Thursday, October 12, 2006

More thoughts on North Korea: Expanded Deterrence versus Air Strikes

Last night I wrote a lengthy piece about North Korea, how we got where we are and assessing the different possible ways we might respond from Missile Defence to Economic Sanctions. Since then a friend has suggested another possibility, a credible way to live with a North Korean nuke; this is expanded deterrence. In this post I'm going to first discuss why I do not think this will work and then move on to put some detail on how I think airstrikes are likely to play out.

The idea of expanded deterrence, set out in this brilliant American Academy article which also highlights just how plausible nuclear terrorism is, is that we expand our capabilities in nuclear forensics so that we can hold Iran or North Korea to account if they supply weapons to those who then use them against us. The problem I have with this is that I'm inclined to believe that if a terrorist nuked us and we were less than 100% sure it was a North Korean weapon or took longer than a few weeks or months to establish it was North Korean we might well not nuke North Korea.

Forensics would need to be not just good but rock solid. It would also probably need to be instant. Retaliating to incoming enemy missiles in a Cold War style confrontation is credible because it is done in the heat of the moment before the missiles hit or while they are hitting. However, could we decide to blow up every North Korean in the cold light of day without the slightest pretence it would prevent those we lost dying or bring them back? It would be morally monstrous.

That is the essence of deterrence; you need to establish your own irrationality (the acronym MAD was appropriate). That irrationality is credible during the heat of a nuclear war but not so credible some time after a strike. Of course it is entirely plausible we would react but I think there is too much doubt and I don't know how we can remove that doubt and make deterrence credible.

A state which we cannot credibly deter possessing nuclear weapons is as close to an absolutely unnacceptable strategic result as can be imagined. So, if expanded deterrence is not an appropriate policy, along with others like economic sanctions as I set out last night, how will air strikes play out?

I think that the first step would be to set a deadline of something like a month for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programme and allow some form of international monitoring. I would expect them to refuse this request but the month gives us enough time to move a lot of military power, mainly airpower, to the area. I believe that this power is still available to us, it is troops that we are short of. If they back down, as Daniel Freedman expects them to, then we have a fantastic result and have illustrated our resolve without too much human cost. If they do not then we begin strikes.

I am not sure what their targets should be, this article suggests that we can do significant damage to the nuclear programme, but the targets available to us may well be limited. Other than that priority just hit every military or regime target you can find. You will have a similar result to that in Serbia but without an ongoing massacre of Kosovans. Our casualties will most likely be light and the collateral damage need not be too vast. Eventually, North Korea will have to back down or retaliate.

The big danger is that North Korea retaliates with its stock of about 100 missiles which can hit Japan or artillery and scuds that can hit South Korea. This is what makes this option deeply ugly and a least bad. If North Korea retaliates it can do vast damage and an awful lot of people die in what could become a serious bombing of Seoul and Tokyo or even a second Korean War.

However, it is important to note that there is something to be said for having the USAF on hand if it does come to this. If we try something like economic sanctions there is a smaller chance of North Korea risking war but if they do it will take us time to get significant military power in place to defend the South. If we are striking North Korea then we will have a running start in coming to our ally's aid. Sensible military plans should include preparation for the possibility that the need emerges to reorient our military force very quickly. We would wind up using the South Koreans as a kind of Northern Alliance in a reprise of the strategy which won the war, if not the peace, in Afghanistan.

I think that China's response to military strikes will not amount to much. They will not risk economic sanctions against us as they have far more to lose from such disruption than we do. An economic downturn does not endanger our system of government. Equally, if a war does start then, in order to curtail a flow of refugees, it will be in their interests to see it end quickly. All of the great guerilla wars, Vietnam, Iraq relied upon outside support and I do not expect this to be forthcoming in North Korea.

Finally, the human costs of a military option, and its attendant risk of a full scale war, need to be weighed against both the yearly human cost of the death and suffering in the world's last Stalinist state. The other cost of the status quo is the possibility of a violent collapse without our intervention either in response to outside pressure from economic sanctions or from the regime's own opaque inner workings. The expected deaths or expected misery calculation for the risk of a full blown war needs to be balanced against the costs and risks of the status quo.

In conclusion, I accept that there are huge risks to military strikes but I do not believe we can effectively manage the risk of a nuclear North Korea. Military strikes are the most credible response open to us and can be effective. Unfortunately, as I described last night, I do not expect that anything remotely that forceful is coming. I expect that we'll get some form of mild economic sanction and then a lot more prevarication until North Korea gets a workable nuclear bomb. The world will then become a scarier place.


Anonymous said...

China is playing puppetmaster:

Simmons said...

Sorry, but military force is a bad idea and unlikely.