeptical and critical. Here (in part) is the official announcement from the English language version of KCNA (Korean Central News Agency, run by the DPRK) from DPRK Proves Successful in H-bomb Test:

The first H-bomb test was successfully conducted in Juche Korea at 10:00 on Wednesday, Juche 105 (2016), pursuant to the strategic determination of the WPK. Through the test conducted with indigenous wisdom, technology and efforts the DPRK fully proved that the technological specifications of the newly developed H-bomb for the purpose of test were accurate and scientifically verified the power of smaller H-bomb. It was confirmed that the H-bomb test conducted in a safe and perfect manner had no adverse impact on the ecological environment. The test means a higher stage of the DPRK’s development of nuclear force.

It is thought unlikely that North Korea has the technological and engineering expertise to produce an H-bomb, but it is generally conceded that this is nevertheless possible, and, if the announcement is true, it is an unwelcome development that has already been officially denounced by the UN Security Council. Nation-states skeptical of the H-bomb claim made by North Korea have already moved to condemn the development, just in case it may be true.

There are good reasons for skepticism in the international community. Not only are the seismic signatures of the test smaller than would be expected from an H-bomb, but North Korea has a long history of bluster regarding its weapons systems. The DPRK relies as much on the bluster as on the weapons systems themselves for deterrent effect.

In How Scientists Know the North Korea Blast Probably Wasn’t an H-Bomb: It’s too similar to earlier explosions. we read regarding the DPRK nuclear weapon test:

“An actual hydrogen bomb has a seismic signature similar to an atomic weapon’s. But its explosive yield is in the much larger megaton range. It’s more likely North Korea ‘turbo-charged’ a normal atomic explosion by adding a small amount of tritium to the bomb’s core rather than inventing a miniature hydrogen bomb from scratch.”

There are several separable issues in this paragraph that should be distinguished. Miniaturization of a nuclear device is distinct from the capability of building the device, although the more progress a nation-state makes in miniaturization, the better the weaponization of a ballistic missile (another technology that North Korea has been pressing to develop). There is a first threshold of a nuclear device small enough to be delivered by an ICBM, and a second threshold of miniaturization when MIRVed ICBMs become possible. But presumably the reference to a “miniature” hydrogen bomb refers to the small size of the seismic signature and the DPRK’s own reference to the test being of a “smaller H-bomb.” A smaller fusion device is a greater technical and engineering challenge to build, but it does not require a distinct design (i.e., inventing from scratch). There have been several disputed nuclear tests (particularly those conducted by Pakistan) upon which nuclear scientists disagree whether the tests were “fizzles” or whether a more severe test was purposefully conducted in order to obtain a more rigorous result. Until actual test data are made publicly available (not likely for a hundred years or more) we cannot know the answer to this question, and we similarly cannot know the answer in relation to the DPRK tests.

In regard to what this article refers to as a “turbo-charged” fission device, boosted fission weapons are an important aspect of nuclear technology that any aspiring nuclear weapons power would want to master. It is entirely possible that North Korea’s most recent nuclear test is a boosted fission device that is more powerful than an unboosted fission device but less powerful than a “true” fusion device, and indeed there is a sense in which even “true” fusion devices are boosted fission bombs, as much of the yield even from a Teller-Ulam configuration device is from boosted fission, although the term “true” H-bomb is usually reserved for a fully scalable two-stage device.

As for inventing a hydrogen bomb from scratch, if Ulam and Sakharov could each independently converge upon essentially the same design sixty years ago, there is no reason that a North Korean nuclear scientist could not come up with essentially the same design again from “scratch” — except that is isn’t from scratch. Once the idea has had its proof of concept and everyone knows it can be built, it is only a question of whether a nation-state is going to invest the resources into building such a device.

The first Soviet fusion device was also controversial in its time: the US was skeptical that the Soviets had the technology and expertise to build a fusion device, and indeed the first Soviet fusion device was not a “true” fusion device like the Ivy Mike test of the US, but was rather Sakharov’s “sloika” or “layer cake” design — more powerful than a simple fission device, but less powerful than the first fusion device detonated by the US. But the Soviets rapidly closed the gap, and Sakharov eventually hit on the same design that Stanislaw Ulam had earlier and independently arrived at in the US.

The technology of an H-bomb is significantly more challenging than that of an A-bomb. To produce a simple fission weapon it is only necessary to possess a sufficient quantity of fissionable material and bring this material together into a critical mass. The basic idea is simple, though the engineering challenge is still difficult. While quite a few details of A-bomb design are available in open sources, exact details necessary to building a successful device are classified secrets of all nuclear weapons powers. A simple gun-type device achieves critical mass by using an explosive charge to rapidly drive together to sub-critical masses into a single critical mass (this is the design of the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima). A more difficult design to master is an implosion device, in which critical mass is achieved by a symmetrical implosion of concentrically layered fissionables (this is the design of the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagisaki).

Constructing an H-bomb requires mastery of an implosion-type fission device that is used to trigger the more powerful fusion device. As with fission weapons, all the design ideas of fusion devices are available in open sources, and the only difficulty in constructing such a device is, firstly, obtaining the fissionables for the fission trigger, and, secondly, mastering the engineering details of compressing the fusion secondary by means of the fission trigger. We know that North Korea can produce a fission weapon, likely of an implosion type, so it is really only a matter of engineering before the North Koreans are able to employ their fission weapon technology to produce a fusion device. All of this requires time and effort and a dedicated work force, but there is nothing in principle secret about the production of an H-bomb.

In Weapons Systems in an Age of High Technology: Nothing is Hidden I emphasized, even in a time of escalating state security and the culture of the universal surveillance state, that there are no secrets in high technology weapons systems. High technology weapons systems are a function of advanced science and an industrial base that allows for the large scale application of scientific ideas in military technologies. Science itself functions through openness, so that the ideas behind even the most well-guarded weapons programs are developed out in the open, as it were.

Even if the largest and most powerful nation-states attempted to create a small cadre of scientists to develop new science in secret, this closed community would be out-paced in its scientific development by the open community of scientific researchers. It is almost impossible — not entirely impossible, but almost — to make high technology weaponry derived from “secret” scientific advances that cannot be bettered by weaponry designed and built on the principles of publicly available science. This is a reality of industrial-technological civilization that we cannot wish away. At a time when science was the province of isolated geniuses and no political entity in existence had a fully industrialized infrastructure, a secret weapon like Greek Fire could be maintained in secrecy for hundreds of years, but this is no longer the world that we live in.

The technology of the H-bomb is now more than sixty years old. If we consider the pace of technological change in other fields, sixty years is like ancient history, so we should not be surprised when sixty year old technology is developed by poor and backward nation-states. In the early and remarkably prescient anthology ONE WORLD or NONE: A Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb Oppenheimer’s contribution noted that one of the effects of nuclear weapons was to make destruction far cheaper than in the past:

“In this past war it cost the United States about $10 a pound to deliver explosive to an enemy target. Fifty thousand tons of explosive would thus cost a billion dollars to deliver. Although no precise estimates of the costs of making an atomic bomb equivalent to 50,000 tons of ordinary explosive in energy release can now be given, it seems certain that such costs might be several hundred times less, possibly a thousand times less. Ton for equivalent ton, atomic explosives are vastly cheaper than ordinary explosives. Before conclusions can be drawn from this fact, a number of points must be looked at. But it will turn out that the immediate conclusion is right: Atomic explosives vastly increase the power of destruction per dollar spent, per man-hour invested; they profoundly upset the precarious balance between the effort necessary to destroy and the extent of the destruction.”

ONE WORLD or NONE: A Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb, Edited by Dexter Masters and Katharine Way, 1946, “The New Weapon: The Turn of the Screw,” J. Robert Oppenheimer, p. 24

Oppenheimer’s observation remains true seventy years later, and what it means today is that even one of the most impoverished and mismanaged economies on the planet can afford to build nuclear weapons. Most nation-states do not build nuclear weapons because of the international pressure not to do so, but rogue states or pariahs of the international community are unconcerned about their standing among other nation-states, and pursue nuclear weapons programs in spite of sanctions and disapproval, valuing military power over international reputation.

In terms of international reputation, North Korea does not even scruple to offend its single ally and sponsor, China, and to do so at the expense of pet projects of the regime. The members of Moranbong Band, reportedly hand-picked by Kim Jong-un, canceled their first scheduled international concert in Beijing and returned to North Korea (North Korean pop band cancels Beijing concert, leaves for home) because the North Koreans would not remove images of North Korean missile launches from videos to be projected during their performance (cf. Kim Jong Un Spurns Xi’s Efforts to Bring Him in From the Cold by David Tweed), but probably also because North Korea knew that China would strongly object to their nuclear test.

Whether or not the North Koreans can build a “true” fusion device at present, whether or not they were lying about their nuclear test, is beside the point. What is relevant is that they have an active nuclear weapons research project and intend to continue with the development of nuclear weapons until they possess a credible nuclear deterrent as the ultimate expression of regime survivability. We can count on the DPRK continuing their development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and eventually even submarine-launched ballistic missiles. All of these are difficult and expensive yet decades old technologies that can eventually be mastered by a determined nation-state.

We know that the North Korean regime cannot survive indefinitely, because tyranny cannot endure, but we also know that tyranny always fails but democracy does not always prevail. While it is difficult to imagine that what follows the North Korean regime could be worse, China can easily imagine this: millions of North Koreans fleeing over the border and destabilizing parts of China, and eventually a unified Korea that is an ally of the US sharing a border with China. In this, the Chinese and the North Koreans can agree, as for both the “nightmare” scenario is regime collapse that destabilizes Chinese and ends in the removal of the ruling elite in North Korea. The “nightmare” scenario for Seoul and its allies is a North Korean nuclear strike against South Korea, Japan, or the US mainland.

Given the North Korean regime’s dedication to assuring its own survival through the possession of a nuclear deterrent (an imperative shared by the Communist Party elites in China), the interesting question is not the details of the present state of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent, but whether the North Korean regime can persist for a period of time sufficient to produce a truly robust and viable strategic deterrence, complete with MIRVed SLBMs. If the North Koreans can attain this level of technologically sophisticated deterrence within the next few decades, even if the regime fails (as with the Soviet Union) the successor power will still retain a powerful bargaining chip, and can present itself as Putin’s Russia today presents itself: as a world power, even if a world power of questionable stability. The privileged political and military families that run the country today could then count on retaining at least a part of their privileges for their descendants. If, on the other hand, the DPRK collapses ignominiously before converging upon a viable strategic deterrence, South Korea will likely manage the transition, privileged families will lose all of their power, and South Korea will almost certainly completely dismantle the strategic defense programs of the North Korean regime. Nothing will remain of the DPRK, under this scenario, except for the stories of the horrors of its rule.

The generals running the country, who present themselves in public as dutifully taking notes while the “Dear Leader” dispenses his wisdom, are looking out for themselves and their heirs. In any transition, the ruling Kim family will lose its position. The excesses of a dictatorship, then, are borne as the opportunity cost of ensuring the ongoing power and privileges of a ruling elite regardless of the details of the transition of power when the North Korean regime inevitably fails and falls. The military and their cronies in business and government are prepared to hang on to power for the long term, as they have seen similarly entrenched elites hang on to power in nation-states like Egypt, which have passed through revolution and regime change with little underlying change.

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Thursday


Accidental leak, or timed disclosure? From a strategic standpoint, it doesn't really matter, because the weapons system itself is what counts here.

Accidental leak, or timed disclosure? From a strategic standpoint, it doesn’t really matter, because the weapons system itself is what counts here.

It caused quite a stir today when it was announced that the Russians had accidentally released some details of a proposed submersible weapons system (the Status-6, or Статус-6 in Russian) when television coverage of a conference among defense chiefs broadcast a document being held by one of the participants. This was first brought to my attention by a BBC story, Russia reveals giant nuclear torpedo in state TV ‘leak’. The BBC story led me to Russia may be planning to develop a nuclear submarine drone aimed at ‘inflicting unacceptable damage’ by Jeremy Bender, which in turn led me to Is Russia working on a massive dirty bomb? on the Russian strategic nuclear forces blog, which latter includes inks to a television news segment on Youtube, where you can see (at 1:48) the document in question. A comment on the article includes a link to a Russian language media story, Кремль признал случайным показ секретного оружия по Первому каналу и НТВ, that discusses the leak.

This news story is only in its earliest stages, and there are already many conflicting accounts as to exactly what was leaked and what it means. There is also the possibility that the “leak” was intentional, and meant for public consumption, both domestic and international. There is nothing yet on Janes or Stratfor about this, both of which sources I would consider more reliable on defense than the BBC or any mainstream media outlet. There is a story on DefenseOne, Russia: We Didn’t Mean to Show Everyone Our Massive New Nuclear Torpedo, but this seems to be at least partly derivative of the BBC story.

The BBC story suggested the the new Russian torpedo could carry a “dirty bomb,” or possibly a Colbalt bomb, as well as suggesting that it could carry a 100-megaton warhead. These possible warhead configurations constitute the extreme ends of the spectrum of nuclear devices. A “dirty bomb” that is merely a dirty bomb and not a nuclear warhead is a conventional explosive that scatters radioactive material. Such a device has long been a concern for anti-terrorism policy, because the worry is that it would be easier for terrorists to gain access to nuclear materials than to a nuclear weapon. Scattering radioactive elements in a large urban area would not be a weapon of mass destruction, but it has been called a “weapon of mass disruption,” as it would doubtless be attended by panic as as the 24/7 news cycle escalated the situation to apocalyptic proportions.

At the other end of the scale of nuclear devices, either a cobalt bomb or a 100-megaton warhead would be considered doomsday weapons, and there are no nation-states in the world today constructing such devices. The USSR made some 50-100 MT devices, most famously the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated, but no longer produces these weapons and is unlikely to retain any in its stockpile. It was widely thought that these enormous weapons were intended as “counterforce” assets, as, given the technology of the time (i.e., the low level of accuracy of missiles at this time), it would have required a warhead of this size to take out a missile silo on the other side of the planet. The US never made such large weapons, but its technology was superior, so if the US was also building counterforce missiles at this time, they could have gotten by with smaller yields. The US arsenal formerly included significant numbers of the B53, with a yield of about 9 MT, and before that the B41, with a yield of about 25 MT, but the US dismantled the last B53 in 2011 (cf. The End of a Nuclear Era).

Nuclear weapons today are being miniaturized, and their delivery systems are being given precision computerized guidance systems, so the reasons for building massively destructive warheads the only purpose of which is to participate in a MAD (mutually assured destruction) scenario have disappeared (mostly). A cobalt bomb (as distinct from a dirty bomb, with which it is sometimes confused, as both a dirty bomb and a cobalt bomb can be considered radiological weapons) would be a nuclear warhead purposefully configured to maximize radioactive fallout. In the case of the element cobalt, its dispersal by a nuclear weapon would result in the radioactive isotope cobalt-60, a high intensity gamma ray emitter with a half-life of 5.26 years — remaining highly radioactive for a sufficient period of time that it would likely poison any life that survived the initial blast of the warhead. The cobalt bomb was first proposed by physicist Leó Szilárd in the spirit of a warning as to the direction that nuclear technology could take, ultimately converging upon human extinction, which became a Cold War touchstone (cf. Existential Lessons of the Cold War).

The discussion of the new Russian weapon Status-6 (Статус-6) in terms of dirty bombs, cobalt bombs, and 100 MT warheads is an anachronism. If a major power were to build a new nuclear device today, they would want to develop what have been called fourth generation nuclear weapons, which is an umbrella term to cover a number of innovative nuclear technologies not systematically researched due to both the end of the Cold War and the nuclear test ban treaty. (On the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty cf. The Atomic Age Turns 70) Thus this part of the story so far is probably very misleading, but the basic idea of a nuclear device on a drone submersible is what we need to pay attention to here. This is important.

I am not surprised by this development, because I predicted it. In WMD: The Submersible Vector of January 2011 I suggested the possibility of placing nuclear weapons in drone submersibles, which could then be quietly infiltrated into the harbors of major port cities (or military facilities, although these would be much more difficult to infiltrate stealthily and to keep hidden), there to wait for a signal to detonate. By this method it would be possible to deprive an adversary of major cities, port, and military facilities in one fell swoop. The damage that could be inflicted by such a first strike would be just as devastating as the first strikes contemplated during the Cold War, when first strikes were conceived as a massive strike by ICBMs coming over the pole. Only now, with US air superiority so far in advance of other nation-states, it makes sense to transfer the nuclear strategic strike option to below the world’s oceans. Strategically, this is a brilliant paradigm shift, and one can see a great many possibilities for its execution and the possible counters to such a strategy.

During the Cold War, the US adopted a strategic defense “triad” consisting of nuclear weapons deliverable by ground-based missiles (ICBMs), jet bombers (initially the subsonic B-52, and later supersonic bombers such as the B-1 and B-2), and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Later this triad was supplemented by nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, which represent the beginning of a disruptive change in nuclear strategy, away from massive bombardment to precision strikes.

The Russians depended on ground-based ICBMs, of which they possessed more, but, in the earlier stages of the Cold War Russian ICBMs were rather primitive, subject to failure, and able to carry only a single warhead. As Soviet technology caught up with US technology, and the Russians were able to build reliable missile boats and MIRVs for their ICBMs, the Russians too began to converge upon a triad of strategic defense, adding supersonic bombers (the Tu-22M “Backfire” and then the Tu-160 “Blackjack”) and missile boats to their ground-based missiles. For a brief period of the late Cold War, there was a certain limited nuclear parity that roughly corresponded with détente.

This rough nuclear parity was upset by political events and continuing technological changes, the latter almost always led by the US. An early US lead in computing technology once again led to a generational divide between US and Soviet technology, with the Soviet infrastructure increasingly unable to keep up with technological advances. The introduction of SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) threatened to further destabilize nuclear parity, and which in particular was perceived to as a threat to the stability of MAD. Long after the Cold War is over, the US continues to pursue missile defense, which has been a remarkably powerful political tool, but despite several decades of greatly improved technology, cannot deliver on its promises. So SDI upset the applecart of MAD, but still cannot redeem its promissory note. This is an important detail, because the weapons system that the Russians are contemplating with Status-6 (Статус-6) can be built with contemporary technologies. Thus even if the US could extend its air superiority to space, in addition to fielding an effective missile defense system, none of this would be an adequate counter to a Russian submersible strategic weapon, except in a second strike capacity.

As I noted above, there would be many ways in which to build out this submersible drone strategic capability, and many ways to counter it, which suggests the possibility of a new arms race, although this time without Russia being ideologically crippled by communism (which during the Cold War prevented the Soviet Union from achieving parity with western scientific and economic strength). A “slow” strategic capability could be constructed based something like what I described in WMD: The Submersible Vector, involving infiltration and sequestered assets, or a “fast” strategic capability closer to what was revealed in the Russian document that sparked the story about Status-6, in which the submersibles could fan out and position themselves in hours or days. Each of these strategic assets would suggest different counter measures.

What we are now seeing is the familiar Cold War specter of a massive nuclear exchange displaced from our skies into the oceans. If the Russians thought of it, and I thought of it, you can be certain that all the defense think tanks of the world’s major nation-states have thought of it also, and have probably gamed some of the obvious scenarios that could result.

It is time to revive the dying discipline of nuclear strategy, to dust off our old copies of Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War and On Escalation, and to once again think the unthinkable.

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Addendum Added Sunday 15 November 2015: In what way is a nuclear-tipped drone submersible different from a conventional nuclear torpedo? Contemporary miniaturization technology makes it possible to have a precision guided submersible that is very small — small enough that such a weapon might conceivably bury itself in the mud on the bottom of a waterway and so be impossible to detect, even to be visually by divers alerted to search for suspicious objects on the bottom (as presumably happens in military harbors). Also, the Status-6 was given a range of some 6,000 nautical miles, which means that these weapons could be released by a mothership almost anywhere in the world’s oceans, and travel from that point to their respective targets. Such weapons could be dropped from the bottom of a ship, and would not necessarily have to be delivered by submarine. Once the drones were on their way, they would be almost impossible to find because of their small size. The key vulnerability would be the need for some telecommunications signaling to the weapon. If the decision had already been made to strike, and those making the decision were sufficiently confident that they would not change their minds, such drones could be launched programmed to detonate and therefore with no need to a telecommunications link. Alternatively, drones could be launched programmed to detonate, but the detonation could be suppressed by remote command, which would be a one-time signal and not an ongoing telecommunications link to the drone. This presents obvious vulnerabilities as well — what if the detonation suppression signal were blocked? — but any weapons systems will have vulnerabilities. It would be a relatively simple matter to have the device configurable as either fail-safe or fail-deadly, with the appropriate choice made at the time of launch.

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Note Added Saturday 14 November 2015: Since writing the above, an article has appeared on Janes, Russian state TV footage reveals ‘oceanic multi-purpose’ torpedo-based nuclear system, by Bruce Jones, London, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, though it doesn’t add much in addition to what is already known.

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Sunday


Lenins tomb with missiles

Often when I write about emerging strategic trends I consider the long term future and make a particular effort to stress that little of the trend will be glimpsed in our lifetime, but at present I will consider the development of a strategic trend that is likely to be realized in the near- to mid-term future, i.e., a strategically significant technology that may develop into maturity or near-maturity within the lifetime of those now living. The technology is precision munitions and weaponry, and the strategic capability that mature precision weaponry will make possible is what I will call qualitative strikes. Before I come to qualitative strikes proper, I want to review the military and strategic context out of which the possibility of qualitative strikes has emerged.

Soviet Yangel R-16 two stage ICBM in its silo.

Soviet Yangel R-16 two stage ICBM in its silo.

In the early stages of the Cold War when nuclear weapons were primarily ballistic missiles and ballistic missiles were the most accurate of nuclear delivery vehicles, the nightmare scenario (featured in many films of the era) was a NORAD alert that hundreds of thousands of Soviet Missiles were already launched and were on their way over the pole to targets in North America. The US would then have less than thirty minutes to decide whether or not to launch a massive retaliatory strike of its own, and it could not wait until the missiles actually landed and nuclear strikes were confirmed because that would be too late. This was the Atomic Age parallel to the First World War dilemma of putting troops on trains that could not be recalled because the scheduling of transportation was so precise. Once the missiles flew, there was no calling them back. If you launched, MAD was initiated, so you needed to be sure you were responding to the real thing.

norad war room

The essence of Cold War MAD doctrine was this massive nuclear exchange. Cold War targeting lists were almost indiscriminate in their presumption of mass annihilation; many major cities had a dozen or more warheads targeted for them, as though the intention were simply to “make the rubble jump,” as Churchill said of the Nazi bombardment of London. A massive nuclear exchange involved mutually assured destruction for the powers involved in the exchange, and since MAD was understood to be a guarantor of Cold War peace — since it would literally be madness to allow a massive nuclear exchange to take place — the very idea of either anti-ICBM “counter-force” targeting or of developing a “second strike” capability was interpreted as a hostile act of one power against the other.

Strategic bombing during the Second World War demonstrated the possibility of leveling cities; nuclear strategy was simply an extension of this.

Strategic bombing during the Second World War demonstrated the possibility of leveling cities; nuclear strategy was simply an extension of this.

We think of the end of these developments in nuclear warfighting strategy as a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, but this phase of nuclear strategy would be ended anyway, regardless of the fate of the Cold War. If the Soviet Union were still in existence today, we would no longer be talking about MAD — or, if we were, it would only be because traditionalists were clinging to a doctrine that no longer had strategic relevance. While many nation-states have land-based ICBMs, these weapons systems are already relics. They belong to a age of indiscriminate and massive attacks that emerged from the strategic bombing of the Second World War. If the bombers of the Second World War had had the capability to execute precision strikes, they would have done so. But this technology was not yet available. As the next best strategy, the only possible strategy, “area bombing” for the purpose of “de-housing” enemy populations became the norm. Once planners, strategists, air crews, and populations became inured to the routine of leveling entire cities, the atomic bomb was simply a cheaper, quicker, more efficient way to do the same thing.

General Curtis LeMay of the Strategic Air Command.

General Curtis LeMay of the Strategic Air Command.

The only subtlety at the stage of nuclear strategy brought to maturity during the Cold War — if it could even be called a subtlety — was whether any nuclear capacity would remain on either side to deliver a second strike after the initial massive exchange (a “second strike” capability). Cold War strike capacity did not lie exclusively in ICBMs. In addition to ICBMs, there was the Strategic Air Command (SAC) under Curtis LeMay, who learned his trade during the Second World War. While LeMay was perhaps the most renown American advocate of strategic air power, it was Arthur “Bomber” Harris of the RAF who presided over the strategic bombing of Germany, with the mantra that, “The bomber will always get through.” Again, the Second World War was the template for what followed.

Air Marshal Arthur (Bomber) Harris.

Air Marshal Arthur (Bomber) Harris.

The ultimate guarantor of second strike capability was the ballistic missile submarine. With dozens of submarines submerged deep in the world’s oceans, each submarine with a dozen missiles or more, and each missile with a MIRV with a dozen or so warheads, a single surviving submarine had the capacity to deliver a devastating second strike. Moreover, a submarine could sneak up close to the coast of an enemy’s territory and let loose its ballistic missiles from short range, leaving the enemy with only minutes to respond — and no real assets that could respond to a strike less than 15 minutes away. The traditional “triad” of Cold War deterrence consisted of land-based ICBMs, strategic bombers, and missile boats, but all of this took time to develop; it was not until the early 1960s that both the US and the USSR had a fleet of operational missile boats. When both sides in the Cold War possessed the nuclear triad, and therefore a second strike capability, the MAD equation continued to hold good.

USS_Sam_Rayburn_(SSBN-635)_missile_hatches

In the strategic context of MAD, nuclear strikes were quantitative strikes, and each side in the Cold War was motivated by the competition to assemble the quantitatively largest arsenal in order to deter the other side. The Cold War was a numbers game — cf. Kennedy’s “Missile Gap” — and this numbers game escalated with predictable results: tens of thousands of nuclear warheads perpetually maintained in readiness. The agreements to limit nuclear weapons only institutionalized the overkill of MAD doctrines.

Carter_Brezhnev_sign_SALT_II

From this point, it would have been difficult to escalate any further, except for technologies that were viewed as inherently destabilizing because they might shift the balance and make one side or the other believe that they were no longer subject to the MAD calculation. It is of the essence to understand that global Cold War stability depended centrally on the inescapability of MAD. The Reagan-era “Star Wars” missile defense initiative was just such a destabilizing factor, but by this time the Soviet Union was already in terminal decline. Anti-missile defense systems had been designed and built prior to this, but clearly the initiative still law with the offense; the technology simply did not yet exist to bring down an ICBM.

Soviet decline coupled with the emergence of technologies that would make missile defense a viable possibility led to the end of the Soviet Union and MAD and the Cold War. Not only are these Cold War ideas dated by subsequent political developments, they are also dated by subsequent technological developments. Even if the Soviet Union had survived intact to the present day, the nightmare MAD scenario of Cold War planners would no longer be relevant because weapons systems have moved on.

One of the greatest of the revolutions in military affairs (RMA) has been the introduction of precision-guided munitions, and the eventual issue of converting to a “smart” arsenal means a transition from quantitative strikes to qualitative strikes. The shift in emphasis from nuclear to conventional armaments with the end of the Cold War facilitated the speed of this transition. Nuclear strategy suddenly went from being a top priority to barely making the list of priorities, and defense dollars began to flow into conventional weapons, and here there were opportunities for improvement that were not understood to be politically destabilizing.

The idea of qualitative strikes is not at all new. One could say that qualitative strikes have always been the telos of military operations. The air forces of the Second World War aspired to precision bombing, but this was not yet possible. During the Cold War, some missiles were targeted according to a “counter-force” strategy, i.e., they were targeted at enemy ballistic missile silos, but this only played into the MAD calculation, because it meant that to wait meant to lose one’s primary strike capability. If you could completely wipe out your enemy’s ballistic missile silos in a age when ICBMs were the primary nuclear deterrent, you would leave your enemy with the uncomfortable choice of retaliating massively on civilian population centers or accepting defeat. A successful counter-force attack would constitute a qualitative strike, and qualitative strikes pose political dilemmas such as that outlined. This is why such ideas were considered inherently destabilizing. But this level of technology was not practicable during the time when ICBMs were the primary nuclear deterrent.

Although the press today reports civilian casualties as if they were disproportionately high, in historic terms both civilian and military casualties are at the lowest levels ever. With the industrialization of war the technologies of warfighting experience an initial exponential growth in lethality, but as precision begins to outpace sheer quantitative destructive power, the warfare of industrial-technological civilization passes The Lethality Peak and casualties fall as strikes converge upon qualitative precision. In other words, the rapid emergence of precision guided munitions in the battlespace has been effective. They work. And they’re getting better all the time. The efficacy of precision guided munitions suggests the possibility of a complete shift away from quantitative destruction to qualitative strikes, i.e., strikes that selectively pick out a certain kind of target, or a certain class of targets. This is already a reality to a limited extent, but it will take time before it is fully translated into policy and doctrine.

In A Glimpse at the Near Future of Combat I mentioned a Norwegian satellite that will track all ships (over 300 gross tons) in Norwegian coastal waters. Most ships have transponders, indicating basic identification information for the vessel. In the near future of autonomous vehicles, it is likely that most vehicles will have transponders on them. Most individuals carry cell phones, which are essentially transponders, and we know the the Snowden leaks about the NSA surveillance program how thoroughly “big data” applications can track the world’s cellular phone calls. Fixed assets like cities and industrial facilities are even easier to map and track than mobile assets like ships, planes, vehicles, and people.

What we are looking at here is the possibility of computer systems sufficiently sophisticated that almost everything on the surface of the earth can the identified and tracked. To have a total system of identification and tracking is to have a targeting computer. Couple a targeting computer with precision guided munitions that can pick out small targets in a crowd and be assured of destroying these targets with a near-total absence of collateral damage, and you have the possibility of a military strike that does not depend in the least upon quantitative destruction, but rather upon picking out just the right selection of targets to have just the right effect (political or military, keeping in mind Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the pursuit of politics by other means). This is a qualitative strike.

None of these developments will go unchallenged. The dependency of qualitative warfare upon computer systems points to the centrality of cyberwarfare in the integrated battlespace. If you can confuse the targeting computer of the weapons’ guidance systems, you can defeat the system, but systems can in turn be hardened and made redundant. Other measures and counter-measures will be developed, and escalation will be an escalation in precision and the possibility of qualitative warfare (since those who attack precision warfighting infrastructure will need to be equally precision in their attempt to defeat a precision weapons system) in contradistinction to the escalation of quantitative warfare that defined the twentieth century.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The End of a Nuclear Era

26 October 2011

Wednesday


Yesterday the US dismantled the last B53 nuclear bomb, which was the largest yield nuclear weapon in the US nuclear arsenal, with a yield of about 9 megatons. This was not the highest yield US nuclear weapon ever fielded. This distinction belonged to the B41, with a yield of about 25 megatons. The last B41 was dismantled in July 1976. While the B41 was a very high yield bomb by any measure, it was not the highest yield nuclear device ever built. This distinction belonged to the Soviet-made AN602, commonly known as the Tsar Bomba. The highest yield US bomb ever exploded was the Castle Bravo test, which surprised its builders by an explosion of about 15 megatons, three times the expected yield of 4-6 megatons. The Tsar Bomba was a relatively “clean” bomb, while the B41 was the most efficient production-line nuclear bomb in terms of yield to weight ratio.

The B53 had a very long service life — nearly fifty years. With the end of the B53 we see the symbolic end of an era in strategic nuclear weapons. A bomb like the B53 or the B41 (or the Soviet RDS-9) could have, with a single blast, annihilated a contemporary megalopolis. It is interesting to note that the vastly expanded cities of today began to emerge at about the same time as nuclear weapons were invented, so that in this admittedly bizarre sense, the means of civilization to destroy itself perfectly kept pace with the scope and extent of the expanding urbanization of civilization. Of course, a contemporary megalopolis could be destroyed by multiple warheads, and most missiles and many other delivery systems are MIRVed and therefore have many warheads at their disposal, there is a certain elegance to the strategic calculus of one bomb, one city — this the ethos of the sniper — one shot, one kill — put into practice on a macroscopic scale.

It should be obvious that, had the US and the Soviet Union chosen to continue to design and build bigger nuclear weapons, that this capacity was technically within their grasp. Perhaps it would be possible to build a bomb with a yield of 500 megatons, or perhaps even a gigaton bomb. But there was nothing large enough to destroy to make it worth the while to attempt to build such devices. And then the paradigm or war began to shift. Ultimately, even nuclear weapons design began to incorporate features of precisification. Mature experimentation with nuclear weapons design included innovative shaped charges and miniaturization.

The age of the nuclear weapon as a purely strategic device is passing. Technologies of precisification and miniaturization are useful; you can do something with a precise or miniaturized nuclear device. It may sound odd to remark that a weapon is useful, but we must remember that throughout the Cold War nuclear weapons were strictly useless, present only to guarantee mutually assured destruction. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that nuclear weapons had only a strategic use. If the nuclear powers chose not to build bigger bombs, and eventually chose to decommission and dismantle their largest warheads, this tells us that the strategic situation has changed, and that the strategic calculation has changed with the strategic situation.

The limitation of the size of nuclear weapons and the decommissioning of larger weapons did not come about as a result of political pressure. While the B53 was old, there was no political pressure to eliminate it from the arsenal. The same cannot be said, for example, of the neutron bomb, which was not built for political reasons, or the Swedish nuclear weapons program, which was ended for economic reasons. These strategic decisions were strictly voluntary on the part of strategic planners, and as such they represent the purest expression of strategic thought.

More than a year ago in The Atomic Age Turns 65 I wrote about the 65th anniversary of the Hiroshima nuclear blast. There I observed that, “What we now usually call the Second World War was also the First Nuclear War.” I also noted that there has been no Second Nuclear War. In the same spirit of unfamiliar periodization, we could call this period of time from the first use of nuclear weapons to the dismantling of the largest bomb the First Nuclear Age, which lasted less than seventy years. During the First Nuclear Age, bigger was better. Now bigger is no longer better, and we have entered the brave new world of the Second Nuclear Age, in which the proliferation of nuclear weapons seems likely and the concern of nuclear terrorism is a much greater danger than a massive decapitation strike in the form of ICBMs, bombers, and SLBMs.

As the strategic logic of the Second Nuclear Age continues to unfold, nuclear doctrine will continue to change and adapt itself to changed circumstances. In the long term, these changes will eventually be concretely manifested in the nuclear arsenal. Given the slow pace of transition from doctrinal development to weapons production, the fact that world nuclear arsenals are already changing points to the reality of strategic change and confirms the End of a Nuclear Era.

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Nuclear Narratives

What the Cold War Taught Us

Existential Lessons of the Cold War

Status-6 and Nuclear Strategy Beyond the Triad

How Kim Jong-un Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the H-Bomb

The End of a Nuclear Era

The Atomic Age Turns 70

Circumventing Consent: Nuclear Risk and Self-Deception

Nuclear Ambiguity

The Atomic Age turns 65

The Tradition of Non-Use

WMD: The Submersible Vector

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Grand Strategy Annex

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