Mission Accomplished? A Look Back on North Korea's Program to Develop a Nuclear Deterrent
Asia-Pacific , Missile and Space , Foreign Relations
25 April 2018
With North Korea having declared a successful end to its missile and nuclear programs on April 21st 2018, the country has developed strike capabilities putting the population centres of all potential adversaries, including the entire United States mainland, within range of its strategic nuclear arsenal. The conclusion of the country's program to develop a strategic deterrent comes 60 years after the United States first stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea directed at the north, following a unilateral withdrawal from article 13D of the armistice which ended the Korean War which had prohibited the deployment of such weapons to the peninsula by either side. It was less than a year after newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump threatened the country with total annihilation at the United Nations General Assembly.
While North Korea has developed tactical ballistic missiles to strike targets across South Korea since the 1980s, a time when the country faced a vast arsenal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed south of the 38th Parallel and sought to gain some form of parity with a missile program of its own, development of a strategic arsenal capable of striking U.S. targets beyond the Korean Peninsula with nuclear force began far more recently. Following the end of the Cold War the country was seriously threatened by the United States, and Pyongyang feared it could be targeted much as a number of other former Soviet aligned states across the world had been with often devastating effects for their populations.
North Korea was labelled a member of the Axis of Evil by the United States alongside Iran and Iraq in 2002, and Iraq was just months later invaded by a U.S. led coalition force - an illegal act of war which due to the unchallenged power of the perpetrators could not be prevented by the International community. With calls in the U.S. for North Korea to take the 'appropriate lesson' from the Iraq invasion, and with the United States actively revising Operations Plan 5030 which entailed the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to destroy North Korean bunkers and fortifications in the event of an attack, Pyongyang's incentive to develop a deterrent appeared greater than ever. The U.S. Congressional Research Service’s East Asia specialist Larry Niksch concluded at this time that “regime change in North Korea is indeed the Bush administration’s policy objective.” Niksch wrote that if sanctions against the country and interdiction of its shipping did not produce the desired collapse of the government, U.S. Defence Secretary Rumsfeld was considering “a broader plan of massive strikes against multiple targets.”
Facing overwhelming threats from the United States, a nuclear deterrent appeared the only effective means for the small Asian state, with a defence budget orders of magnitude smaller than that of the United States, to ensure its security. In the words of Secretary Rumsfeld, a nuclear arsenal in the hands of a small state could serve “to deter us (the United States) from bringing our conventional or nuclear power to bear in a regional crisis… ’asymmetric’ approaches can limit our ability to apply military power.” A paper published in 2000 by the highly influential U.S. neoconservative think tank Project for a New American Century (PNAC) titled Rebuilding America’s Defences similarly highlighted North Korea's motivation for developing a nuclear deterrent - stating: “Weak states operating small arsenals of crude ballistic missiles, armed with basic nuclear warheads or other weapons of mass destruction, will be in a strong position to deter the United States from using conventional force... When their missiles are tipped with warheads carrying nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, even weak regional powers have a credible deterrent regardless of the balance of conventional forces." North Korea's calculus was clear.
North Korea successfully tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006. Pyongyang's intention from the beginning had been to develop a compact nuclear warhead capable of being fitted onto a ballistic missile, a far more complex task than the Manhattan Project and the Soviet Union's own early nuclear weapons program had sought to achieve - with both of these programs having developed heavier and more cumbersome warheads for deployment by high payload strategic bombers rather than missiles. North Korea would conduct just four more nuclear tests, successively miniaturising the warhead while maximising the payload, so that by the end of 2017 Pyongyang was able to declare that it had successfully developed a hydrogen bomb with a warhead small enough to be mounted on a ballistic missile, with a payload of several megatons and destructive capabilities exceeding those of Fat Man and Little Boy, the bombs used by the United States on Japanese population centres in 1945, by several orders of magnitude.
Able to combine a miniaturised hydrogen bomb with two intercontinental ballistic missile platforms successfully tested in 2017, North Korea had successfully developed an active strategic nuclear deterrent by the end of 2017 - which precluded the country's declaration in April the following year that the country's weapon's program was complete. There is little doubt that the program has been aimed primarily if not exclusively at deterring attacks from the United States, with Korean leader Kim Jong Un stating following a successful weapons test in September 2017 that the country's deterrent was being developed as a necessity to “protect destiny and sovereignty from the long-standing nuclear threats of U.S. imperialists.” With North Korea having lost an estimated 20-30% of its population during the Korean War (a death toll in the millions approximately equivalent to a 9/11 attack on the country every day for three years), the country's fear of a second war with the United States and the lengths it has gone to to prevent such an incident from occurring stemmed from its historical experience.
Alongside the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 intercontinental range platforms, North Korea also retains a number of advanced intermediate range platforms designed to strike U.S. assets across the Pacific in the event of war, and these missiles are also capable of deploying weapons of mass destruction against population centres in Guam and Japan to deter attacks by the United States and its East Asian ally. The Rodong-1 dates back to the 1980s, and has been extensively upgraded over a number of years and exported to a number of foreign clients. The platform represented the first fully indigenous ballistic missile and the first with an intermediate range in North Korea's arsenal. Other platforms include the the solid fuelled Pukkuksong-2, its submarine based variant Pukkuksong-1, and the longer ranged Musudan - the latter two which hold U.S. military facilities on Guam in their range. The successful testing of the Hwasong-12 intermediate range missile in 2017 alongside the two intercontinental range platforms proved to be a game changer for North Korea's regional strike capabilities, and the missile has since been dubbed 'Guam Killer.' Much like China's DF-26, the Hwasong-12 was developed almost exclusively to target U.S. military facilities on Guam in light of their importance to the country's naval and air operations across the Pacific and their vulnerability to attack. It is little surprise that both East Asian powers have taken a near identical approach given Guam's combination of vulnerability and importance to American operations in the region, and in light of both nations perceiving ever growing threats from the United States expanding military's deployments near their borders.
Ultimately the success of North Korea's deterrence program marks something truly unprecedented, in that it is the first time a small state has been able to independently develop the capabilities needed to effectively deter attacks from a major superpower independently. While during the Cold War a number of states were able to deter military intervention by either the United States or the Soviet Union by relying on the protection of the other (or as per the Suez crisis relying on both to prevent a joint British and French invasion), North Korea's achievement represents an entirely new phenomenon, one which could well set a precedent for a major change in the nature international relations. With the country now largely secure from attack, a reduction in conventional military expenditure and refocusing of efforts towards economic development is likely.
Russian Armed Forces Receive New Air Defence Systems; The Importance of a Multi Layered SAM Network
Eastern Europe and Central Asia , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft
24 April 2018
Speaking to reporters in early April, Russian Aerospace Forces Commander Col. Gen. Sergei Surovikin announced that the military was set to receive three new regiments of S-400 Triumph surface to air missile systems by the end of 2018. Other weapons systems including advanced variants of the S-300V and the short ranged Pantsir combat vehicles were also set to enter service. "Modern S-400 Triumf, S-300 Favorit air defense systems, Pantsir-S anti-aircraft missile and gun systems are operational in anti aircraft missile troops of the Russian Air Force. In 2017 only, four anti-aircraft missile regiments were re-equipped with S-400 Triumf. Another three S-400 will enter service of the Russian Aerospace Forces in 2018,” the General stated. He further noted that Moscow and Russia’s central industrial district were currently protected by five anti aircraft missile regiments, all equipped with S-400 systems.
Russian and Soviet aerospace forces have long prioritised the defence of the capital, and only after Moscow was fully covered by Russia’s latest surface to air missile system did the country begin exporting its S-400 surface to air missile batteries. A growing number of orders from across the world, including China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Algeria among others, has forced Russia’s Almaz Antey Corporation to produce S-400 batteries rapidly to meet both domestic and foreign demand. While China was the first export client to receive the S-400, a number of export clients have requested a timely delivery due to various security threats - most notably Turkey for which Russia has considerably speeded up the delivery of the weapons system. Further orders from India, Iraq and a number of other states are expected in the near future, and the proliferation of the formidable air defence system has become so widespread that the United States has deemed it a significant threat to its ability to project power abroad - responding by threatening economic sanctions against parties which purchase the S-400.
Alongside the S-400, a number of complementary weapons systems are also set to be deployed by the Russian armed forces by the end of 2018 to strengthen the country’s air defence network. The S-300VM, a long range platform closely related to the S-400 but specialised in an anti missile role, is set to continue to enter service. The platform has already been deployed to protect Russian forces in Syria, complementing S-400 platforms already deployed there. The Pansir, a shorter ranged platform, is also set to continue production. The highly mobile air defence combat vehicle is equipped with both autocannons and missiles, and Russia’s armed forces have indicated that it could well be armed with hypersonic missiles in the near future for more effective and longer ranged strike capabilities. The Pantsir system has already been combat tested extensively in Syria, and serves a complementary role to longer ranged air defence platforms. Other medium and short range systems such as the Tor and the new BuK-M3 will also be inducted into Russia's armed forces, and these systems will be fielded alongside longer ranged platforms to form an integrated multi layered surface to air missile network - very likely the most difficult in the world to penetrate. The addition of the S-500 in 2020, a more advanced long range platform able to strike advanced stealth fighters, ballistic missiles and even near space satellites, will further strengthen this network - which will be relied on to intercept all manner of aerial targets threatening Russian territory. Such a defensive network is both more versatile and far more cost effective to develop and deploy than a large combat aircraft fleet would be to provide an equivalent level of protection, and takes much of the burden off Russia's Air Force allowing it to perform roles other than air defence in the event of war. Russia's air defence missile network thus remains one of the country's most formidable assets today - one which neighbouring China and North Korea have both modelled their own air defence networks on and acquired large amounts of Russia hardware in an attempt to replicate.
U.S. Withholds F-35B Stealth Fighters From Taipei - Fears Taiwan's Armed Forces are Compromised by Chinese Agents
Asia-Pacific , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft
24 April 2018
In an effort to modernise its increasingly antiquated aerial warfare capabilities, Taiwan has reportedly sought to acquire F-35B light stealth fighters from the United States at a time of growing tensions with across the Taiwan straits. While designed with short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities (STOVL) primarily to deploy from aircraft carriers such as the U.S. Wasp Class, Japanese Izumo Class and British Queen Elizabeth Class, which lack the ability to accommodate conventional carrier based aircraft such as the F-18E and F-35C, the F-35B is also prized for its ability to operate from extremely short makeshift runways. This had led the U.S. Marine Corps and the armed forces of Japan and Israel to consider operating the fighter for operations without carriers, the former two to deploy from remote Island outposts in the Pacific while the Israeli Air Force has considered deploying them to short landing strips near the frontlines of potential combat zones.
With Taiwan today deploying the much of its active forces to outlying Island outposts in the South China Sea, Taipei continues to prioritise the fortification of these strategic positions against a potential attack from the Chinese mainland. Taiwan’s Air Force technology mostly dates back to the 1980s or earlier, and lacks the technological capabilities to match platforms fielded by Beijing such as the J-10C. Taiwan’s fleet is comprised entirely of light fighters such as the F-16 and Ching Kuo, which are overwhelmingly outmatched by Chinese long range heavy air superiority fighters such as the J-11 and Su-35, which have actively trained for a campaign against Taipei should the need arise. With Taiwan’s Air Force lacking either long range heavy fighters such as the F-15 or interceptors such as the MiG-31, the short range of its fighters seriously restricts its ability to respond to threats in far off outposts. The state of Taiwan's missile defences similarly leave much to be desired, particularly when considering the sophistication of Beijing's combat aircraft and the number in which they are fielded. Taipei has recently sought to fortify these outposts against air attacks by deploying MIM-23 Hawk surface to air missiles, U.S. made platforms dating back to the late 1950s which have since been extensively upgraded, and remain somewhat viable in defending against air attacks. The STOVL capabilities of the F-35B could prove an invaluable asset to alleviate Taiwan’s pressing situation, with the fighters able to deploy from short runways and thus provide much needed air support beyond the reach of Taipei’s other aerial assets.
As a result of the potential usefulness of the F-35B in defending its outlying islands, Taiwan has become the first non carrier power to show significant interest in acquiring the specialised variant of the stealth fighter. The Air Force has reportedly sought to commission the U.S. made platforms from Lockheed Martin, in a deal estimated to be worth approximately $3 billion - or 30% of Taipei’s annual defence expenditure. The United States government however has on its part proven unwilling to provide the fighters to Taiwan, namely due to concerns that Taipei’s acquisition could facilitate the loss of valuable American technological secrets. With production of the British Harrier Jet and the Soviet Yak-38 long since terminated, the United States remains the only producer of STOVL capable aircraft in the world and retains a monopoly on modern STOVL technologies. For these to fall into the hands of a rival power could have disastrous effects for the United SWith production of the British Harrier Jet and the Soviet Yak-38 long since terminated, the United States remains the only producer of STOVL capable aircraft in the world and retains a monopoly on modern STOVL technologies. For these to fall into the hands of a rival power could have disastrous effects for the United States military, and lead to the production of competing STOVL combat aircraft on already highly contentious export markets and the deployment of far more effective air support by amphibious contingents fielded by America's potential adversaries. The F-35B’s stealth technologies and state of the art radar, engine and avionics, while lacking the sophistication of the F-22 Raptor, are still valuable and could also be put to much use in Beijing's hands.
U.S. apprehension regarding the sale of the F-35B to Taipei has come as a result of a perception that Taiwan’s military is to some degree compromised by agents from the Chinese mainland, which could potentially acquire secrets from the new platforms and pass these on to Beijing both to aid in the development of China's own fighters and to develop effective countermeasures to the American platform. While former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that China had already gained access to "many terabytes of data" on the United States’ fifth generation fighter programs, the F-35B’s particularly sensitive STOVL systems could still very likely hold some secrets which Beijing lacks.
In Taiwan a number of legislators from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have recently called on President Tsai Ing Wen to strengthen precautions within the government to prevent Chinese agents from acquiring state secrets, indicating that Taipei itself is not overly confident in its proneness to infiltration and espionage by Beijing’s agents. Lawmakers have indicated that only when President Tsai has carried out a satisfactory ‘house cleaning’ operation will the United States consent to a resumption of talks for acquiring the costly next generation fighters. The F-35B is notably the least combat capable of all the fighter’s variants, and by far the most costly to operate and maintain. The platform lacks the firepower, range, speed and altitude to contend with modern Chinese air superiority fighters, and was designed as a light multirole platform primarily for a strike rather than an aerial combat role. The F-35B is currently by far the most expensive fighter on sale anywhere in the world, and even the United States military has struggled to service them due to their phenomenal operational costs. Given the shortcomings in its performance and the United States’ unwillingness to sell the platform without a number of preconditions, Taiwan’s armed forces may well be better served by looking elsewhere to enhance their aerial warfare capabilities.
U.S. Military Plans to Adapt New F-35 Stealth Fighters for Missile Defence Role
North America, Western Europe and Oceania , Missile and Space
23 April 2018
Recent developments in the ballistic missile capabilities of a number of potential U.S. adversaries have left the United States military’s assets increasingly vulnerable in the event of a future war. These include both tactical missiles aimed at undermining the U.S. military’s ability to wage war, destroying military and command centres from Guam and Hawaii to Western Europe with both conventional and tactical nuclear warheads, and strategic missiles carrying high payload nuclear warheads aimed at destroying targets on the U.S. mainland should war break out. Examples of the former include the North Korean Musudan, Russian Iskander and Iranian Shehab-3, while examples of the latter include the Korean Hwasong-15, Russian Sarmat (Satan 2) and Chinese Dongfeng-41.
With U.S. ground based low altitude missile defences having left much to be desired in their performances during both testing and recent combat deployments in the Middle East, and with Russia in particular inducting ever more capable hypersonic missile platforms which are near impossible to intercept, the U.S. Department of Defence (DoD) has bee forced to consider new ways to protect its cities and its assets from missile attacks. U.S. Strategic Command chief General John Hyten himself stated that the U.S. was essentially defenceless against Russia’s recently developed ballistic missiles, and as a result the need for new means of interception are needed now more than ever. Alongside the potential revival of a Reagan era weapons program to deploy anti missile lasers in space, the DoD is also set to modify its new F-35 fifth generation light fighters to fulfil a missile defence role. With the F-35 set to comprise the mainstay of the U.S. combat aircraft fleets, replacing the F-16, F-18 and Harrier jet, the fighter will be deployed to facilities across the world by America and several of its allies and could well prove an invaluable defensive asset if successfully adapted for such a role.
Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, director of the Defence Department's Missile Defence Agency (MDA), has advocated for the F-35’s use as an anti missile platform and promised that the light stealth fighter will by 2025 have the ability to shoot down ballistic missiles. Speaking to lawmakers from the Senate appropriations subcommittee on defence, the director stated: “I’d say six to seven years to essentially work out the Concept of Operations (and) develop the capabilities – (whether) it's sensor-based or a new fast missile that's hung on the bottom of an F-35 for the BMDS (Ballistic Missile Defense System) mission – to integrate those capabilities, test them and deliver them into a theatre of operations.”
Director Greaves noted that new missile intercepting capabilities for the F-35 would be "if not a game changer, then a significant contributor to future ballistic missile defence." He further stated that the MDA saw the F-35 equipped for a missile defence role as a viable alternative to a “classic missile defence system" such as the Patriot, THAAD, Aegis or the U.S. mainland’s GMD system. Lockheed Martin, the F-35’s developer, has for its part long promoted its new fighter as a possible missile interceptor, though the Pentagon never indicated whether it intended to develop the fighter for such a role and when such development would be complete. With Russia’s unveiling of the new Sarmat and Avangard missile platforms in early March 2018, which came just months after North Korea flight tested its Hwasong-15 ICBM capable of striking targets as far as New York with a nuclear payload of several megatons, the United States has been forced to redouble its efforts and more seriously consider Lockheed’s proposition. China’s induction of the DF-41 nuclear capable solid fuelled ICBM into active service in 2017, which holds the entire U.S. mainland well within its range, has caused further concern among the United States military. Defence of forward operating bases in the Pacific on Okinawa, Guam and Hawaii against rapidly growing Chinese and North Korean intermediate range strike capabilities has also been a pressing security threat, one which the F-35 may well also be pressed into service as a solution to.
Blowback from Western Strikes Intensifies; Syria Recovers Two Unexploded U.S. Cruise Missiles, Sends to Russia for Analysis
Middle East , Missile and Space
23 April 2018
The joint U.S., British and French missile strike on Syria carried out on April 14th 2018 have had a number of negative repercussions for the Western powers due to the Russian and Syrian responses. With Syria’s armed forces having reportedly intercepted the vast majority of Western missiles the effect of the attack was largely blunted while the Western bloc’s latest cruise missiles were revealed to have failed against Cold War era defences long considered obsolete. Russia’s response to the attack meanwhile is set to further weaken the position of the Western bloc and its allies, both in Syria and elsewhere, with Moscow indicating it is willing to provide Syria and possibly even North Korea and Iran with more advanced air defence systems to deter further unilateral Western attacks.
On April 19th reports emerged from the Syrian Defence Ministry indicating further blowback from the Western missile strike, which would serve to further strengthen the position of Syria, Russia and their allies. A defence ministry source stated regarding a formidable asset obtained by the Syrian armed forces in the aftermath of the attack: "Two cruise missiles that did not detonate during the U.S. missile strike on Syria overnight to April 14 were found by the Syrian military. Both are in rather good condition. These missiles were handed over to Russian officer the day before yesterday (April 17)," the source reported, adding that both missiles “were sent to Russia by plane yesterday (April 18)." The Western powers deployed some of their most advanced cruise missile systems, including all new U.S. JASSM-ER and French Scalp cruise missiles, with U.S. President Donald Trump referring to the new platforms used in the attack as "nice and new and smart.”
With these advanced weapons having fallen into Russian hands for study, it represents a considerable loss for Western defence industries. Viktor Murakhovsky, a member of the advisory council of the Russian Military Industrial Commission, stated regarding the handover of American missiles by Syria and their potential uses for Russia's defence industries: “These findings may be very useful for our country. Russian experts do not copy western arms patterns, since we have our own development strategy, but it will be interesting for them to get acquainted with the latest western developments in this field. Some missiles, used to strike Syria, were not new, while others were exploited for the first time... It would be interesting to look at the American missile – JASSM-ER – that the U.S. used in the battlefield for the first time. Studying these rockets will help Russia improve its missile defense systems and electronic warfare systems.” Russia can not only potentially advance its own cruise missile program with reverse engineered Western technologies, but it can also develop more effective countermeasures to these Western platforms which it can share with a number of potential Western adversaries including China, North Korea and Iran.
PLA Warplanes Train for Operations Over Taiwan as Chinese State Media Warns of Potential For Cross Straits War
Asia-Pacific , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft , Foreign Relations
22 April 2018
China’s People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Eastern Theatre Command recently dispatched warplanes for drills over rugged terrain in China’s far west to simulate conditions for conflict over Taiwan’s mountainous landscape. These drills sent a strong signal to Taipei amid threats that the United States may deploy its forces to Taiwan and strengthen military cooperation - which would be aimed directly at Beijing. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing Wen’s refusal to affirm the 1992 Taiwan Consensus, under which both Taipei and Beijing acknowledge the principle of One China, has also indicated that Taiwan may well seek a formal declaration of independence in future. China for its part would not tolerate the formation of a separatist Western aligned state just 130km from its coast, and the potential for such action could well lead to open conflict in the Taiwan straits.
PLA Air Force drills came amid a report from China’s state run Global Times that it was ever “more probable” that conflict may erupt over the Taiwan straits and Chinese fighters would be required to do actual battle with Taiwan’s own forces. The PLA has been at war with the forces of the Taipei based and Republic of China (ROC) for almost a century, and only the intervention of the United States Navy in 1950 prevented Beijing from conquering Taiwan and bringing an end to the country’s longstanding civil war. With Taiwan today indicating that it is willing to support the Western bloc’s efforts against China more directly, the potential for a resumption of open conflict in the Taiwan straits remains. The Global Times states regarding the potential for armed clashes between the PLA and Taiwan’s own armed forces: "The mainland (Beijing government) needs to continue to prepare for a possible military clash across the Straits. A military showdown with Taiwan is becoming more probable and may take place sooner rather than later… the cost of dealing with Taiwan is rising immensely, a quick solution to the question may be essential. Despite a number of people being against reunification by force, the number that is pro-force and anticipating a cross-Straits war is growing unprecedentedly.”
PLA pilots have recently practiced firing at ground targets and dogfighting over the Qinghair Tibet plateau, the mountainous terrain and narrow valleys of which closely simulate a potential combat situation over Taiwan. Ultimately Taiwan’s small and antiquated Air Force and air defence forces would be little match for a Chinese air attack, which is vastly superior both technologically and numerically. Taiwan’s fighter aircraft, missiles and air defences all rely on Cold War era technology, much of it dating back to the Vietnam War era or ever earlier, while China fields some of the world’s most capable modern combat aircraft. These including the world’s only fifth generation air superiority fighters in service outside the United States, the Chengdu J-20, the world's most capable single engine light fighter, the J-10, and recently delivered advanced Russian Su-35 fighters which have been seen conducting exercises over the South China Sea. As Taiwanese Navy Captain Lu Lishi, a renowned expert on the country's armed forces, stated in his report fittingly titled 'Taiwan's Imminent Air Defence Crisis,' "not even the Gods or Buddha" would be able to avert a swift Taiwanese defeat should the PLA Air Force attack. While both parties have much to lose from armed conflict, the threat of a hot war could well be key to deterring President Tsai and her government from taking any extreme separatist action for fear of provoking Chinese military action. Threats by Beijing could thus be key to retaining the status quo and maintaining peace in the Taiwan straits.
- Mission Accomplished? A Look Back on North Korea's Program to Develop a Nuclear Deterrent
- PLA Warplanes Train for Operations Over Taiwan as Chinese State Media Warns of Potential For Cross Straits War
- A New Era Begins in North Korea? Pyongyang Declares the Successful Completion of its Deterrence Program
- Beijing Mirrors Pyongyang's Pacific Deterrence Strategy; China's PLA Commissions New DF-26 'Guam Killer' Missile Brigades
- A Most Informative Combat Demonstration; What the West’s Missile Strike on Syria Will Mean for North Korea's Security