Nuclear Friday: The Learning Curve

Earlier this week I watched a video from Sandia Laboratories that gives some historical context for the current tensions between the United States and North Korea. While the leadership of neither nation inspires much confidence, it is likely that this current phase of what has been an ongoing crisis will lead to a stable and acceptable deterrence posture among all powers in the northeast Asian region.

If you’ve been following the news the last week, this may seem overly optimistic. The USAF has been flying joint training exercises with the South Korean and Japanese air forces. North Korea has asserted that the B-1B aircraft in these missions were training for nuclear attacks on North Korea. This may in fact be the case, though I cannot confirm exactly how many nuclear weapons are available in the North Pacific area. It is likely that there are at least a few B61 Mod-12 weapons in the area, most likely in Guam. As I pointed out in the linked post, Mod-12, often described as a nuclear bunker-buster, seems almost to have been designed specifically for attacking North Korea. The foreign ministry of North Korea was correct to express alarm about these training missions, but I think these missions haven’t really escalated the situation. This particular American show of force was well within the few established “norms” of nuclear confrontations. And I think North Korea’s public objection to these flights were reasonable too. Everything seems to be moving toward a stable deterrence situation. At least until two days ago.

On May 3rd the United States sent a message that there need not be any nuclear weapons stationed in theater for the US to respond with nuclear weapons by test firing a Minuteman missile at Vandenberg AFB. There has been no official communication from the US government about whether this test was meant as signal to North Korea, all media reports seem to be quoting this brief Air Force press release. I think this test might be sending a dangerous signal. I believe this test suggests too much of a willingness to escalate and I cannot imagine a situation where using Minuteman against North Korea would be appropriate. I can imagine a lot of things, but I can’t think of a situation where using such high yield weapons would be appropriate. So far, North Korea has issued no official communications about this missile test.

The only official communications from NK since the test has been to assert that US and South Korean intelligence agencies are plotting to assassinate Kim Jong Un with specialized chemical or biological weapons. Sounds crazy, I know, but I think this news release was meant more for the domestic audience than an international one. However, I think North Korea is correct to worry about the possibility of targeted assassinations, though any such attempts would involve bullets rather than exotic weapons. Possible targeted raids into North Korea with the goal of capturing or killing key persons has been discussed in the US media and there are likely such plans in place. I hope there are no such attempts. While the Bin Laden raid was a success, remember Eagle Claw. The failure of Eagle Claw was merely national humiliation. The stakes are much higher in North Korea.

So where is there hope in all this? After watching this Sandia video, I think we can all be a little more hopeful. The video describes the period from the Berlin Blockade to the Cuban Missile Crisis as the era of “Nuclear Learning”, the era when the earliest nuclear armed powers were able to reach point of good communication and stable deterrence. The US and North Korea may be able to reach a similar stable relationship with each other. As I have argued over the last weeks, North Korea seems to be playing the game of deterrence according to established conventions. I am quite impressed. And Trump, while at first promising something dramatic, seems to be getting bored and leaving these matters to folks who know what they’re doing:

I am as impressed with this film as I was with Always/Never which I posted a few weeks ago. You can read the official press about this documentary here. Dan Curry is my new favorite filmmaker.

This was meant as an orientation film for new Sandia employees to help them understand the historic context and future possibilities of Sandia’s mission. It does not presume very much historical or technical knowledge, so it’s quite accessible to the general viewer. Nevertheless, this is high powered discussion with a diverse set of viewpoints on the mission of deterrence.

These kinds of people are the ones who are going to get us through this. As I said, North Korea is beginning to play the game the right way, and this film reminds us that the United States has long traditions of getting through situations like the current crisis without disaster.

Odds are everything’s gonna be all right.


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