Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | March 20, 2013

The Shakiest Nukes in the West

“Listen up, yo: I’m deterring you now”

In case everyone in Northeast Asia missed it, in spite of their intelligence and early-warning networks which have assuredly been tracking it in fine detail, the Obama Defense Department announced on Monday that the U.S. has been deterring North Korea by sending B-52 bombers on practice runs in its vicinity.  The specter of nuclear deterrence was clarified by Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter:

Deputy defense secretary Ashton Carter said during a visit to South Korea on Monday that the bomber flights are part of the U.S. “extended deterrence”—the use of U.S. nuclear forces to deter North Korea, which conducted its third underground nuclear test Feb. 12.

Nukes! I say.  Nukes!  Pay attention, dudes.

As Bill Gertz demurely puts it, “It is unusual for the Pentagon to make such overt statements about the use of strategic nuclear forces in Asia Pacific.”




Indeed.  That’s because such overt statements are a form of strutting and posturing that makes the U.S. look foolish.  Kim Jong-Un may be a weirdo who hangs out with Dennis Rodman, but he knows we have nukes.  North Korea wants nukes because the U.S., Russia, and China have them, and, in the crudest sense, they make us powerful – if not invincible, at least hard for anyone else to deter.

Making pointed comments about “extended deterrence” comes off as a novice’s imitation of what he thinks a tough security policy sounds like.  It’s kind of informative, in fact: this is what the political left thinks is necessary for achieving deterrence.  You have to remind everyone about your nukes.

It’s not like decision-makers in North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China have been unaware of our big exercise with the B-52 participation.  Their radars track the B-52s all over the air space off the coast of Northeast Asia.  Each of them has a foreign-forces guide that informs every soldier and airman of the nuclear role played by the B-52 in the U.S. deterrence arsenal.  They fully understand what they’re seeing when the B-52s show up.

But to publicly emphasize the U.S. nuclear deterrent in this circumstance is misdirected anyway, if the deterrence target is North Korea.  For Pyongyang, evidence of the U.S. commitment to South Korea has been shown most effectively by our conventional military cooperation, which includes thousands of troops stationed in the South.  The nuclear threat is always implicitly there, but it isn’t needed to deter Kim Jong-Un.  We can take him down without going nuclear.  The audience for nuclear deterrence is Russia and China, and the point of it has always been to deter them from trying to settle the Korean situation themselves, to the detriment of our allies and interests in the region.

Is there any sense being fostered by anyone in the Obama administration that China or Russia needs special nuclear-deterring in the current situation with North Korea?  Does anyone at all, even outside the administration, think that’s necessary?  I don’t see that theme being retailed anywhere.  It makes no sense to rattle the nuclear saber at Kim Jong-Un.  But no case has been made that it ought to be rattled at Vladimir Putin or Li Keqiang either.

Nukes aren’t something you wave around like a drunk brandishing a knife.  The current situation has that feel to it, however.  Consider another aspect of it that the Northeast Asian nations are sophisticated enough to understand: that U.S. nuclear-armed submarines are not sitting “near South Korean waters,” as claimed in additional South Korean news reporting cited by Gertz.  Sitting near South Korean waters would be pointless.  If a U.S nuke were ever launched at North Korea from a submarine, it would be launched from out in the Pacific by a ballistic missile submarine (SSBN).  We don’t have any other submarine-launched nukes today.

The nuclear Tomahawk missile (TLAM-N), formerly launched by attack submarines, was removed from U.S. ships and submarines in 1991 and put in storage.  Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review recommended eliminating the TLAM-N from the U.S. inventory, and, as described by the Federation of American Scientists, the new 2013 version of the Navy’s baseline instruction on nuclear weapons contains no section on the TLAM-N.  This indicates that the TLAM-N is no longer in the inventory of nuclear weapons.

All tactical nuclear weapons having now been retired from the U.S. arsenal, there is no submarine-launched nuke that could be fired from a position “near South Korean waters.”  No one in Northeast Asia lacks the intelligence or resources to figure that out.  How did that impression get left with the South Korean media?

Aim high.

Aim high.


Perhaps the Obama administration imagines that it’s appropriate to pointedly warn North Korea about our nukes because Kim has a nuclear weapon himself?  The leap of logic here is fatal to stability, if that’s the thinking.  Even if Kim expended his one or handful of nuclear warheads, it is in the highest degree unlikely that we would use nukes on him, for the simple reason that it isn’t necessary.  If Kim getting one nuke causes the U.S. to begin treating North Korea like a credible nuclear power, then that one nuke has accomplished its purpose, and everyone else across the globe will want to try it.

There might be a neighborhood in which having a crude warhead or two makes one a member of an elite nuclear-armed “club” – but it isn’t Northeast Asia.  North Korea has not achieved the ultimate goal of the nuclear-armed dictator: invulnerability to deterrence.  Kim is still badly overmatched in every way by Russia, China, and the U.S. – and, in fact, is overmatched conventionally by South Korea and Japan as well, if it came to that.  It is unseemly and off-kilter for the U.S. to get into a nuclear showdown with North Korea.

There might or might not be utility in giving a bit of “informational” emphasis to our exercise series with South Korea right now, with the North being so obstreperous.  But there is no need to issue reminders of our nuclear capabilities.  Doing so, in fact, comes off as uncalibrated and a bit hysterical.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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  1. Perhaps Chuck Hagel made a phone call to the South Korean press. He will be up to speed pretty soon.

  2. The administration’s nuclear ‘sabre rattling’ is indicative of its impotence. Neither Clinton nor Bush were any more effective at reining in N.K. That is because any path of resolution to N.K. passes through China and, China doesn’t want to resolve the issue. North Korea is not the problem, they are a proxy. China is the problem.

    That China appears to be having trouble ‘curbing its N.Korean dog’ is perhaps indicative of Kim Jong-Un being a ‘wild card’, certainly threatening the US is counter productive and China’s signing on to UN sanctions is indicative of their desire for a stronger leash on N.K.

    Chinese acquiescence to N.Korea’s pursuit of nuclear missile capability is an indication that China is using the N.K. in a strategy of intimidation, designed to increase its regional influence and dominance.

    There’s no reason to expect North Korea to back away from its pursuit of long range nuclear missile capability, as its not in China’s geopolitical interest for that to happen.

    China’s is counting on S. Korea and Japan’s extreme reluctance to become nuclear weapons capable. China is also counting on S. Korea and Japan continuing to rely on American protection from N.Korea. No doubt China hopes to use its perceived ‘influence’ over N.K. in a diplomatic campaign to wring concessions from the various actors in the region.

    Those are reasonable expectations if China can keep N. Korea threatening but restrained.

  3. Doesn’t the fact that everybody knows that no nuke will ever be used except in case of MAD makes the nuclear rattling dumb ?

    Is the US really going to nuke NK if it crosses the Parallel ? This is ridiculous.

    Japan and ROK better get serious about getting some nukes and some anti-ICBM capabilities from Israel if they want to have a chance of surviving.

    • What everybody ‘knows’ and what will ‘never happen’ have often born little connection. If the NK crosses the Parallel in an invasion, our choice would be to either employ tactical nukes or see S.K. fall to N.K.

      Japan will only ‘go nuclear’ as an absolute last resort. S.Korea views nukes as provocation, arguably were it going to get nukes it would have done so by now.

      • The US have left allies out in the cold when they got their balls twisted too hard in the past, the US can see SK fall now like it did with South Vietnam in the past, it is the easiest option than engaging in a nuclear exchange with Japan held hostage in the middle.

        Fate favors the bold, the South Korean better watch the video of the fall of Saigon for instructions on how to escape crazed Communist mobs.

        • I do think Japan will hope for other solutions first, because the prospect of living under a nuclear standoff with the likes of the Kims is so depressing.

          What I foresee in the Far East as well as in Europe is a shifting emphasis in the coming years. I don’t think Japan is as far gone, in terms of narcissism and social inertia, as much of Europe is. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I suspect that the Japanese will find new thinkers whose vision will be to settle regional conflicts and move forward with new alliances and zones of cooperation.

          I can see Japan playing much the role Great Britain once did on the other side of Asia: balancing the power equation between the continental powers. Japan has bargaining chips with both Russia and China, and has the means to deepen cooperation with nations like India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Australia. The alarm created by China for many in the region will be Japan’s ally.

          If I were Japan, I would already be thinking about ways to join forces with Russia to slowly, quietly push a resolution to the Korean conflict that would keep a reunifying Korea out of China’s hands. That would be a much better solution than nuking up in order to have a stupid standoff with the Kims. The problem is North Korea, as a politicla entity; fix that, rather than nuking up from lack of imagination.

          Maybe all the nations will want nukes. But I’m not so sure. We’ve never lived in a world in which the US wasn’t the King of the Nukes. If we become such a world, it won’t seem nearly as stabilizing and handy to have nukes as it seems to people right now. Imagine if Russia had been the pioneering nuclear power, or China. The perception of nukes as a stabilizing deterrent would never have gotten started.

          • I am not to argue, because I am dumber than a rock, I just feel that with the Norks now nuked up the weak link of the East Asian chain is American resolve, the day Kim Jung Un believes that He can get away with it He is going to to go for it. Or the South Korean could get an Anschluss Syndrome out of Nuclear depression and cede to the North.

            There are probably better solutions for the problem, the golden question is how much time there is to go about them.

            In a wildcard idea what would you think if Japan brought the Indians into the Equation, the same way the Saudi allegedly have a plan to get loaned nukes from Pakistan in case of Iranian breakthrough.

            Is that a possibility ?

        • By the end of the Vietnam war, the conflict was seen as a civil war. That is not the case with Korea. Abandoning the South Koreans would be seen as exactly that, it could not be spun as “peace with honor”.

  4. But, GB, other presidents haven’t perceived a need to rattle the nuclear saber, in spite of the impotence all of them have had with respect to North Korea’s nuclear program.

    With “peace” defined as the armistice not being shattered, our hands have always been tied on this matter. The difference with Obama is that his administration thinks it will make some additional, salutary impression — on Kim Jong-Un? — to make hysterical threats about nukes. They may understand the Alinskyite approach to power, but they don’t understand the responsible approach to power.

    The narrative about China being buffaloed by a “wild card” Kim is decades old; it gets trotted out every time there’s a near-crisis. It’s nonsense. China isn’t angry about Kim. He does only what Beijing lets him get away with.

    A Kim never needs to be put up to anything — the Kims always have plenty of skulduggery of their own on the schedule. But the Chinese can quietly tighten or loosen the leash. If the leash has been loosened, it’s a way of creating problems for the US, given Obama’s policy of shifting our security emphasis to the Far East.

    China won’t give the North Korean leadership its head — if she ever does — until there’s actually a prospect of changing the status quo in China’s favor. The current status quo is better, from Beijing’s perspective, than a unified Korea with ties to the US and Japan. The Chinese won’t let Kim actually breach that status quo, unless they see a clear path to rearranging the regional furniture to suit themselves.

    • I neither stated nor meant to imply that either Clinton or Bush had ever resorted to nuclear sabre rattling and I agree that the Obama admin. doing so is an indication of their incompetence. And yes, our hands have always been tied on this matter.

      I’m not as sanguine as yourself however, when it comes to Kim Jung-Un not truly being a wild card. I have no evidence of this, just a ‘bad feeling’ about him. I sense a narcissistic arrogance as compensation for a basic insecurity. I imagine he’s quite impulsive and not given to calculated planning. Such a boy/man, given enough power could conceivably create sudden regional conflict that could in turn trigger conflict between China and the US.

      The Chinese, by allowing him to develop long range nuclear capability are playing a risky game in that it depends upon maintaining sufficient control of Kim.

      • No, you didn’t state or imply, GB, but I felt it important to clarify my point that what Obama is doing is unusual and not in the mainstream

        Casual readers could well take your point to mean that Obama is merely as impotent as other presidents, and that perhaps there was some reason for him cry “Nukes!” as a policy measure. The pains I am at in this piece are, precisely, to point out that crying “Nukes!” is unprecedented — because it is bad policy and reflective of an irresponsible, incoherent posture.

        That’s why I took you up so quickly. It matters that Obama handles the North Korea more foolishly than other presidents have. For one thing, the Kims have been, effectively, contained/deterred over the years, at least to a large extent. The reason that a relatively favorable and benign status quo has been maintained is that the US has been constant and, for the most part, responsible.

        Obama, on the other hand, not only waves nukes around like a kid with a toy gun, but offers a misleading narrative about what’s going on to his own people. I documented early on his administration’s false implication that regulary-scheduled exercises with South Korea were a form of “beefing up” our posture there. At the same time the administration was creating a false narrative about that, it was driving an aircraft carrier into the Yellow Sea — for the first time in over 40 years — and not saying anything about that to anyone. Putting the USS George Washington in the Yellow Sea in October 2009 was extremely provocative to China — yet the Chinese would also clearly have known that Obama was overselling the exercises with South Korea in US media coverage as if they represented a heightened, beefed up posture.

        Now the Obama administration is making much of the decision to resume fielding GBIs on the West coast, as if there is heavy freight there for the power balance in the region or for US security. There is not, however. It’s another oversold narrative, with unspoken implications that turn out to be false.

        The sum total of Obama’s moves in and regarding Northeast Asia have been the opposite of constant, clear-cut, and reassuring. While I don’t see on the horizon a precipitating event that would cause Kim or the Chinese to change their calculus of what’s possible, the irresponsible behavior of the Obama administration is making such an event more likely.

        Bottom line: as a factor in everyone’s expectations, WE have changed. That’s due to the behavior of our president, which is not like the behavior of any of his predecessors, even Jimmy Carter.

  5. perhaps opticon,if you quoted what Ashton Carter actually said, rather than trying to put Gertz’s interpretation into Carter’s mouth you would be a tad less fudge-filled.

    the threat was not subtle,(and was probably meant more to reassure our allies than to scare the Norks,) but it was not unambiguous. the older people of Haiphong and Hanoi have memories of B-52s that don’t feature nukes.

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