Deterrence and the Human Factor in the Second Nuclear Age

By Ed Timperlake

The opening of the first Nuclear Age was Hiroshima and Nagasaki being vaporized by a bombing run from the B-29 “Enola Gay.” Unlike the World War II in Europe initiated by the Nazi cult of personality surrounding Adolph Hitler that was brought to an end directly by the Russian Army sweeping into Berlin, the Pacific War against Imperial Japan ended in two big deadly flashes.

The first Nuclear Age was begun.

There are, still two core elements of the first Nuclear Age with the World today.

The first is the question of the targeting strategies of the major nuclear powers.

Does a nuclear empowered country target counterforce i.e. warfighting or countervalue ie broad based deterrence against other nuclear powers?

The second is the absolute necessity to ensure an ability to conduct a nuclear war after a first strike has been endured.

Successful Continuity of Government (COG) planning and facilities ensure retaliation.

These elements from the 1st Nuclear Age remain in play both for the older nuclear powers and the newer ones as well.

The dilemma of the 2nd Nuke Age is proliferation of devices to additional countries, some of which are run like Hitler’s Germany and have a single point cult of personality as the leader.

This presents a core strategic challenge: how to deter a cult of personality leader sitting on top of a nuclear arsenal?

There is a nuclear response possible, namely to have targetable, nuclear weapons from the large nuclear power which removes the enemy leadership and its nuclear stockpile with limited nuclear strikes.  These are neither counter-value nor counter-strike; they are designed for decapitation and elimination of the problem.

A nuke thrown at a cult of personality leadership country will end the regime in a blinding flash. It is a valid question to use a single nukes to deter any possible use of nukes by a cult of personality country but doubtful that the US will ever embrace that strategy.

The Russians appear poised to follow such a policy towards North Korea if that country should threaten the Russian Far East.

For countries not willing to use nuclear weapons as a termination force, the question then is how to shape an effective conventional insertion force which can eliminate or significantly attenuate the arsenal, the delivery means and decapitate the regime.

The goal is to use conventional power projection capabilities to target and decapitate the cult of personality regime before a Nuclear countervalue strike can be launched.

The current North Korea leader, who has threatened Japan and the United States with nuclear strikes, and already has the missiles to reach Japan and soon the U.S. presents such a challenge. His father came close to Hawaii with a surprise launch at the end of the last century.

To build a credible conventional approach several questions have to be addressed in shaping a nuclear termination capability.

  • Is strategic warning possible?
  • Is conventional technology available to deliver a mortal blow?
  • Is the intelligence good enough to find the cult of personality leader?
  • Is isolation and “lights out” enough?
  • Are war plans focused enough on this problem along with the will to execute?

“Quad” charts and theoretical discussion are nice but there are also a few real world data points to provide a preliminary answer in forging a nuclear termination force.

Strategic Warning

The evidence from the last Century is very mixed.  On Aug. 24, 1998, Gen. Hugh Shelton, a very decent and honest man, serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a letter to Sen. Jim Inhofe stating that there was at least a three-year warning of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile threat, such as Taepo Dong-2. Essentially, Shelton was supporting President Clinton’s position for very slow development of U.S. missile defense.

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.

Japan immediately appreciated the danger and adjusted their “self-defense” military doctrine appropriately.

In 1999 the JSDE announced that a preemptive air strike against Northern Korean missile batteries would not violate Japan’s constitution if Japan had reason to believe an attack is imminent from Red Dragon Rising (published 1999).

Missile defense technology has progressed since that point with the US proliferating BMD through out South Korea and Japan, along with Aegis afloat, and these systems are critical to deterrence and stability.

We have two examples where the ability to deploy defenses was part of the deterrent equation.  The US National Command authority sent many Patriots to the aid of Israel during Desert Storm because Saddam’s scuds were hard to find and there was a clear interest in Israel not joining the war.  And, more recently, NATO deployed Patriots to Turkey as part of the response to the threat from Syrian WMD.

Conventional Technology and Delivering a Mortal Blow

One of the great stories of rapid fielding of war tipping technology was performed by the US Army at their Watervliet Arsenal in New York in response to a combat requirement during Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

From the history of the Arsenal “a point in time.”

Saddam Hussein attacked across the Iraqi border and seized Kuwait. Although Arsenal Commander Col. Michael J. Neuman did not know at that time if the US would go to war, he did know that given the potential for war the Arsenal could not reduce its workforce. He cancelled the RIF.

In early 1991, as it appeared more and more everyday that the US would soon be in combat, a renewed sense of spirit permeated the Arsenal, from the tool room to the mail room. Everyone was onboard ready to support the troops.

Aerial bombing of Iraq began on Jan. 17, 1991, but after thousands of tons of ordnance had been dropped, there was one target that was still relatively untouched – Iraqi Command & Control bunkers.

Not that the coalition forces hadn’t tried, but the 2,000 pound bombs were simply bouncing off of the bunkers and a bunker buster bomb, using current weapon options at the time, was still about 20 weeks from development.

Then a call came into the Arsenal on Jan. 25, 1991 from Lockheed Missile and Space Co.

The Arsenal was known for its expertise in machining barrels and that is what a former Army officer who was working for Lockheed at the time had in mind when he suggested to the Air Force that they use stockpiled 8-inch howitzer barrels as the bomb casings to deliver a 5,000 pound bunker buster bomb.

Arsenal planners and machinists worked around the clock, seven days a week shortening the gun barrels and boring the barrels to a 13-inch diameter. The first two bombs were delivered on February 17.

The first test bomb was dropped on the 24th of February by an F-111 at the Tonopah test range in Nevada. The bomb buried itself more than 100 feet deep. The Air Force did not bother to recover it.

On February 27th, the Arsenal’s bunker buster bomb was uploaded on an F-111 and flown to Taji Airbase, about 15 miles northwest of Baghdad. The Taji command and control bunker had been bombed at least three previous times, but to no avail.

The F-111 dropped the bunker buster bomb and guided it to an air shaft on top of the command and control bunker. The bomb sliced through the 20-foot thick reinforced walls to devastating consequence. The bunker was destroyed.

These 23 days, from time of request to delivery, speak volumes about the history, capability, and the heart of the Watervliet Arsenal’s workforce.

This story illustrates breakout capabilities, but the steady state growth of defensive systems to work with strike systems can allow for a credible capability to shape an early intervention force to deal with the target set of a small nuclear power.

Will it be enough to do nuclear termination?

That will be determined by events, but the build out of such a capability, clearly is part of the deterrence equation.

Otherwise, one is left with one of two options: capitulation or the use of limited strike nuclear weapons.

Is the intelligence good enough to find the leader?

In addition to the ever increasing trending of US intelligence collection efforts being based on high technology, ISR, NSA et al there is still a major role for HUMINT. The capture of Saddam Hussian highlights the role of the human element.

After Baghdad fell Saddam Hussin was on the run. It was a very experienced former UK Ambassador operating out of out of the Intentional Technology Security Office/OSD that tipped off to Deputy Undersecretary John “Jack” Shaw on the way to capture Saddam.

A former UK Ambassador Julian Walker UK  told Shaw to pass on that US forces should  do a sweep of an area in their searching then  wait and go right back. Ambassador Walker’s anti-Saddam contacts were giving him raw ground  intelligence   that Saddam’s MO was to move immediately into an area  that had been swept, DUSD  Shaw passed that vital information up the chain-of command  to the Secretary of Defense.  As Shaw’s IG team was flying enroute to Iraq  Saddam was grabbed that very  day.

The event in DUSD Dr. John “Jack”  Shaw’s own words:

I got the call at home from Julian Walker on Sunday afternoon, saying that we had swept the areas around Ramadi (mentioned two or three other coordinates) and then would wait a couple of weeks to redo. I sent SupraNet message to Lynn Wells as soon as I got to the office Monday morning, and as you remember they got him later that week in exactly that area by doing exactly what Julian had suggested.   

Julian was one of the last of the real Arab hands and had drawn all the Iraqi borders in the sixties (as everything earlier was British sphere of influence exact borders along lower Gulf to Saudi border were never demarcated.) He gave me the marked aerial photographs of Umm Kasr when we embarked on the clean up effort.  He was also the last director of the famous British Arabic language school at Shemlan in Lebanon.

Are isolation and “lights out” enough?

In both Desert Storm and  then Afghanistan and Iraq combat after 911 a significant contribution of airpower was “lights out.” This is simple shorthand for stopping an enemy’s ability to command and control their forces and operate any weapons that need electronic signals to operate. Since Vietnam the US has tried to engage with an “emit you die” battlefield engagement strategy. Add the active HOJ with all kinds of ever increasing “tron” warfare capabilities and it is a potent force.

In a period of strategic warning or a surprise attack by the current North Korean Dear Leader, if the US and South Korea can not find him and kill him and his General Staff  will the US be able to abort his ability to  launch a Nuke be stopped both kinetically and/or electronically?

Does the US and our Allies have confidence that is both achievable and signaled correctly, or are current war plans still in a conventional ground central protracted slug-fest mindset?

If instead of just the horrible death and destruction of 20,000 artillery tubes and rockets going into South Korea if he throws a nuke in his opening shot will he and his military receive a nuke?

If he holds nukes in reserve since it a step-function over a conventional attack is destroying him and that capability the highest objective in a 21st Century Korean war.

Are war plans focused enough on this problem along with the will to execute?

This is a question that must be appropriately answered by those civilians in charge of US National Security and the Military Commanders responsible for deterrence and fighting and winning in any Korean conflict.

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