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Rogue Nuclear State
Caught Out by North Korean Nukes

North Korea announced a successful test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile over the weekend. Though the North was known to be working on getting this capability, the speed with which it managed to reach this stage of development has surprised observers. Reuters reports:

“While North Korea’s submarines are not especially effective, the challenge of finding even a small number of specific submarines armed with missiles would be quite a challenge,” said Jeffrey Lewis of the California-based Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Like much of North Korea’s arsenal, its fleet of around 70 submarines is based mainly on ageing, Soviet-era technology.

North Korea had been expected to be working on an SLBM, but the speed with which it conducted an evidently successful test launch caught many observers by surprise.

A South Korean defense ministry official who declined to be identified said photographs released on Saturday by the North showing a missile launched from the sea appeared to be authentic.

Three times in recent months, the West has apparently been caught flat-footed by the speed at which the North Korean nuclear capabilities are improving. The test comes on the heels of several other troubling revelations about the hermit kingdom’s nuclear program this year. In February, Chinese and South Korean officials told the United States that North Korea could have as many as 20 nuclear warheads—more than expected. And last month, Admiral William Gortney, head of the U.S. Northern Command, said that the DPRK was capable of miniaturizing warheads for use with an intercontinental missile that could reach the United States.

A South Korean official warned that the North is two to three years away from fully operationalizing the submarine breakthrough, though analysts still maintain it will take longer. Given analysts’ recent record, however, one might be forgiven for fretting a bit.

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  • Nevis07

    An updated and improved sonar net in the pacific and east and south China seas would be a good idea I think. I know essentially nothing about submarine warfare, but I can’t imagine it would hurt much to have additional tracking capabilities. Plus, with the Chinese adding so many diesel-electric subs to their own fleet, it might well be helpful to track them as well.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Most of the cold-war era sonar in the north pacific (CAESAR) is either no longer operational, or severely run down, but the foundation exists for some rebuilding. More to the point, deployable fixed arrays have been developed since then, so we have some options if we care to use them.
      The Nork subs aren’t really an issue (mostly target practice at this point, they are elderly and very, very noisy), but the Chinese are a different matter. While their current generation is still manageable, there is no guarantee that this happy circumstance will remain the case indefinitely, particularly with the rather significant under-investment in ASW assets by this administration.

      • Tom Chambers

        It is true that being easily trackable (relatively speaking), the NORK subs would have no second-strike capability. They still possess a first-strike capability, or will soon. Kim gives the impression of being unstable enough or anti-American enough that we should be uncomfortable with this development. It is a good reason to improve our anti-missile defense capabilities. The Chinese military is more capable, but Chinese leadership is rational, I think.

        • f1b0nacc1

          We largely agree. I should point out however that it is simple enough to trail these subs (they are extremely noisy), and given the time it takes to prepare a missile for firing (the missiles that the Norks are apparently using are slight variants of the liquid-fueled SS-N-6 Serb, which take up to 15 minutes to prepare, even with advanced warning) mean that even a first strike would be difficult to get off before the sub was sunk. Improving our antimissile capabilities is always a good idea, though remember that a SLBM makes this far more complicated, as the incoming warheads would not necessarily be in the right place for easy interception.
          Regarding Chinese leaders being more rational….well, right now they are…that might not always (or even reasonably soon) be the case….

          • Frank Natoli

            Is it reasonable to assume the assignment of one USN attack boat for each NK sub at sea? You did write “trail these subs”. Is it reasonable to assume the assignment of one USN attack boat for each Russian and ChiCom sub at sea?

          • Nevis07

            This was one of my original concerns as well. The USN operates around the world, so to assume we can trail every sub leaving NK ports may not be reasonable – as you said we’ll have Russian and Chinese subs playing cat and mouse as well. This is why my feeling is that we should have better tracking intelligence, which would allow us to allocate our military resources more effectively.

          • f1b0nacc1

            The problem is that even the best tracking is limited…the ocean is an extremely big place and even the biggest submarine is very small. Right now most of our opposition subs are relatively noisy and thus easily tracked, but this is changing with time as their technology improves. Trailing the Norks is likely to remain easy for a long time, the Chinese, not so much.

          • Nevis07

            I’ll have to defer to your judgement on that one. I really have very little knowledge on the topic!

          • f1b0nacc1

            Right now it is an option, as the Chinese have only one (very noisy) SSBN and the Norks none. The Russians are typically tracked this way, but if there is too much proliferation, that could easily change.

          • Frank Natoli

            The Israelis have miniaturized nuclear warheads to fly on cruise missiles, so they have an undersea nuclear deterrent w/o the need for an SSB[N]. If the Norks continue to miniaturize, simple diesel-electrics [which is what the Israelis are using] will be perfectly adequate. And submerged, electrics can be quieter than nukes.

            I also suspect that USN has given short shrift to ASW capabilities, starving the attack boats to feed the carriers.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Cruise missiles can be rather easily shot down when detected, and are thus highly unsuitable for first strikes (what we are discussing here) rather than second strikes. The Dolphin (and the new Dolphin IIs) are superb vessels, but extremely expensive and difficult to maintain, far beyond the capabilities of the Norks in any viable future scenario. What the Norks DO have right now are some extremely elderly Golfs, and some even older Romeos, only the former being suitable for ballistic missiles. Yes, they are said to be building something new, but those don’t exist yet, and in any event are very unlikely to be particularly capable. Sub construction isn’t a simple proposition, and there is no evidence at all that the Norks have mastered this particular skill, although they are adept at mini-sub design and construction. If they were capable of building larger boats, why would they retain their ancient (and dangerously unreliable) Romeos and Golfs?
            We agree that the US hasn’t done as much in ASW as it could (far too little, as it happens), but the carriers aren’t really the problem as much as the arrogance of the nuclear sub community in the USN and the obsession with the F-35 program at the expense of virtually everything else. I don’t share your high opinion of diesel-electrics (even AIP boats are far to limited in range and speed for anything more than highly localized activity), but you are absolutely correct that we need to put more into ASW (and in my opinion, anti-Mine) assets.

          • Frank Natoli

            Cruise missiles that vulnerable? Obviously, we are getting into classified areas. Being subsonic, directed AT a defended target, e.g., a warship, a Vulcan is effective. But a submarine launched cruise missile, that suddenly appears on primary radar not far offshore from New York or Boston or Los Angeles or San Francisco or Miami, that has a flight time of minutes, is going to be engaged by what? Not interceptors. Not SAM sites. Not a Vulcan. What’s going to bring the missile down before detonation over Times Square?

          • f1b0nacc1

            Typically cruise missiles are fired at a range of about 500 km, (though certainly it isn’t impossible that they would be used at a shorter range) in order to minimize the risk to the launching platform. This would mean that a typical flight time of about 30 minutes would be in order, if the target was on the coastline. That would be enough time for interceptors to take action, presuming for a moment that the target wasn’t sufficiently remote from a viable airbase (which in the case of the US would not be the case, but might be in the case of other countries). Of course we could fire our hypothetical cruise missile from a shorter ranger, but that means that the firing platform has a much greater chance of being detected and destroyed.
            However, why would we do it that way? If I wanted to blow up something in the US, and was going to fire at a coastal target. I would simply hide a bomb aboard a large cargo ship, sail it (legally) into an American port, then blow the thing up. Destroy Seattle, Long Beach, or Galveston, and you would do far, far more damage to the American economy than you would by making a big hole in downtown Manhattan, and it would be far harder to detect and/or stop. Plus using a cargo ship as your delivery system, you aren’t limited by weight or size restrictions, so you could add a great deal of extra ‘punch’ to your weapon. Finally, cargo ships are very reliable, and easy to guide to their targets (especially if the crews have no idea of what they are carrying), whereas cruise missiles aren’t as reliable, and require more sophisticated (hence prone to failure) guidance systems.

  • Blackbeard

    One of the things that is so wrong with our politics is a lack of historical memory. This shocking failure is the fault of Bill Clinton with a nice helping hand from Jimmy Carter, by far the worst ex-president in US history. But does Clinton’s reputation suffer for it? Do we learn any lesson that might apply to, say, Iran? No and no. Sad and we will pay the price.

  • truthsojourner

    I think we all need to reserve judgment on NK SSB capabilities. I was not impressed either by the footage of the launch or the class of submarine. I think they’re probably a few years, at least, away from a meaningful operational capability. Let’s focus more on the immediate in-theater threat.

    • f1b0nacc1

      By and large, I think you are quite correct, but even those ancient GOLF-class subs can (with a few nuke-tipped SLBMs) cause an immense amount of trouble. You are absolutely right that there are some much bigger fish to fry in-theatre, but I wouldn’t entirely ignore the short/mid-term Nork threat entirely…

  • fastrackn1

    A tiny little country about the size of Wisconsin, that is not consumed with religious fanaticism, gets a bit of ancient nuclear
    technology…{yawn}…………

    …so how long do you think it would take for the US to turn the place into a radio active parking lot if they actually tried to do anything with their nukes….

    • f1b0nacc1

      Which would be of very little comfort to those already incinerated if they DID do anything with their nukes.
      As a side issue, are you sure that we would do anything? After all, this is the age of Obama and his ‘red lines’

      • fastrackn1

        What I meant was the MAD theory regarding them attacking US, Japan, China,…or anyone else for that matter. They could gain nothing since they have no real power, and they could get annihilated by US or other powers to serve as a warning if any other country tried to use them in the future…and I am sure they know that, especially since they have no religious extremism which could make them not care for instance.
        To me North Korea is like a 5 year old who has had his toy taken away and is having a tantrum and calling his mother names even though he knows his mother can whip his butt.

        Even Obummer would act if someone started lobbing nukes. That brings things to a whole new level.

        • f1b0nacc1

          MAD works well with rational actors who have a great deal to lose, it works very poorly with those parties that lack both. North Korea is a decrepit police state run by a highly dysfunctional family headed by an individual of questionable mental stability. In the event of economic collapse in North Korea, or just a general crumbling of the regime itself, it isn’t impossible to imagine the leadership ‘rolling the dice’ with their nukes. After all, what would they have to lose? Consider the example of Hitler in his bunker as the Russian troops approach…do you honestly believe that MAD would constrain him?
          As for what Obama would do, you have far more faith in him than I do. In fairness, better men than Obama (granted, that sets the bar very low) might quail at the thought of killing millions of people in revenge. If (lets say just for purposes of discussion) Pusan were vaporized, and threats were made to Seoul and Tokyo, do you honestly believe that an American president would simply push the button? Do you think that they would kill millions? Do you think that there would be no calls for ‘restraint’, no cries to ‘stop the cycle of violence’, etc.? And what of the other cities (I used Seoul and Tokyo here, but we could just as easily consider LA and Seattle if you wish)….do you think that they would not enter into the calculation? This would be one heck of a gamble, to be sure, but a desperate leader, and a weak president (or not, even a strong one would be limited in what he could do) make it possible.
          None of this is certain, pretending otherwise is a very serious mistake.

          • fastrackn1

            Yes MAD only works for rational actors. I don’t know that NK’s leaders are that crazy to actually use nukes. Maybe if we actually invaded them and put them in the same position as we did to Hitler, then it is possible… but I doubt we would ever invade NK because we need nothing from them.
            Hitler was one of the most…maybe ‘the most’, maniacal, narcissistic megalomaniacs in the history of the world, I don’t think Kim Jong-un is a comparison to Hitler…not sure he is even a comparison to his father.
            I am in agreement with your point about it though, I am just more cynical and skeptical about what our government says about NK or any other country they don’t like. Governments, and even small groups of people, always need a bogeyman or black sheep in their lives, it makes them feel more elevated…it is human nature. And, I am no expert in our military capabilities, but don’t we have weapons that can intercept any incoming? And maybe have sold them to our allies like Japan?

            But if we ever got in an actual situation and nukes were flying or about to fly, I doubt we would hesitate…Obummer or not. The rest of the world wouldn’t have time to call restraint, I think it would happen too quickly for that. Everything is precision now, so maybe we would kill a few hundred thousand at best, like in Japan WWII, and then it would be over for them, even if they managed to fire a few nukes.

          • f1b0nacc1

            While Hitler was an extremely evil man, I don’t think he ranked even in the top 10 of crazy. That is probably a discussion for a different thread, however….
            As for the Norks, I think that they are entirely capable of using nukes, particularly as part of a calculated effort to extort aid from the outside world if their kingdom was collapsing. I will freely concede that to be an opinion (an informed one, but an opinion no less), but the risk is high enough that even those who don’t agree with it cannot simply dismiss it out of hand. Remember, the leadership in NK (and other totalitarian states like Iran) tend to live in bubbles where those who dissent (even within the regime) are often put to death with little discussion. People like that tend to become detached for reality, an understanding of consequences, and rational judgment even if they remain ‘sane’ in a strict sense of the word.
            Regarding our ability to intercept incoming missiles, we do have some limited capability at this time (how effective it is can be debated, but that is also a subject for another thread), but a nuclear power does not necessarily have to attack with missiles (smuggled bombs, hiding them aboard cargo vessels, etc.), and they don’t necessarily have to attack the US. Were I North Korea, for example, I would consider Pusan as my top target, with Seoul or Tokyo secondary choices. Attacking the US (which is defended, and against which an attack would be far more likely to trigger a response) would be a lesser choice. Finally, even if we assume that the existing US defenses were highly effective, we have not sold them to our allies in the region, and are extremely unlikely to in the future.
            Regarding retaliation. Let me point out that an American president confronted with the aftermath of a NK attack on Pusan (for example), would be strongly deterred from retaliation UNLESS he was absolutely certain that there were no other weapons that could be used against the US. Would we trade, say LA for Pyongyang? I rather doubt it, particularly with someone like Obama in office. Keep in mind that this particularly grisly calculus has been done in the past, it was the primary reason why France insisted on their Force de Frappe in the 1960s. De Gaulle didn’t trust the Americans then (when we had a far more capable foreign policy elite), and latter day allies might have less reason to trust us now. Note that the Saudis are probably having this exactly conversation right now

          • fastrackn1

            Well, we will see what happens.
            They already have (or claim to have) nukes to some degree so we can’t stop them. They will just continue their clandestine nuke program, and with their closed society it will be hard to gauge what they actually have until they admit what they have. The time to stop them was before they got so far into it…similar to Iran now.
            It is true they could use some type of dirty bomb, or as you say, “smuggled bombs” also. Guerrilla tactics are tough to defend against.
            I don’t blame others for not trusting us though….

          • f1b0nacc1

            Indeed, we will see what happens, lets hope you are right and I am wrong!
            As for what to do, I agree that the time to deal with them was prior to their development (Clinton and Bush have much to answer for), but strikes against their development centers wouldn’t be a bad idea. Not likely, but practical if done correctly.

          • Frank Natoli

            Does the U.S. have a treaty obligation with South Korea or not? I honestly do not know. If it does, and if Pusan was subjected to a nuclear attack, a U.S. response against all North Korean military sites, including the use of tactical nukes against wherever the man who gave the order for the Pusan strike was believed to be, would be correct.

          • f1b0nacc1

            The answer to your question is both yes and no. We have a mutual defense agreement, but that does NOT obligate us to any particular course of action. In other words, a nuclear attack on Pusan obligates us to anything from an all-out obliteration of all targets in North Korea to an angry letter to the Times, or something in between. It does not in any way, however, obligate us to respond in kind.
            I will merely repeat the question that I asked earlier…would you (as President of the United States) be willing to sacrifice Seoul, or Tokyo, or LA or Seattle… for Pusan? I doubt that you (or any other President) can guarantee in an convincing way that you would, and hence the logic of MAD breaks down.

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