If Necessary, Strike and Destroy
Ashton Carter and William Perry, assistant secretary of defense and SECDEF respectively, under President Bill Clinton, are take a surprisingly hawkish line on the North Korean missile test in an op-ed in today’s WaPo.
Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil? We believe not. The Bush administration has unwisely ballyhooed the doctrine of “preemption,” which all previous presidents have sustained as an option rather than a dogma. It has applied the doctrine to Iraq, where the intelligence pointed to a threat from weapons of mass destruction that was much smaller than the risk North Korea poses. (The actual threat from Saddam Hussein was, we now know, even smaller than believed at the time of the invasion.) But intervening before mortal threats to U.S. security can develop is surely a prudent policy.
Therefore, if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched. This could be accomplished, for example, by a cruise missile launched from a submarine carrying a high-explosive warhead. The blast would be similar to the one that killed terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. But the effect on the Taepodong would be devastating. The multi-story, thin-skinned missile filled with high-energy fuel is itself explosive — the U.S. airstrike would puncture the missile and probably cause it to explode. The carefully engineered test bed for North Korea’s nascent nuclear missile force would be destroyed, and its attempt to retrogress to Cold War threats thwarted. There would be no damage to North Korea outside the immediate vicinity of the missile gantry.
The U.S. military has announced that it has placed some of the new missile defense interceptors deployed in Alaska and California on alert. In theory, the antiballistic missile system might succeed in smashing into the Taepodong payload as it hurtled through space after the missile booster burned out. But waiting until North Korea’s ICBM is launched to interdict it is risky. First, by the time the payload was intercepted, North Korean engineers would already have obtained much of the precious flight test data they are seeking, which they could use to make a whole arsenal of missiles, hiding and protecting them from more U.S. strikes in the maze of tunnels they have dug throughout their mountainous country. Second, the U.S. defensive interceptor could reach the target only if it was flying on a test trajectory that took it into the range of the U.S. defense. Third, the U.S. system is unproven against North Korean missiles and has had an uneven record in its flight tests. A failed attempt at interception could undermine whatever deterrent value our missile defense may have.
We should not conceal our determination to strike the Taepodong if North Korea refuses to drain the fuel out and take it back to the warehouse. When they learn of it, our South Korean allies will surely not support this ultimatum — indeed they will vigorously oppose it. The United States should accordingly make clear to the North that the South will play no role in the attack, which can be carried out entirely with U.S. forces and without use of South Korean territory. South Korea has worked hard to counter North Korea’s 50-year menacing of its own country, through both military defense and negotiations, and the United States has stood with the South throughout. South Koreans should understand that U.S. territory is now also being threatened, and we must respond. Japan is likely to welcome the action but will also not lend open support or assistance. China and Russia will be shocked that North Korea’s recklessness and the failure of the six-party talks have brought things to such a pass, but they will not defend North Korea.
This seems, indeed, strikes me a more plausible approach than trying to shoot the missile down from the sky.
Andrew Olmstead thinks this is “nuts,” though, given that our forces are stretched so thin with our deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.
I don’t like the idea of a North Korea with nuclear missiles. But then, I’m not fond of the idea of China or Russia with nuclear missiles, either, but it’s an imperfect world. Launching an attack on North Korea opens up too many potentially disastrous outcomes for it to be a viable plan. Much as I dislike the thought, living with a nuclear North Korea seems like the least bad outcome available to us at the moment.
Were a ground war with the DPRK a likely outcome of a preemptive strike, I’d be inclined to agree. That outcome, however, seems incredibly remote. The nuclear threat is the only plausible one North Korea poses. We could topple Kim’s regime in less than two weeks and he knows it. And, unlike Iraq, we’d have no reason to occupy and risk fighting guerrillas.
Dave Shuler argues that such a strike would be a violation of Just War Theory, constituting an unprovoked war of aggression. He may be right, certainly under the spirit of the UN Charter. Unfortunately, his own argument contains its rebuttal: “If a North Korean missile were to strike U. S. territory, it would be an act of war and should be treated as such. President Bush should immediately put the North Koreans on notice to this effect.” Yet, surely, waiting for a DPRK nuclear missile strike is a bit late for action. And, while that possibility may be rather remote, the cloak of nuclear blackmail would hover over our relations with the Koreas and the region generally.
Austin Bay is amused, as am I, by this passage in the piece:
The Bush administration has unwisely ballyhooed the doctrine of “preemption,” which all previous presidents have sustained as an option rather than a dogma. It has applied the doctrine to Iraq, where the intelligence pointed to a threat from weapons of mass destruction that was much smaller than the risk North Korea poses. (The actual threat from Saddam Hussein was, we now know, even smaller than believed at the time of the invasion.) But intervening before mortal threats to U.S. security can develop is surely a prudent policy.
Writes Bay, “Note they put the knock on Bush’s pre-emption, then come out for pre-emption.”
Bryan Preston explains why the DPRK launch is almost certain to happen:
That North Korean ballistic missile is still sitting on the pad. It’s a liquid fuel rocket; it can only sit on the pad for so long before it either has to launch or must be de-fueled. Removing the fuel is an expensive, complicated process, and not one the North Koreans are likely to have either the money or the expertise to carry out without getting some technicians killed.
A good point.