The U.S. President must make the agonizing decision to commit to the use of force, with all its attendant risks, casualties, and rewards.
The 45th President will be faced with two major challenges from day 1: North Korea and the Islamic State.
While neither are an immediate existential threat to the United States, North Korea can become one as early as 2020 when they have a credible nuclear ICBM capability.
Successive Administrations have passed the buck with multilateral attempts to contain the North Korean nuclear program with sanctions, carrots and sticks.
Under Kim Jong-Il, the conflict settled into a predictable pattern where the nuclear program was “halted” for bribes, paid off, and then restarted. Since Kim Jong-un, the nuclear weapons and delivery system program accelerated.
Until recently, North Korea is a regional nuclear threat delivered by a handful of crude liquid fueled missiles that can be spotted and plausibly countered with existing systems like THADD being deployed to Korea by 2017 to supplement existing Patriot based ABM systems.
The latest escalation of threat is the development of solid fueled KN-11 submarine launched missiles. Being submarine launched, it is possible for it to outflank S. Korean THADD batteries that only have a 120 degree field of view. Similarly, Japan, presently without THADD, is quite exposed.
Longer term, if the NORKs can perfect the KN-11 and the issues relating to nuclear warheads surviving re-entering the atmosphere, it is not a big leap to field an ICBM that directly threaten CONUS – an EMP warhead “limited war” option would negate the reentry issue.
In the short run, the only way to counter this threat is with mobile AEGIS systems (if they are in the right place), or with “last chance” shots with Patriots.
In other words, within the first term of the next President, the US faces a potentially highly unstable situation with a rational “rogue state” threatening the United States proper. North Korea will have to take precedence over the Islamic State.
Great Power Vetos
The geopolitics of Northeast Asia is central to the problem.
North Korea’s rate of progress in a host of technologies behind submarine launched solid fueled missiles could not have happened without Chinese support, whether such support is Beijing Central Government sanctioned or by other elements in China.
China is using North Korea to check and counter the US and allies very much like Pakistan vs. India. Their objections to S. Korean THADD undermining China’s land based nuclear deterrent glosses over the double dealing and support of North Korea that greatly increased the threat to the US and allies.
Curiously, the Chinese do not regard the North Korean nuclear capability as a threat to China. As it was in the Korean war, China, Russia, Japan and the US are powers that all have a veto on any solution.
The question then becomes, do the US and allies have an, or any military options?
And if not, then what will it take to acquire one post haste.
Ideally, a military option that in the short to medium run, deter, and in the longer run, the capability to destroy North Korea’s nuclear capability without crossing the nuclear threshold.
That is the next President’s dilemma.
Trump vs. Clinton
Donald J. Trump vs. Hillary R. Clinton are diametrically opposed on the North Korean threat. Clinton is a product of the foreign policy establishment, hawkish, but by no means unorthodox.
Trump is proposing a fundamental reappraisal and reassessment of Foreign and Defense policy that questions core assumptions and consensus in the US foreign and defense policy establishment.
Clinton called the latest nuclear test and missile tests to develop and deploy a deliverable nuclear weapon: “constitutes a direct threat to the United States, and we cannot and will never accept this”.
Trump is silent on the issue though in the past he will consider allowing Japan and S. Korea become nuclear armed.
Clinton, however, appear to offer no solution beyond trying to tighten sanctions or accelerating deployment of systems like THADD that have not worked.
Trump explicitly rejects the globalist / liberal internationalist agenda of the foreign policy establishment epitomized by Hillary R. Clinton in favor of “America First”.
He is not isolationist, but calling for a much more cautious approach to the use of America military power, whom he see has taken on too many missions, many of which the US do not do well.
Trump disagrees with the idea that the US can uncritically export democracy, and the use of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan under President GW Bush to achieve goals like nation building. Allies, who have benefited from American protection, must pay their fair share for defense.
Trump pledged to rebuild the military into the world’s strongest.
Prima facie, it is difficult to see how such goals can be reconciled with the fiscal constraints that Congress imposed on the Administration.
Dealing with North Korean “On the Cheap”
President Trump will not be thrilled about the prospect of committing sizable American military resources to eliminate or deter a North Korean nuclear threat.
That is, assuming that the Chinese and Russians can be talked into acquiescing to a US led campaign.
North Korea’s nuclear complexes are among the most secretive facilities in the world, possibly more than Iran’s. US allies in Asia have relatively limited air to ground attack capabilities against deeply buried targets.
Moreover, politically, it is unfeasible to engage Japan to attack North Korea unless it truly is in self-defense or retaliation for an attack on Japan. That leaves the ROKAF whom have an excellent anti-bunker capability to limit attacks on Seoul but do not have the capability to use Massive Ordinance Penetrators (MOP) whose 30,000lb weight require the B-52 or like platform.
That leaves the US only with nuclear deterrence against NORK.
Suppose Trump’s goal is to rapidly build up capability for South Korea and Japan to defend themselves.
The first agenda item will be North Korean ballistic missiles. The most ready way to achieve this may be to transfer to both nations older but serviceable fleets of AEGIS cruisers and destroyers that can be upgraded to primarily an ABM and ASW role. Much of the US fleet is over 20 years old but are fitted with upgradeable equipment like VLS and AEGIS systems.
The next item of business will be to strengthen Japan’s capabilities for air attack on North Korean ground targets.
Both Japan and S. Korea can take over large portions of the B-52 fleet and capability to use the MOPs. Given the limited air defense capability of North Korea (assuming no Chinese/Russian intervention), B-52s will be sufficient as a stop gap measure for a few years.
Finally, transfers of heavy armor from the US will greatly increase the capability of the ROK to mount an invasion should that become necessary.
Benefits of Helping Allies Help Themselves
Retirement of much of the existing US inventory and making it available to allies has many benefits beyond cost savings.
Allies that keep the equipment in service will generate continuing demand for service and support and upgrades for decades, and demand for civilian American personnel and expertise to operate their equipment.
There is a long precedence for the US to provide qualified private contractors for friendly governments.
Another benefit is that there is a ready inventory of consumables and spares that can be drawn down by allies rather than become obsolete and disposed of at considerable expense.
Danny Lam is an independent analyst based in Calgary, Canada.
Editor’s Note: We are starting a series looking at the next Administration and its agenda.
This means taking both candidates seriously and clearly dealing with the core possibility of a Trump Administration.
There has been precious little on this prospect in the US press, so a colleague from Canada has provided some insights and thinking.
This is the first of a series of articles to be published on the Forum.