North Korea’s Missile Boats

10 September 2016


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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