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Risks of a Nuclear War With North Korea: The Obligation of Intellect-Based Remedies

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“Is it an end that draws near, or a beginning?”-Karl Jaspers, Man in the Modern Age (1951)

Intellect and National Security

In the end, nothing could be gained by approaching the North Korean nuclear threat with Trump-era seat-of-the-pants remedies. Without more systematic and intellectually disciplined orientations, United States security could once again become contingent on narrowly ad hoc assessments of pertinent leadership personalities. First, President Joseph Biden will need to understand that the regime in Pyongyang would never accept any conceivable forms of denuclearization.

Ipso facto, basing US nuclear policy on contrary assumptions would prove strategically self-defeating.

               All core lessons here are clear and straightforward. Former US President Trump had little evident use for intellect or critical reasoning, in pandemic policy or foreign policy.[1] Accordingly, he emphasized certain presumed advantages of “attitude” over “preparation,” an expressly anti-science posture that essentially ignored the North Korean nuclear threat.

 Despite Trump’s oft-repeated assertion about Kim’s reciprocal affections – “we fell in love” – the North Korean dictator responded by accelerating his ballistic missile development and testing programs. During the while that Trump ranted incoherently with strategically meaningless bluster, Kim systematically readied his nation for an eventual “final battle.”[2] For the United States, this conspicuous asymmetry could never have been considered gainful, especially from the vital standpoint of credible deterrence.

               Today, President Biden’s overriding obligation on such matters is unmistakable.  Regarding North Korea’s continuously ongoing nuclear expansions, he must fashion an American security posture that is more analytic and history-based[3] than were Trump’s disjointed diatribes.[4] Above all, America’s current president should begin to think more realistically about creating long-term nuclear deterrence relationships with North Korea.

Strategic Obligations of Correct Reasoning

               In the best of all possible worlds, American (possibly also North Korean) interests would be best served by Pyongyang’s complete denuclearization. But this is not the best of all possible worlds, and North Korea will not willingly surrender its only tangible source of genuine global power. For now, at least, establishing stable nuclear deterrence relationships between these two adversarial states would represent a sufficiently worthy American achievement.

               There are also pertinent specifics. During any still-upcoming negotiations, Mr. Biden should take scrupulous care not to exaggerate or overstate America’s military risk-taking calculus. Such indispensable diplomatic caution would derive in part from the absence of any comparable nuclear crises. Because there has never been a nuclear war,[5] there could be no reliable way for this president (or anyone else) to meaningfully ascertain the mathematical probability of a US-North Korea nuclear conflict.[6]

               In world politics, as in any other subject of human interaction, probability judgments cannot be concocted ex nihilo, out of nothing. Always, such key judgments must be drawn from one quantifiable calculus only.  This calculus is the determinable frequency of relevant past events. When there are no such events, there can be no such needed extrapolation.

               Period.

               This does not mean that President Joe Biden’s senior strategists and counselors should ever steer away from clear-eyed assessments regarding potential nuclear costs and risks, but only that such assessments be drawn knowingly from constantly shifting and hard-to-decipher geopolitical trends. At this time, such trends should include variously complex considerations of generally expanding worldwide nuclearization.[7]  Though not yet there, Iran – now led by a more insistently hardline president – is far along the trajectory of national nuclear weapons development.[8] In time, in much the same fashion as with North Korea, the United States could unexpectedly find itself in extremis atomicum.

Intersections and Synergies

For American policy-planners focused on North Korea, there will be corresponding obligations to consider plausible intersections between Pyongyang threats and Tehran nuclearization. Inter alia, these obligations will take note of specifically synergistic intersections. Here, by definition, the “whole” of any worrisome outcome would be greater than the calculable sum of its component “parts.”

               For certain, among multiple and overlapping concerns, some attendant problems would emerge as more complicated and problematic than others. As relevant intellectual background, world security processes must always be approached in toto, as a totality, as a more-or-less coherent system. What is happening now, in such far-flung places as India-Kashmir, China, Russia, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, could have significant “spillover effects” in the northeast Asian theatre and beyond. This is true, moreover, even while Covid-19 continues to rage in some measure across these afflicted countries.

               Rather than ignore complex and seemingly distant effects altogether, US President Joe Biden will have to accord them a more appropriate position of foreign policy-making priority.

“My Button is Bigger Than Yours”

 Military threats from an already-nuclear North Korea remain genuine, substantive and determinedly “robust.” Former President Donald Trump’s ill-suited metaphors notwithstanding, the fact that Biden’s nuclear “button” is “bigger” than Kim’s is less than determinative. To wit, in all strategic deterrence relationships, a condition of relative nuclear weakness by one of the contending adversarial states need not imply any corollary diminution of power. Remembering the “bottom line,” even the presumptively weaker party in such asymmetrical dyads could deliver “unacceptable damage” to the stronger.

               Complexity will be defining. President Biden will need to bear in mind that many or all of northeast Asia’s continuously transforming developments could be impacted by “Cold War II,”[9] an oppositional stance with Russia and (somewhat comparably or derivatively) with China. Similarly, important will be this new US leader’s willingness to acknowledge and factor-in certain consequential limits of “expert” military advice. These widely unseen limits are not based upon any presumed intellectual inadequacies among America’s flag officers, but only on the irrefutable knowledge that no person has ever fought in a nuclear war.

               In scientific terms (theory of probability) this particular bit of knowledge ought never be underestimated.

               By definition – and going forward with all time-urgent considerations of US – North Korea policy formation – American strategic calculations will always be fraught with daunting uncertainties. Still, it will be necessary that Joe Biden and his designated counselors remain able to consistently offer the best available war-related estimations. Among prospectively causal factors – some of them overlapping, interdependent or (again) “synergistic”[10] – the plausible risks of a nuclear war between Washington and Pyongyang will ultimately depend upon whether such conflict would be intentional, unintentional or accidental.

                In principle, at least, this tripartite distinction could prove vitally important to hoped-for success in US nuclear war prediction and prevention processes.

                In facing any future North Korean negotiations, it will be necessary that competent US policy analysts capably examine and measure all foreseeableconfigurations of relevant nuclear war risk. Expressed in the useful game-theoretic parlance of formal military planning, shifting configurations in the “state of nations”[11] could present themselves singly, one-at-a-time (the expectedly best case for Washington) or suddenly, unexpectedly, with apparent “diffusiveness” or in multiple and overlapping “cascades” of strategic complexity.

Quo Vadis?

               What is to be done? To properly understand such bewildering cascades will require carefully-honed, well-developed and formidable analytic skills. This will not be a suitable task for the intellectually faint-hearted. It will require, instead, sharply refined combinations of historical acquaintance, traditional erudition and demonstrated capacity for advanced dialectical thinking. Elucidations of such especially disciplined thinking go back to dialogues of Plato and to the ancient but timeless awareness that reliable analysis insistently calls for the continuous asking and answering of interrelated questions.

               There is more. This challenging task could even require American strategic thinkers who are sometimes as comfortable with classical prescriptions of Plato and Descartes as with more narrowly technical elements of modern military theory and hardware. This will not be an easy requirement to fulfill.

Not all nuclear wars would have the same origin. It is conceivable that neither Washington nor Pyongyang is currently paying sufficient attention to certain residually specific risks of an unintentional nuclear war. To this point, each president would seem to assume the other’s decisional rationality.[12] After all, if there were no such mutual calculation, it would make no ascertainable sense for either side to negotiate further security accommodations with the other.

               None at all.

               Viable nuclear deterrence (not denuclearization) must become the overriding US strategic goal vis-a-vis North Korea. But this complex objective is contingent upon certain basic assumptions concerning enemy rationality. Are such assumptions realistic in the particular case of a potential war between two already-nuclear powers? If President Biden should sometime fear enemy irrationalityin Pyongyang, issuing any threats of a US nuclear retaliation might make diminishing diplomatic sense. Instead, at that literally unprecedented stage, American national security could come to depend upon some presumptively optimal combinations of ballistic missile defense and defensive first strikes. But by definition, determining such complex combinations would lack any decisional input or counsel from concrete and quantifiable historical data.

               In an imaginably worst case scenario, the offensive military element could entail a situational or comprehensive preemption – a defensive first strike by the United States – but at that manifestly late stage, all previous hopes for bilateral reconciliation would already have become moot. There would then obtain no “ordinary” circumstances wherein a preemptive strike against a North Korean nuclear adversary could be considered “rational.”[13] What then?

               It’s an intellectual question, not a political one.

               None of these difficult strategic decisions should ever be reached casually or easily. With the steadily expanding development of “hypersonic” nuclear weapons, figuring out optimal US policy combinations from one North Korean crisis to another could very quickly become overwhelming. Though counterintuitive amid any such prominently intersecting complications, the fact that one “player” (the US) was recognizably “more powerful” than the other (North Korea) could quickly prove irrelevant.

Law and Nuclear Strategy

 In all foreseeable circumstances, there would obtain certain overlapping issues of law and strategy. Under international law,[14] which remains an integral part of US law,[15] the option of a selective or comprehensive defensive first-strike might sometime be correctly characterized as “anticipatory self-defense.” This could be the case only if the American side could also argue persuasively that the security “danger posed” by North Korea was recognizably “imminent in point of time.” Such discernible “imminence” is required by the authoritative standards of international law; that is, by the formal criteria established after an 1837 naval incident famously called “The Caroline.”[16]

               Presently, in the still-expanding nuclear age, offering aptly precise characterizations of “imminence” could prove sorely abstract and densely problematic. For example, in justifying his assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, former President Trump used the term “imminence” incorrectly (sometimes even confusing “imminence” with “eminence”) and without any convincing factual evidence.

               For the moment, especially in the continuing midst of a worldwide health crisis, it seems reasonable that Kim Jung Un would value his own personal life and that of his nation above every other imaginable preference or combination of preferences. In any conceivable scenario, Kim appears to be visibly and technically rational, and must therefore remain subject to US nuclear deterrence.[17]But going forward, it could still become important for a negotiating American President Biden to distinguish between authentic instances of enemy irrationality and instances of contrived or pretended irrationality.[18]

               This vague prospect adds yet another layer of complexity to the subject at hand, one that could sometime include certain force-multiplying biological synergies.

               In history, wars have too often been the result of leadership miscalculation. Although neither side here would likely ever seek a shooting war, either Kim or Biden could still commit errors in the course of rendering their respective strategic calculations. At times, such consequential errors could represent an unintended result of jointly competitive searches for “escalation dominance.”[19] These errors are plausibly more apt to occur in circumstances where one or both presidents had first chosen to reignite hyperbolic verbal rhetoric.

               Portentously, even in reassuringly calm periods of polite and congenial diplomatic discourse, major miscalculations, accidents or “cyber-confusions” could accumulate. And such ill-fated accumulation could sometime be hastened by unpredictable effects of widespread disease pandemic. What then?

               In plausibly worst case scenarios, negotiations gone wrong could result in a nuclear war.[20] This prospect ought never to be overlooked. In the words of Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, “The worst does sometimes happen.”[21]

Origins of Inadvertent Nuclear War with North Korea

An inadvertent nuclear war between Washington and Pyongyang could take place not only as the result of misunderstanding or miscalculation between fully rational national leaders, but as the unintended consequence (singly or synergistically) of mechanical, electrical, computer malfunctions or of “hacking”-type interventions. Going forward, these interventions could include clandestine intrusions of “cyber-mercenaries.”

               There is more. While an accidental nuclear war would necessarily be inadvertent, certain forms of inadvertent nuclear war would not necessarily be caused by mechanical, electrical or computer accident. These difficult to anticipate but consequential forms of unintentional nuclear conflict would represent the unexpected result of specific misjudgment or miscalculation, whether created by singular decisional error by one or both sides to a two-party nuclear crisis escalation or by still-unforeseen “synergies” arising between singular miscalculations.

In any still-impending crisis between Washington and Pyongyang, each side will inevitably strive to maximize two critical goals simultaneously. These goals are (1) to dominate the dynamic and largely unpredictable process of nuclear crisis escalation; and (2) to achieve “escalation dominance” without sacrificing vital national security interests. In the final analysis, this second objective would mean preventing one’s own state and society from suffering any catastrophic or existential harms.

               This recalls a prior point concerning accurate assessments of relative military power. When former President Trump in an early verbal competition with Kim Jung Un stated that the North Korean president may have his nuclear “button,” but that the American president’s was “bigger,” Trump revealed a major conceptual misunderstanding. It was that in our still advancing nuclear age, atomic superiority is potentially per se insignificant and could lead the presumptively “stronger” nuclear adversary toward certain lethal expressions of overconfidence.

               In any such paradoxical circumstances, having had a “bigger button” would have become the dominant source not of strength, but of weakness. Here, size would actually matter, but only in an unexpected or counter-intuitive way. As Donald Trump should have understood, even an enemy with a smaller “nuclear button” could inflict “assuredly destructive” harms[22] upon “bigger button” United States and/or its allies in Japan, South Korea or elsewhere. It follows, inter alia, that to have taken earlier comfort from observing that North Korea had been testing “only” shorter-range ballistic missiles was to miss the point. To clarify further, and now for the benefit of President Biden, several of North Korea’s Trump-era nuclear test firings expressed a yield at least 16X larger than the Hiroshima bomb.

That 14KT WW II bomb produced almost 100,000 immediate fatalities.

               All such vital understandings about nuclear “button size” must continuously obtain as long as Kim Jung Un’s “inferior” nuclear arms remain seemingly invulnerable to any American preemptions and seemingly capable of penetrating ballistic missile defenses deployed in the United States, Japan or South Korea. Because of the extraordinary prospective harms generated by even “low-yield” nuclear weapons, a small percentage or tiny fraction of Kim’s “inferior” nuclear arsenal should still appear as unacceptably destructive in Washington, Tokyo or Seoul. Worth noting, too, is that in all of these critical dimensions of strategic judgment, the only reality that would figure tangibly in any ongoing adversarial calculations would be perceived reality.

Dealing with Staggering Complexity

               The bottom line of such informed assessments concerning a US – North Korea nuclear war is that underlying issues of contention and calculation are starkly complicated and potentially indecipherable. Faced with endlessly challenging measures of complexity, both operational and legal, each side must proceed warily and in a fashion that is aptly risk-averse. Though such prudent counsel may seem to run counter to variously inter-linking US obligations of “escalation dominance,” any still-expected Biden-Kim negotiations would involve very deep and uncharted “waters.”

               Looking ahead, any aggressive over-confidence (or what the ancient Greeks called “hubris” in tragic drama) by President Biden or President Kim will have to be avoided. While everything at some upcoming negotiation might first appear simple and calculable, history calls to mind Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz’s sobering observations about “friction.” This ubiquitous fly-in-the-ointment represents “differences between war on paper, and war as it actually is.” In certain altogether imaginable cases, these differences could suggest total war.

               To avoid intolerable outcomes between the United States and North Korea, a prudent, science-based[23] and informed nuclear posture must be fashioned, not with Trump-era clichés and empty witticisms, but with refined intellect and cultivated erudition. Much earlier, the ancient Greeks and Macedonians already understood that war planning must be treated as a continuously disciplined matter of “mind over mind,” not just one of “mind over matter.”[24] Today, in specific regard to US-North Korea nuclear rivalry, a similar understanding should hold sway in Washington.

Averting “Nightmare”

It would be best for the United States to plan carefully for all strategic eventualities and not to stumble into a nuclear war with North Korea – whether deliberate, unintentional or accidental. The fact that any such “stumble” could take place without adversarial ill will or base motive should provide little palpable consolation for prospective victims. For them, an ounce of diplomatic prevention will have been well worth avoiding an unstoppable strategic nightmare.

               Nightmare. According to the etymologists, the root is niht mare, or niht maere, the demon of the night. Dr. Johnson’s famous Dictionary claims this corresponds to Nordic mythology, which identifies all nightmare as some unholy product of demons. This would make it a play on the Greek ephialtes or the Latin incubus. In any event, in all of these fearful interpretations of nightmare, the idea of demonic origin is absolutely integral and indispensable.

               But our current worries are of a different and more secular sort. Now there are certain inherent complexities in problem solving that must always be accepted, understood and overcome. At a time when our planet is imperiled by the simultaneous and potentially intersecting threats of a nuclear war, there can be no suitable alternative to accepting proper analytic emphases.

               Recalling twentieth-century philosopher Karl Jasper’s Man in the Modern Age (1951), what “draws near” between North Korea and the United States should be assessed on intellectual foundations, not ones of “attitude.” By correctly acknowledging that North Korean denuclearization is a futile expectation and a diplomatic non-starter – Kim Jung Un would never accept such a condition of codified inferiority – President Biden could focus upon creating a viable system of mutual deterrence. Though such an “egalitarian” focus might appear unsatisfactory or demeaning for a “Great Power,” national security policy must be founded upon accurate theoretical assumptions.

               Always.

In these critical matters, science and intellect deserve absolute pride of place.


[1] “Intellect rots the brain,” said Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. “I love the poorly educated” said presidential candidate Donald J. Trump in 2016.

[2]See: https://www.businessinsider.com/kim-jong-un-tells-north-korea-officials-prepare-us-confrontation-2021-6

[3] This means, inter alia, an emphasis on dialectical thinking.  Such thinking likely originated in Fifth Century BCE Athens, as Zeno, author of the Paradoxes, had been acknowledged by Aristotle as its inventor. In the middle dialogues of Plato, dialectic emerges as the supreme form of philosophic/analytic method. The dialectician, says Plato, is the special one who knows how to ask and then answer vital questions. From the standpoint of necessary refinements in US strategic planning vis-à-vis North Korea, this knowledge should never be taken for granted.

[4] During his dissembling presidency, too little attention was directed toward Donald J. Trump’s open loathing of science and intellect and his prominent unwillingness to read. Ironically, the Founding Fathers of the United States were intellectuals. As explained by the distinguished American historian Richard Hofstadter: “The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.” See Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), p. 145.

[5] The atomic bombings of Japan in August 1945 do not properly constitute a nuclear war, but “only” the use of nuclear weapons to conclude an otherwise conventional conflict. Significantly, following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there were no other atomic bombs still available anywhere on earth.

[6] See, by this author, Louis René Beres: https://mwi.usma.edu/theres-no-historical-guide-assessing-risks-us-north-korea-nuclear-war/

[7] See: https://sipri.org/media/press-release/2021/global-nuclear-arsenals-grow-states-continue-modernize-new-sipri-yearbook-out-now

[8] See, on deterring a prospectively nuclear Iran, Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely deter a Nuclear Iran? The Atlantic, August 2012; and Professor Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Israel; and Iran at the Eleventh Hour,” Oxford University Press (OUP Blog), February 23, 2012. Though dealing with Israeli rather than American nuclear deterrence, these articles clarify common conceptual elements. General Chain was Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[9] In essence, hypothesizing the emergence of “Cold War II” means expecting that the world system is becoming increasingly bipolar. For early writings by this author, on the global security implications of any such expanding bipolarity, see: Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Reliability of Alliance Commitments,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.4., December 1972, pp. 702-710; Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Tragedy of the Commons,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4., December 1973, pp, 649-658; and Louis René Beres, “Guerillas, Terrorists, and Polarity: New Structural Models of World Politics,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.4., December 1974, pp. 624-636.

[10] See, by this writer, at Harvard Law School:  Louis René Beres,  https://harvardnsj.org/2015/06/core-synergies-in-israels-strategic-planning-when-the-adversarial-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts/  See also, by this writer, at West Point:  Louis René  Beres https://mwi.usma.edu/threat-convergence-adversarial-whole-greater-sum-parts/

[11] Seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes notes that although the “state of nations” is in the anarchic “state of nature,” it is still more tolerable than the condition of individuals in nature. With individual human beings, he instructs, “…the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest.” But with the continuing advent of nuclear weapons, there is no persuasive reason to believe that the state of nations remains more tolerable. Now, nuclear weapons are bringing the state of nations closer to the true Hobbesian state of nature. See, in this connection, David P. Gauthier, The Logic of Leviathan: The Moral and Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 207. As with Hobbes, philosopher Samuel Pufendorf argues that the state of nations is not quite as intolerable as the state of nature between individuals. The state of nations, reasons the German jurist, “lacks those inconveniences which are attendant upon a pure state of nature….” In a similar vein, Baruch Spinoza suggests “that a commonwealth can guard itself against being subjugated by another, as a man in the state of nature cannot do.” See, A.G. Wernham, ed., The Political Works, Tractatus Politicus, iii, II (Clarendon Press, 1958), p. 295.

[12] In world politics, rationality and irrationality have very specific meanings. More precisely, an “actor” (state or sub-state) is presumed to be rational to the extent that its leadership always values national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences. An irrational actor would not always display such a determinable preference ordering.

[13] See, by this author, Louis René Beres: https://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/foreign-policy/344750-rationality-cant-be-assumed-in-potential-north-korea

[14] In essence, international law remains a “vigilante” or “Westphalian.” System. This historical referent is the Peace Of Westphalia (1648), a treaty which concluded the Thirty Years War and created the now still-existing decentralized or self-help “state system.” See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119, Together, these two treaties comprise the Peace of Westphalia. For the authoritative sources of international law, see art. 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice: STATUTE OF THE INTERNATIONAL COURT OF JUSTICE, Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force, Oct. 24, 1945; for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945.  59 Stat. 1031, T.S. No. 993, 3 Bevans 1153, 1976 Y.B.U.N., 1052.

[15] See especially art. 6 of the US Constitution (“The Supremacy Clause”) and the Pacquete Habana (1900). In the words used by the U.S. Supreme Court in The Paquete Habana, “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction, as often as questions of right depending upon it are duly presented for their determination.  For this purpose, where there is no treaty, and no controlling executive or legislative act or judicial decision, resort must be had to the customs and usages of civilized nations.”  See The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 678-79 (1900).  See also:  The Lola, 175 U.S. 677 (1900); Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F. 2d 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (per curiam)(Edwards, J. concurring)(dismissing the action, but making several references to domestic jurisdiction over extraterritorial offenses), cert. denied,  470 U.S. 1003 (1985)(“concept of extraordinary judicial jurisdiction over acts in violation of significant international standards…embodied in the principle of `universal violations of international law.'”).

[16] See Beth Polebau, National Self-Defense in International Law:  An Emerging Standard for a Nuclear Age, 59 N.Y.U. L. REV. 187, 190-191 (noting that the Caroline case transformed the right to self-defense from an excuse for armed intervention into a customary legal doctrine).

[17] Even before the nuclear age, ancient Chinese military theorist, Sun-Tzu, counseled, inThe Art of War:“Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” (See: Chapter 3, “Planning Offensives”).

[18] Expressions of decisional irrationality in US dealings with North Korea could take different or overlapping forms. These include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of pertinent individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).

[19] On this concept, see, by this author: Louis René Beres, at The War Room, US Army War College, Pentagon:  https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/articles/nuclear-decision-making-and-nuclear-war-an-urgent-american-problem/

[20] There is now a substantial literature that deals with the expected consequences of a nuclear war.  For earlier works by this author, see, for example:  APOCALYPSE: NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN WORLD POLITICS (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980); MIMICKING SISYPHUS:  AMERICA’S COUNTERVAILING NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington Books, 1983); REASON AND REALPOLITIK: U.S. FOREIGN POLICY AND WORLD ORDER (Lexington, MA:  Lexington Books, 1984); and SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON:  ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington, MA:  Lexington Books, 1986).

[21] Often, in history, this ‘worst” has stemmed from a presumptively life-preserving identification of individual human beings with the fate of their respective countries. In his posthumously published lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined, in his Philosophy of Right (1820), that the state represents “the march of God in the world.” The “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation from mere principle of action to a sacred end in itself, drew its originating strength from the doctrine of “sovereignty” advanced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Initially conceived as a principle of internal order, this doctrine underwent a specific metamorphosis, whence it became the formal or justifying rationale for international anarchy –  that is, for the global “state of nature.” First established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty came to be regarded as a power absolute and above ordinary law. When it is understood in terms of modern international relations, this doctrine encouraged the corrosive notion that states lie above and beyond legal regulation in their various interactions with each other. Concerning “ordinary law,” however, it is always subordinate to “Natural Law.” This Natural Law is based upon the acceptance of certain principles of right and justice that prevail because of intrinsic merit.  Eternal and immutable, they are external to all acts of human will and interpenetrate all human reason.  The core idea and its attendant tradition of human civility runs continuously from Mosaic Law and the ancient Greeks and Romans to the present day.  For a comprehensive and far-reaching assessment of the Natural Law origins of international law by this author, see Louis René Beres, “Justice and Realpolitik:  International Law and the Prevention of Genocide,” The American Journal of Jurisprudence, Vol. 33, 1988, pp. 123-159. 

[22] Assured destruction references an ability to inflict “unacceptable damage” after absorbing an attacker’s first strike.  Mutual assured destruction (MAD) describes a condition in which an assured destruction capacity is possessed by both or all opposing sides.  Counterforce strategies are those which target an adversary’s strategic military facilities and supporting infrastructure.  Such strategies may be dangerous not only because of the “collateral damage” they might produce, but also because they could heighten the likelihood of first-strike attacks. Collateral damage refers to harms done to human and non-human resources as a consequence of strategic strikes directed at enemy forces or military facilities.  Even this “unintended” damage could involve large numbers of casualties/fatalities.

[23] “Science,” says philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset in Man and Crisis (1958) “by which I mean the entire body of knowledge about things, whether corporeal or spiritual, is as much a work of imagination as it is of observation…The latter is not possible without the former.”

[24] See: F.E. Adcock, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), p. 63.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Defense

The Nuclear future of East Asia

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In the face of North Korea and China’s continuous expansion and advancement in their nuclear arsenal in the past decade, the nuclear question for East Asian countries is now more urgent than ever—especially when U.S.’s credibility of extended deterrence has been shrinking since the post-cold war era. Whether to acquire independent nuclear deterrent has long been a huge controversy, with opinions rather polarized. Yet it is noteworthy that there is indeed gray zone between zero and one—the degree of latency nuclear deterrence.

This paper suggests that developing nuclear weapons may not be the wise choice for East Asian countries at the moment, however, given the fact that regional and international security in the Asia-Pacific is deemed to curtail, regardless of their decision to go nuclear or not, East Asia nations should increase their latency nuclear deterrence. In other words, even if they do not proceed to the final stage of acquiring independent nuclear deterrent, a latent nuclear weapons capability should at least be guaranteed. Meanwhile, for those who have already possessed certain extent of nuclear latency—for instance, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan—to shorten their breakout time whilst minimize obstacles for a possible nuclearization in the future.

The threat is ever-present—The Nuclear North Korea

Viewing from a realist perspective, the geographical locations of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have always been a valid argument for their nuclearization—being surrounded by nuclear-armed neighbors, namely China and North Korea—these countries have witnessed an escalation of threat on an unprecedented scale since the cold war.

Having its first nuclear weapon tested in 2006, the total inventory North Korea now possess is estimated to be 30-40. With the misstep of relieving certain sanction during the Trump era, North Korea was able to revive and eventually expand its nuclear arsenal, making future negotiation between the Biden administration and the Kim regime much harder and less effective. Not only has North Korea’s missile test on March 25—which is the first since Mr. Biden’s presidency—signaled a clear message to the U.S. and her allies of its nuclearization will and stance, Pyongyang’s advancement in nuclear technologies also indicates a surging extent of threat.

For instance, North Korea state media KCNA claimed that the latest missile launched was a “new-type tactical guided projectile” which is capable of performing “gliding and pull-up” manoeuvres with an “improved version of a solid fuel engine”. In addition to these suspected “new type of missiles” that travels in low-attitude, the diversity of launches Pyongyang currently possess—from short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) to submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), as well as the transporter erector launchers (TELs) and the cold launch system—increase the difficulty in intercepting them via Aegis destroyer or other ballistic missile defense system since it is onerous, if not impossible, to detect the exact time and venue of the possible launches. Indeed, the “new type of missile” could potentially render South Korea’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) useless by evading radar detection system through its manoeuvres, according to a study from 38 North at The Henry L. Stimson Center.

Moreover,  the cold launch (perpendicular launch) system used by the North also indicates that multiple nuclear weapons could be fired from the same launch pad without severely damages caused to the infrastructure. Shigeru Ishiba, the former Defense Minister of Japan, has noted that not all incoming missiles would be able to be intercepted with the country’s missile defense system, and “even if that is possible, we cannot perfectly respond to saturation attacks”.

The Chinese nuclear arsenal

According to the SIPRI yearbook 2020, China’s total inventory of nuclear deterrent has reached 320, exceeding United Kingdom and France’s possession of nuclear warheads, of which London and Paris’s nuclear deterrent were considered as limited deterrence. In spite of the fact that China’s current nuclear stockpiles is still far less that what the Russians and Americans have, its nuclear technologies has been closely following the two military superpowers. For instance, the Chinese have successfully developed Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle (MIRVs) and Maneuverable Reentry Vehicle (MARVs)—its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) DF-41 is capable of equipping up to 10 MIRVs while its Medium-Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) DF-21D could carry MARV warhead that poses challenges to the BMD systems—these advancement in nuclear technologies are the solid proof that the Chinese nukes are only steps away from Moscow and Washington. Yet China’s nuclear arsenal remains unchecked and is not confined by any major nuclear arms reduction treaty such as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), of which US and Russia has just reached a mutual consensus to extend the treaty through Feb 4, 2026.

In addition to China’s expansion of military capabilities and ambition in developing hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and new MARVs, there is no lack of scepticism of its no-first use policy, especially with Beijing’s coercive diplomacy and provocative actions in the East and South China Sea, regarding “freedom of navigation” and other sovereignty rights issues. These all raise concerns and generate insecurity from neighboring countries and hence, East Asia states i.e. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan would inevitably have to reconsider their nuclear option.

In spite of having advanced BMD system, for instance, Aegis Destroyer (Japan), THAAD (South Korea), Sky Bow III (Taiwan), the existing and emerging nuclear arsenal in Pyongyang and Beijing still leave East Asian states vulnerable under a hypothetical attack as mentioned above. Future could be worse than it seems—merely having deterrence by denial is not sufficient to safeguard national security—particularly with a shrinking credibility of U.S.’s extended deterrence since the post-cold war era.

America’s nuclear umbrella and the Alliance Dilemma

Theoretically speaking, alliance relations with the U.S. assure a certain extent of deterrence by punishment against hostile adversaries. For example, U.S. is committed to defend Japan under the 1960 Mutual Defense Treaty. Yet in reality, security could never be guaranteed. In a realist lens, state could not rely on others to defend their national interests, especially when it puts America’s homeland security at risk. Is U.S. willing to sacrifice Washington for Tokyo? Or New York for Seoul?

Strong rhetoric or even defense pact would not be able to ensure collective security, let alone strategic ambiguity, which is a strategy adopted by Washington for Taipei that is neither a binding security commitment nor the stance is clear. Regardless of the prospect of a better future than mere war and chaos, state should always prepare for the worst.

Besides, with Trump’s American First policy continuously undermining alliance relations in the past four years, East Asian countries may find it hard to restore mutual trust since diplomatic tracks are irreversible, despite Biden’s administration intention and effort to repair alliance and U.S.’s integrity as the global leader.

Moreover, even if alliance relations and credibility of extended deterrence is robust at the moment, but the bigger question is—could and should East Asian countries shelter under America’s nuclear umbrella forever? If they choose not to go nuclear, these states would be constantly threatened by their nuclear-armed neighbors, without a credible direct (nuclear) deterrence to safeguard national security; and forced to negotiate, or worse, compromise in the face of a possible nuclear extortion.

Undeniably, horizontal nuclear proliferation is always risky. Not only is it likely to deteriorate diplomatic relations with neighboring countries, but also generates a (nuclear) regional arms race that eventually trap all nations into a vicious circle of security dilemma due to the lack of mutual trust in an anarchical system, which will consequently lead to a decrease in regional, as well as international security.

Yet with the expansion and advancement of Pyongyang and Beijing’s nuclear arsenal, regional and international security is deemed to curtail, regardless of East Asian countries’ decisions to go nuclear or not. As the official members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Japan’s and South Korea’s withdrawal may encourage other current non-nuclear weapon state to develop nukes. However, current existence of the NPT has already proven futile to prevent North Korea from acquiring its own nuclear weapons; or Israel, India and Pakistan, who are UN members but have never signed any of the treaties, to join the nuclear club.

The major concern about nuclear proliferation is never about the amount of warhead one possesses, but if they are in the wrong hands; for instance, a “rogue” state like North Korea. It is almost certain than none of the latent nuclear East Asia states would be considered “rogue” but just developed nations with rational calculation. In fact, the actual risk for these states joining the nuclear club in reality is not as high as most imagined. It may, indeed, help further bolster alliance relations between U.S., Japan and South Korea if they are able to come to some mutual consensuses in advance—developing independent nuclear deterrent is not an approach of alienating America’s presence as an effective ally but to strengthen security commitment with each other, and that US would support her allies in the Asia-Pacific in such attempt. The current existence of extended deterrence should not be a barrier for nuclearization. Rather, it should act as an extra protection for allied states.

Pave the way for future nuclearization

Admittedly, the road for any East Asia countries to go nuclear would be tough. Taipei’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons would imaginably trigger provocative response from Beijing, if not impossible, a pre-emptive strike that could lead to an escalation of war. Same situation goes for Seoul and Pyongyang even though the risk is relatively lower. As for Japan, although direct military confrontation is less likely comparing to Seoul and Taipei, the challenges Tokyo face for its nuclear option is no easier than any of them.

As the sole nation that has suffered from an atomic bomb explosion, Japan’s pacifism and anti-nuclear sentiment is embedded in its culture and society. According to a public opinion poll conducted by the Sankei News in 2017, 17.7% of the respondents agreed that “Japan should acquire its own nuclear weapons in the future” whilst 79.1% opposed to that idea. Despite having the imperative skills and technologies for an acquisition of independent nuclear deterrent (the breakout time for Japan is estimated to be about 6-12 months), Japan also lacks natural resources for producing nuclear warheads and has to rely heavily on uranium imports. Upholding the three non-nuclear principle since WWII, Japan’s bilateral nuclear agreements with the U.S., U.K, France and Australia specified that all imported nuclear-related equipment and materials “must be used only for the non-military purposes”. Violation of these agreements may result in sanctions that could cause devastated effect on Japan’s nuclear energy program, which supplies approximately 30% of the nation’s total electricity production. These issues, however, are not irresolvable.

Undeniably, it may take time and effort to negotiate new agreements and to change people’s pacifism into an “active pacifism”, yet these should not be the justifications to avoid the acquisition of independent nuclear deterrent as ensuring national security should always be the top priority. It is because in face of a nuclear extortion, the effectiveness of a direct nuclear deterrence guaranteed by your own country could not be replaced by any other measures such as deterrence by denial via BMD system or deterrence by punishment via extended deterrence and defense pact. Therefore, if there are too many obstacles ahead, then perhaps the wiser choice for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan at the moment is to increase their nuclear latency deterrence, shorten the breakout time and pave their way clear for future nuclearization. In other words, to keep their nuclear option open and be able to play offense and defense at its own will when the time comes.

Nevertheless, in addition to strengthening one’s latency nuclear deterrence, as well as obtaining a more equal relationship in the official and unofficial alliance with America, East Asian countries that have similar interest and common enemies should united to form a new military alliance which included security treaty regarding collective defense like the NATO; and focuses more on countering hybrid warfare like the QUAD. If Japan, South Korea and Taiwan ever choose to go nuclear, a common mechanism could be established to ensure that these states would pursue a minimum to limited deterrence capability that do not endanger each other’s security but rather to strengthen it, which would help minimizing the destabilization brought to regional security while constituting a more balanced situation with nuclear-armed rivalries.

After all, proliferation may not be the best solution, it is certainly not the worst either.

From our partner International Affairs

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Defense

Test of Agni Prime Missile and India’s Counterforce Temptations

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South Asia is widely regarded as one of the most hostile regions of the world primarily because of the troubled relations between the two nuclear arch-rivals India and Pakistan. The complex security dynamics have compelled both the countries to maintain nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis each other. India is pursuing an extensive and all-encompassing military modernization at the strategic and operational level. In this regard, India has been involved in the development of advanced missiles as delivery systems and improvement in the existing delivery systems as well. Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent and delivery systems are solely aimed at India; however, India aspires to fight a ‘two-front war’ against Pakistan and China. Therefore, the size and capability of its nuclear deterrent and delivery systems are aimed at countering both threats. However, most of the recent missile delivery systems made by India appear to be more Pakistan-centric. One recent example in this regard is the recently tested nuclear-capable cannisterized ballistic missile Agni Prime, which is insinuated as Pakistan-centric. These developments would likely further provoke an action-reaction spiral and would increase the pace of conflict in South Asia, which ultimately could result in the intensification of the missile arms race.

Just quite recently, on 28th June 2021, India has successfully tested an advanced variant of its Agni missile series, namely Agni Prime or Agni (P). The missile has a range between 1000-2000 kilometers. Agni Prime is a new missile in the Agni missiles series, with improved accuracy and less weight than Agni 1, 2, and 3 missiles. It has been said that the Agni-P weighs 50 % less than the Agni-3 missile. As per the various media reports, this missile would take the place of Agni 1 and 2 and Prithvi missiles, however officially no such information is available. This new missile and whole Agni series is developed as part of the missile modernization program under the Defence Research and Development Organization’s (DRDO) integrated guided missile development program. 

Agni-P is a short missile with less weight and ballistic trajectory, the missile has a rocket-propelled, self-guided strategic weapons system capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads. Moreover, the missile is cannisterized with the ability to be launched from road and rail. The DRDO claimed that the test flight of the missile was monitored by the telemetry radar stations and its trajectory met all the objectives of the mission successfully with high level of accuracy. Agni-P missile because of its range of 1000 to 2000 km is considered a weapon against Pakistan because within this range it cannot target China. Although, India already has different missiles in its inventory with the same range as the newly developed and tested Agni-P missile, so the question arises what this missile would achieve. 

Since the last few years, it has been deliberated within the international security discourse that India’s force posture is actually more geared towards counterforce options rather than counter-value options. Although, India’s nuclear doctrine after its operationalization in 2003, claims  “massive retaliation” and “nfu” but in reality with developing cannisterized weapons like Agni-P, Agni 5, and testing of hypersonic demonstrative vehicles, India actually is building its capability of “counterforce targeting” or “splendid first strike”. This reflects that India’s nuclear doctrine is just a façade and has no real implication on India’s force modernization.

These developments by India where it is rapidly developing offensive technologies put the regional deterrence equation under stress by increasing ambiguity. In a region like South Asia, where both nuclear rivals are neighbors and distance between both capitals are few thousand kilometers and missile launch from one side would take only a few minutes in reaching its target, ambiguity would increase the fog of war and put other actors, in this case, Pakistan in “use it or lose it” situation, as its nuclear deterrent would be under threat.

In such a situation, where Pakistan maintains that nuclear weapons are its weapons of last resort and to counter threats emerging from India, its nuclear deterrence has to hold the burden of covering all spectrums of threat. It might be left with no choice but to go for the development of a new kind of missile delivery system, probably the cannisterized missile systems as an appropriate response option. However, as Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence is based on principle of “CMD” which allow Pakistan to seek deterrence in a cost-effective manner and also by not indulging in an arms race. Therefore, other than the threat of action-reaction dynamic developments like Agni P by India, would make weapons more accurate and lethal, subsequently conflict would be faster, ambiguous, and with less time to think. In such a scenario, as chances of miscalculation increase, the escalation dynamics would become more complex; thus, further undermining the deterrence stability in South Asia.

India’s counter-force temptations and development of offensive weapons are affecting the deterrence equilibrium in South Asia. The deterrence equation is not getting affected just because India is going ahead with the development of offensive technologies but because of its continuous attempts of negating the presence of mutual vulnerability between both countries. Acknowledgement of existence of mutual vulnerability would strengthen the deterrence equation in the region and help both countries to move forward from the action-reaction spiral and arms race. The notions such as the development of offensive or counterforce technology or exploiting the levels below the nuclear threshold to fight a war would not be fruitful in presence of nuclear weapons. As nuclear weapons are weapons to avert the war and not to fight the war.

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Defense

Unmanned Aircraft Systems & The Annihilistic Future

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The unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones were introduced as a useful means to military, commercial, civilian and humanitarian activities but yet it ends up in news for none of its original purposes. Drones have rather resulted as a means of mass destruction.

The recent attacks on the technical area of the Jammu Air Force Station highlights the same. This was a first-of-its-kind terror attack on IAF station rather the Indian defence forces that shook the National Investigation Agency to National Security Guard. The initial probe into the attacks directs to involvement of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist group based out of Pakistan, in the drone attacks as the aerial distance from the point of attack was just 14 kilometers. The attacks took place via an Electric multi-rotor type drone between 11:30 P.M to 1:30 A.M on 27th June, 2021.

The above incident clearly points out the security issues that lie ahead of India in face to the asymmetrical warfare as a result of drones. The Indian Government after looking at the misuse of drones during the first wave of the pandemic realised that its drone regulations were nowhere sufficient and accountable and hence passed the Unmmaned Aircraft Rules, 2021. These rules imposed stricter requirement for obtaining license and authorisations by remote pilots, operators, manufacturers or importers, training organisations and R&D organisations, thereby placing a significantly high burden on the applicants but at the same time they also permit UAS operations beyond visual sight of line and allowing student remote pilots to operate UAS.

But these rules still don’t have any control on the deadly use of drones because multi-rotor drones are very cheap and readily available and what makes them lethal is their ability to be easily detected, additionally the night time makes it even worse. Their small size grants them weak radar, thermal, and aural signatures, albeit varying based on the materials used in their construction.

The pertinent issue to be understood here is that these rules can never ensure safety and security as they cannot control the purpose for which these drones maybe used. There are certain factors that are to be accounted to actually be receptive to such imminent and dangerous threats. Firstly, significantly increasing urban encroachments  in areas around defence establishments, particularly air bases, has proved to be fatal. If frontline bases like Jammu or be it any other base when surrounded by unbuffered civilization poses two pronged problems, first it acts as high chances of being a vantage point for possible attackers and second, it also hampering the defence mechanism to come to an action. It is not limited to drone concerns but there have been cases of increased bird activity that has once resulted in engine failure of an IAF Jaguar and has caused similar problems all along.

Another important factor is that of intelligence. The Anti-drone systems will take their time to be in place and it is still a distant call to ascertain how effective will these systems be, so in the time being it is pertinent to focus on intelligence which may include sales and transfers of commercial drone, or the hardware that is required to build a basic multi-rotor drone. These are not something extraordinary because it is even in news when Pakistani drones were being used to supply weapons and ammunition to terror networks on Indian soil. Also, the past experience in handling ISIS have shown the weightage of intelligence over defensive nets.

Intelligence is no doubt a crucial factor in anticipation of drone attacks but what cannot be done away with is the defense mechanism. Efficient counter-drone technology is the need of the hour. DRDO has developed such technology that could provide the armed forces with the capability to swiftly detect, intercept and destroy small drones that pose a security threat. It is claimed that solution consists of a radar system that offers 360-degree coverage with detection of micro drones when they are 4km away, electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors for detection of micro drones up to 2 km and a radio frequency (RF) detector to detect RF communication up to 3 km and is equipped for both soft kills as well as hard kills.

Hence, the above analysis brings out the need of the application of an international instrument because the technology used in such drone attacks is at an evolving stage and the natural barriers still have an upper hand over be it either flying a pre-programmed path aided by satellite navigation and inertial measurement units (IMUs), or hand controlled to the point of release or impact, both methods have significant limitations as satellite and IMU navigation is prone to errors even when it comes to moderate flight ranges while manual control is subject to the human limitations such as line of sight, visibility as well as technical limitations such as distance estimation of the target, and weak radio links. An example of this could be the Turkish-made Kargu-2 model of killer drone can allegedly autonomously track and kill specific targets on the basis of facial recognition and Artificial Intelligence (AI). As the AI becomes better and better, these drone attacks become more and more terminal.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic is an eye opener for India as well as the world as none of the countries considered the possibility of bio-defenses or made a heavy investment in it even when there was awareness about lethal effects of genetic engineering. Hence, it should be the priority of the government to invest heavily in research and make the development of defensive technologies a national priority else the result of artificially intelligent killer drones would be much more catastrophic.

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