The North Korean Crisis: Immediate Considerations

The North Korean Crisis: Immediate Considerations

Whatever respite there may be between North Korea and the United States, make no mistake that the possibilities of a nuclear conflict with North Korea and, by extension, the People’s Republic of China, remain.  As our nation faces this threat, there are very few options to deter this perilous situation. This does not have to be the case. We have an opportunity to remedy long standing vulnerabilities.

Strategic nuclear affairs are poorly understood by the American public and their representatives in Congress. Few know that the condition of our nuclear arsenal is suspect, our missiles defenses are of uncertain effectiveness and coverage, the probability for nuclear deterrence failing is quite high, and our national civil defenses are severely atrophied.


The United States is at this point because members of Congress have relied upon military leaders and defense experts, who over time, seemed driven by political correctness and flawed nuclear deterrence theories. As a matter of policy, the United States has decided to leave the American people vulnerable to missile attack and to rely, instead, on the threat of nuclear retaliation. This policy was continued at the same time both the Russians and Chinese proliferated nuclear weapon and ballistic missile technology to the likes of Iran and North Korea and built or are building their own missile defenses.

Both Democratic and Republican administrations have presided over the systemic national security failure to address the threat of ballistic missile attack that now confronts President Trump. This failure presents an existential threat to the United States that must be immediately addressed.  

A factual threat analysis will show that the United States should:

  1. Introduce a robust and more certain, multi-tier, national missile defense capability that includes introducing both Space-Based and Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPV)-based Boost Phase Interceptors (BPI) which can be rapidly developed using existing, mature technologies. Unlike existing ballistic missile defense systems, BPIs are less expensive and have a higher kill probability, targeting missiles in the most vulnerable phases of flight. Why deploy both basing schemes? Because we have committed adversaries who threaten the further existence of the Republic and it is about time America respond proportionately.
  2. Harden our critical infrastructure to the effects of a nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack.
  3. Modernize our nuclear triad for enhance deterrence.
  4. Reintroduce national civil defense down to the community, household, and individual level. This initiative should be instituted immediately no matter what other courses of action are decided upon. It is immoral not to alert the U.S. population of the probability and severity of the risks they face and educate them on how to mitigate that risk. A prepared population adds to our overall deterrence.
  5. Re-evaluate the responsible executive branch agencies’ decision-making processes and methodologies by which risks from threats and hazards are rank-prioritized and recommendations for risk-proportionate mitigation and response activities generated.

The Threat

Russia and the People’s Republic of China both possess large arsenals of intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. According to defectors, these warheads are currently targeting the major cities of the United States and that of our allies in Europe, Asia, and Israel. The revolution in precision guidance gives these weapons decapitating, first-strike thermonuclear capabilities against our nuclear forces. For more than 20 years both the Russians and the Chinese have been modernizing the lethality of their warheads and expanding their arsenals.

Of concern are nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NEMP) devices that detonate at 100 to 150 km altitude.  Indeed, Kim Jong-un's threat of final doom is likely based on a single NEMP.  A single NEMP permanently destroys power and communication infrastructures over many hundreds of miles and does not require either re-entry or precision guidance

We must assume that North Korea possesses NEMP devices. 

In 1995 the Russian military think tank that serves the Russian General Staff, known as INOBIS, issued a paper recommending that Russia deliberately proliferate missile and nuclear weapon technology to nations hostile to the United States.  The rationale was that nuclear proliferation would balance growing U.S. power, and thwart Washington's efforts to establish a New World Order dominated by America.  

In 2004 Russian flag officers gave testimony to the U.S. Congressional EMP Commission that super EMP weapon technology in fact “leaked” to North Korea; and it is being developed with help from Russia, China, Pakistan and elsewhere.

In 2013 South Korea's intelligence agency, the National Intelligence Service (NIS), said in a report to parliament that North Korea was using Russian technology to develop electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons aimed at destroying military electronic equipment south of the border.

We also must assume that North Korea’s Hwasong-14 missile is now capable of attacking the United States with an NEMP device. 

Additionally, North Korea has two satellites, KMS 3-2 and KMS 4, which are presently orbiting at an altitude of 300 miles. Their trajectories put them over the continental U.S. daily. Their payloads may be NEMP devices waiting to be used. Erring on the side of caution, consideration should be given to shoot them down preemptively so that the debris field falls upon a benign area of the earth, with WC-135C Constant Phoenix “sniffer” aircraft on the ready to sample the debris paths for radiological indications of the payloads.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, despite the flawed agreement with the Obama administration, continues to pursue the building of nuclear warhead technology.  It is very likely that they already possess a handful of nuclear warheads acquired from Russia, China, North Korea or Pakistan.  The quality and reliability of these warheads are questionable, and their numbers are insufficient for power projection. For this reason, Iran is seeking to build nuclear warheads. It is believed every nuclear test conducted in North Korea has included Iranian scientists. 

Iranian nuclear war fighting doctrine scenarios include the use of their Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile launched from a freighter ship. Twice during the 1990s, the Iranians conducted successful tests from a barge in the Caspian Sea where they launched such a missile. In both tests, the warheads exploded in the high atmosphere simulating an electromagnetic pulse attack.

If the Iranians can deploy the right kind of nuclear warhead on such a missile, and if they are able to detonate one over a region of the United States, they could destroy some or all of the electric and electronic infrastructure of the United States.  Such a nuclear explosion in the high atmosphere destroys both critical microelectronics and the large transformers that distribute electric power through the three major electric grids of the United States. 

A highly successful EMP attack could result in a sovereignty ending event. A less successful attack could mean the destruction of the U.S. economy. Because the missile was launched from a ship, attribution of the culprit may not be immediately possible.  If an adversary were to launch an EMP weaponized missile from a vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, not only are there no missile defense assets in place to defend against it, we even lack southern-facing radar to detect such a launch.

Finally, the Russians and the Chinese, in addition to their own nuclear ballistic missile arsenals, have spent decades developing their surrogates, Iran and North Korea, into existential, nuclear threats to the United States and the West. They have given them material and technical support and may have even transferred nuclear warheads to them directly.

The purpose of these actors’ nuclear arsenals is to destroy the civilian population of the United States, exert influence over a U.S. President with nuclear blackmail, and check the strategic capabilities of the United States.

Re-introduce Civil Defense

It should be something of a scandal that we have left the people of the United States undefended from a nuclear attack. Even more so because the Russians have their own national missile defense, however crude, it may be, and the Chinese are building their own missile defense as well. Both Russia and China believe that if war comes, they should be able to win. In October 2016, Russia performed a three-day nuclear war training exercise in which 40 million people engaged in civil defense drills. China also maintains extensive public shelters for nuclear war protection.

In contrast, national Civil Defense capabilities no longer exist in the United States. The logic behind abandoning Civil Defense, explained in declassified Presidential Decision Memoranda from the Kennedy administration, might best be described as immoral; politicians thought it would be “destabilizing” for Americans to be stronger and more survivable than the Soviets.  In the early decades of the Cold War, billions of dollars were spent understanding how to mitigate nuclear weapons effects. For the past several months the state of Hawaii has started to reintroduce this knowledge. The rest of the nation should follow suit, immediately, including community, household, and individual resiliency and preparedness. Leadership and informed citizens are primarily all that is needed. Civil Defense is a very cost-effective means of mitigating nuclear weapons effects and saving millions of American lives. It also contributes to America’s overall deterrence.

The State of Our Missile Defense System

The United States today has a so-called limited missile defense to stop a handful of North Korean ballistic missiles or a handful of Iranian missiles under certain circumstances. We cannot stop Chinese or Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles, or any medium-range, submarine launched ballistic missile or an Iranian ship-launched ballistic missile from hitting the American homeland. America even lacks warning radars which look south.

Although we have the technology to build a missile defense using land-based interceptors, interceptors launched from Aegis cruisers, or even better and much to be preferred, space-based and RPV-based missile defenses employing hypervelocity Boost-Phase Interceptors (which are considerably more effective and less expensive than existing mid-course and terminal interceptors), we have lacked the political will to get this done. The Democratic Party and Barack Obama have opposed missile defense as a provocative expression of American military power. Republicans, not wanting to spend either the money or the political capital, have failed to get this done as well. It has been a failure of government by both parties.

Our strategic doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) holds that we will use our own strategic nuclear arsenal to destroy Russia or China or whichever country launched an attack on us. Ronald Reagan believed that this doctrine was immoral. He thought it was better to prevent or mitigate a nuclear attack than to retaliate to one after we had lost millions of citizens. It was just common sense.

Equally disturbing, we have allowed our nuclear arsenal to deteriorate to dangerous levels of reliability. We have not engaged in a physical test of our nuclear warheads since 1992 because of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed by Bill Clinton. It is thought that computer modeling and other analysis will be enough to ensure reliability. This policy is imprudent as we are staking our entire defense posture on this. The warheads aside, our aging bombs and cruise missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads have reliability issues and also may be unable to avoid and penetrate 21st century air defenses.

President Trump has stated his intention to build missile defenses. This is not merely necessary to ensure our national survival but a key component of an America First foreign policy. A robust, multilayered missile defense, especially boost-phase interceptors, will prevent a direct attack against the United States by Russia, China, North Korea, Iran or a terrorist entity that has acquired a ballistic missile and intends to launch it from a commercial vessel such as a freighter ship. An effective missile defense will allow President Trump to engage in discussions with Russia and China absent the threat of nuclear blackmail. Missile defense takes away the possibility that a terrorist regime like Iran will seek the end of American civilization or the destruction of Israel.

President Trump will be told that such a missile defense program is provocative to Russia and China, that it will not work, and that it is expensive. These assertions are meant to distract. Russia and China have no say over our defensive systems especially considering they have missile defenses and have materially encouraged and contributed to the nuclear threats of Iran and North Korea.  No one takes seriously the idea that we cannot make a multilayered system work. We are the United States.  We have sent a man to the moon. The Russians and the Chinese will object because they know robust missile defense can be made to work.

As for the cost, today we spend under $10 billion on a land-based system ill-suited for our defense. The best defense against an enemy missile is to destroy it in the boost phase. A robust, RPV-based missile defense system that could do this could be flight qualified for about $100 million and deployed during the first three years of a Trump presidency for likely not more than we are currently spending. On a priority basis, the ramped-up production and test of boost-phased interceptors can be accomplished in one year, and deployed in the following year.  No new technology is required.  The challenge is the integration of proven systems.  We will have to reorganize the human capital that worked on this during the Reagan Administration, but thankfully men like Ambassador Hank Cooper, Dr. Lowell Wood, Dr. Leonard Caveny, and Dr. Greg Canavan are still active in the field.

If we are serious about our national survival, we should work around-the-clock to make this a reality.

Michael Del Rosso is Vice President of the American Strategy Group

Brian T. Kennedy is President of the American Strategy Group

Dr. Stephen C. Meyer is a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute

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