The Second Nuclear Age, North Korea and the F-35

By Robbin Laird

The F-35 is entering into operations precisely as the second nuclear age becomes a key strategic reality.

A new plane and a new age have arrived at about the same time.

It is the strategic context which drives the operational demands upon the aircraft and its role in the U.S. and potentially allied responses to the second nuclear age.

The context drives the demand signal; and the F-35 global fleet is part of the response.

The F-35 is part of the evolving approach to 21st century high intensity operations, which can be characterized as an offensive-defensive enterprise enabled in part by the nuclear tip to the spear.

The Second Nuclear Age

The return of nuclear weapons as a key currency for global power and the rise of several new nuclear or powers at the threshold of possessing nuclear weapons has created a second nuclear age. It is one, which is largely ignored, in strategic discourse where the assumption is that the rules, which were shaped by the US and the Soviet Union in the first nuclear age, somehow apply; they don’t.

As Paul Bracken has put it: “In the first nuclear age there was a single overarching nuclear rivalry. It took only two to tango, so to speak, in order to moderate any provocations, limit the dynamics, and reduce the number of bombs through arms control. Today, the number of bombs is much reduced from cold war levels, but the number of rivalries that have taken on a nuclear context has increased.  These rivalries, anchored in the regions but with global impact, have more deeply embedded the bomb in international affairs than was the case even during the cold war.”[1]

It is about a power like North Korea becoming nuclear capable and working to shape long range strike capabilities against the United States and the need for the United States to shape a real strategy for the decapitation of the North Korean regime and the elimination of the strike assets of that nation against the U.S. and the allies which rely upon it for nuclear deterrence.

It is about having a credible and plausible strike and defense package, which can devalue the ability of the small nuclear power, from credibly using its weapons. It is about attenuating the credibility of a small power using its weapons as the only real path to deterrence.

It is not about running political campaigns for a nuclear free world; it is not about simply having an existential capability to destroy one’s enemy; it is about having nuclear forces integrated enough within a precision strike force capable of defeat of a small nuclear power.

The Coming of the F-35

The F-35 has come at a time in which there is a clear need for enhanced precision strike able to operate in such a way as the ability to strike the command and control, and delivery assets of a small nuclear power is of growing strategic significance.

The F-35 can provide a key delivery vehicle for such a mission, notably when connected with a significant offensive and defensive force integrated to the extent that seamless capabilities to strike and defend are integrated into an effective command and control decision making system able to deal with small nuclear powers.

21st century warfare concepts of operations, technology, tactics and training are in evolution and revolution.

The F-35 is at the heart of this change for a very simple reason – it is a revolutionary platform, and when considered in terms of its fleet impact even more so. The F-35, Lightning II, will make combat aviation history with the first of kind sensor fusion cockpit.

The F-35 is essentially an F/A/E-35 that makes it effective in air-to-air, air-to-ground and electronic warfare combined missions. Allied and U.S. combat pilots will evolve and share new tactics and training, and over time this will drive changes that leaders must make for effective command and control to fight future battles.[2]

The impact of an integrated fleet of F-35s with fused internal pilot combat data and also distributed information out, will allow the US and its allies to rethink how to do 21st century air-enabled operations.

Each F-35 will be able to network and direct engagements in 360-degrees of three-dimensional space by offloading tracks to other air/land/sea platforms including UAVs and robots.

As a fleet, the F-35 is an integrated fleet able to share data over great distances via its wave based communications systems.

And it comes as Western forces are augmenting their ability to network forces and to prepare for the next generation of weapons, and learning how to off board weapons, that is one platform identifying targets and guiding a weapon launched from another platform to the target.

The F-35 is the first software upgradeable tactical jet ever built; and the evolution of the software will be determined by the operational experiences of the air combat force.

And the evolution of the next generation of weapons will be highly interactive with the evolution of F-35 software, either in terms of the integration of weapons onboard the F-35 itself or in terms of its ability to direct strike from other platforms, whether manned or unmanned.

The Offensive-Defensive Enterprise

The evolution of 21st century weapon technology is breaking down the barriers between offensive and defensive systems.

Is missile defense about providing defense or is it about enabling global reach, for offense or defense?

Likewise, the new 5th generation aircraft have been largely not understood because they are inherently multi-mission systems, which can be used for forward defense or forward offensive operations.

Indeed, an inherent characteristic of many new systems is that they are really about presence and putting a grid over an operational area, and therefore they can be used to support strike or defense within an integrated approach.

In the 20th Century, surge was built upon the notion of signaling.

One would put in a particular combat capability – a Carrier Battle Group, Amphibious Ready Group, or Air Expeditionary Wing – to put down your marker and to warn a potential adversary that you were there and ready to be taken seriously.  If one needed to, additional forces would be sent in to escalate and build up force.

With the new multi-mission systems – 5th generation aircraft and Aegis for example – the key is presence and integration able to support strike or defense in a single operational presence capability. 

Now the adversary cannot be certain that you are simply putting down a marker.

By shaping a command and control and ISR system (in today’s concepts referred to as C5ISR) inextricably intertwined with platforms and assets, which can honeycomb an area of operation, an attack and defense enterprise can operate to deter aggressors and adversaries or to conduct successful military operations.

Inherent in such an enterprise is scalability and reach-back.

By deploying the C5ISR honeycomb, the shooters in the enterprise can reach back to each other to enable the entire grid of operation, for either defense or offense.

Integrating Nuclear Weapons Into the Offensive-Defensive Enterprise

If one is dealing with combat with a small nuclear power, it is not enough to shape a completely conventional warfare strategy.

It is incumbent on the force planner to integrate nuclear strike into the planning and in providing a means to persuade the adversary that it is simply not credible to use his nuclear weapons as a first strike weapon or a weapon that can not be neutralized in effective ways by attacks on his C2, delivery assets or storage facilities.

It is about designing from the ground up a credible offensive-defensive capability to effectively defeat a small nuclear power.

It is not about wishful thinking or remaining in the rules of engagement shaped in the first nuclear age; it is entering into an age where the use of nuclear weapons can be imagined once again.

The US Navy refers to the shaping of such distributed capabilities in terms of either “distributed lethality” or the “kill web.” The notion is that strike is distributed throughout a web or honeycomb and that strike can be distributed through a self learning web operating in a high threat environment.

It is crucial as well to design weapons which can be integrated into an offensive-defensive or distributed force where very limited use would be envisaged and only in clear need of doing so. This is why what nuclear warheads, which have historically been called tactical nuclear weapons, combined with advanced delivery technologies becomes a key focus of attention in one’s warfighting force.

It is deterrence based on actual warfighting capabilities; not the words of a diplomatic kabuki dance.

The F-35 when married to a small yield nuclear weapon clearly can be a key part of such an evolution.

The ability of the F-35 to command situational awareness of 360 degree space and to be able to determine with high precision a target set, and to operate passively while doing so, provides an ideal platform for the delivery of a small yield weapon against appropriate targets as part of an overall campaign against an aggressive small nuclear power.

The redesign of weapons associated with the evolution of the aircraft, and perhaps other delivery vehicles such as hypersonic weapons needs to be part of the effort to deal with second nuclear age powers.

It is about clearly both the evolution of weapons technology as well as delivery technology.

And with the software upgradeable approach of the F-35, their can be an open ended evolution of the aircraft highly interactive with the evolution of weapons delivery and performance as well.

The Current F-35 and Tactical Nuclear Weapons Approach

The F-35 is a block upgradeable aircraft; in the fourth block in the evolution of the aircraft, currently under design and testing, nuclear weapons delivery will be integrated onto the aircraft.

This design capability will be operational by 2018 but the testing and integration of the aircraft with the initial weapon to be carried on the aircraft will take longer.

Currently, only the F-35A is being considered for nuclear weapons delivery, although it would not take a great deal, to evolve the F-35C, the carrier-based F-35, to have this capability as well.

The head of the F-35 program, Lt. General Bogdan has argued that the F-35 will carry an update B-61 tactical nuclear weapon. The weapon is in development and its progress will determine when the integration actually occurs which then will be followed by testing and certification. According to Bogden: “We don’t see the marrying-up of our capability and that weapon until probably the mid-’20s, but it’s going to happen.”[3]

The Department of Energy is building the weapon itself and the Air Force is building the bomb’s tailkit.

The B-61-12 is a low yield weapon and can be delivered several miles from its target.

But all of that is part of the question of weapons design including the question of evolution beyond the B-61 itself.

Combing an aircraft integrated sensors and target acquisition, and able to so in a passive sensing environment, with a low yield nuclear weapon clearly can introduce a new tool set into an integrated warfighting strategy appropriate to dealing with smaller nuclear powers, or deterring a power like Russia which has recently threatened the use of tactical nuclear weapons against NATO powers, notably in Northern Europe.

The North Korean Case

Unfortunately, for many strategists the North Korea of today is perceived as fighting the last war with a wave of conventional forces coming South.

This ignores not only the possession of nuclear weapons and missiles by the North, and the very isolated regime which will have its own calculus on war which will have to be affected by minutes and hours not days of actions by the UN, the South Koreans and the United States.

The key challenge is the marriage of North Korean nuclear warheads with mobile delivery systems. This means that there is a need for dynamic targeting of the delivery system as it moves into deployment. The F-35 as an overhead system that can detect, and then prosecute such a delivery system is clearly a very useful platform in shaping a response.

One way to let the North know that the US recognizes the new realities of the Second Nuclear Age is to change the command structure.

It makes no sense to have an Army officer in charge of US forces in South Korea; it is time to have an Air Force officer in charge and directly focused on the capability of the US and the allies to strike North rapidly and effectively in the very early moments of the coming of war.

It is not about the US Army defending South Korea in depth; it is about the South Koreans doing that and the US and allied air, naval and army air defense systems integrated in a strike and defense enterprise than can defeat North Korea’s missile and strike force.

With a shift in strategy towards North Korea which would enhance the capabilities of the US and South Korea to strike into North Korea and to debilitate North Korea’s nuclear warfighting capabilities, such a shift must include a tactical nuclear strike capability as part of the warfighting arsenal.

North Korea may be the test case, but we have to think about a world in which we have more than one North Korea, in which those capabilities are held by other nations whose interests and strategy are very different from ours.

Declaratory deterrence is not enough; a fully conventional strategy is not feasible; but an integrated offensive-defensive force with a nuclear tip is.

[1] Bracken, Paul (2012-11-13). The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics Times Books. Kindle Edition, Conclusion.

[2] The F-35 and 21st Century Defence. 2016.


Editor’s Note: The graphic above and the intellectual thinking about the Z axis has been developed by Ed Timperlake.

For a discussion of Timperlake’s thinking, see the following:

Shaping a New Approach to Combat Learning: The Role of the F-35

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