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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Allah says:

    Thanks for the link, James, but our Bryan is Bryan Preston, not Brian Maloney.

  2. ken says:

    Bush is insane enough to begin open hostilies against another country. An act of war against North Korea will only weaken America by ceding the moral justification for conflict to North Korea. The aggressor in a war between countries is always judged as the wrong side to support.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Allah: Thanks–fixed.

  4. legion says:

    The NKs may be crazy, but they’re not stupid. Bryan is correct that liquid-fueled rockets have a very limited shelf-life, and I don’t believe they’d destroy their only prototype just for PR… Does anyone here know how hard it would be to tell the difference between a faux missile and a real one from sat photos?

  5. DC Loser says:

    Defueling a liquid engine missile is not as hard as claimed. All militaries with SCUD type missiles do this on a regular basis as the storable IRFNA only lasts so long before having to be taken out of the tanks. I’m sure the North Koreans are very proficient in this aspect.

  6. madmatt says:

    Why would we attack nk, they don’t have any oil?

  7. Bhoe says:

    Writes Bay, �Note they put the knock on Bush�s pre-emption, then come out for pre-emption.�

    James, I am not sure why you’re “amused” by the discussion of pre-emption.

    It seems as if Austin Bay doesn’t know how to read. Perry and Carter don’t “knock pre-emption.” They knock Bush’s “ballyhooing” of it.

    Their argument is that blindly following and sensationalizing the need for pre-emption in a case that CLEARLY didn’t pose a threat to the US, makes it difficult politically and logistically to deal with what is a much more serious and legitimate problem.

    Bush, because of his inability to understand the actual conditions in Iraq and committing US forces to a quagmire there has tied his hands in the North Korea case.

    Bush was guided by capriciousness in the Iraq case, avoiding rational analysis and embracing an inflexible ideology.

    His track record as someone who is incompetent and less than straightforward, Perry is saying, makes it difficult for him to use all of the mechanisms a commander-in-chief has at his disposal to defend US interests.

    It is emblematic of Bush’s weakness on defending US national security.

  8. Anderson says:

    We could topple Kimâ??s regime in less than two weeks and he knows it.

    Wouldn’t there be lots of dead South Koreans in Seoul by then?

  9. Anderson says:

    We could topple Kimâ??s regime in less than two weeks and he knows it.

    Wouldn’t there be lots of dead South Koreans in Seoul by then?

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    My point, James, was that more is required than fear to justify an attack. There must be a basis for the fear. Knowledge of the imminence of attack is the difference between preemption (which would be moral) and prevention (which wouldn’t).

    Carter and Perry are very clearly advocating preventive war.

    Taking another tack would an attack be justified if the missile didn’t have the potential of reaching our territory? If they keep up with development and testing, they might have a missile that could one day. I don’t see where the limit is on such reasoning.

  11. James Joyner says:

    Dave:

    I take your point. I’d say, though, that preventative war makes sense in the case of a rogue regime with declared intentions of doing you have that is in possession of WMD. The UN Charter, as it were, isn’t a suicide pact.

    Now, it’s true that the DPRK is not an existential threat nor likely to evolve into that soon. But denying them a successful test of their long range missile capability has all manner of benefits. Allowing it to take place has precious few.

    We have the support of the international community on our stance here, although they may not have the courage of their convictions. But, as Ben Parker famously noted, with great power comes great responsibility.

  12. Michael says:

    “We have the support of the international community on our stance here”

    I think we have international support to shoot down a missile launched at us. However, I don’t think we would have as much support if we launch an attack on North Korean soil, even if it just on their launch complex.

    I also disagree with the quoted assertion that “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.” I don’t know how much play this gets in the DPRK media, but if they have told their people they are going to launch, then they would be hard pressed to not tell them of an American attack. Once that gets out, politics will force their hands to step up aggressive rhetoric and cancel any diplomatic efforts.

    The DPRK has a history of raising the stakes to try and win more concessions. This what this test is all about. The DPRK needs a reason to stop the launch without it looking like a loss. Efforts should be focused on that option, not countering with another raising of the stakes. Eventually someone will call, we would all be better off if the stakes are low when that happens.

  13. legion says:

    OK, here’s a little devil’s advocate question… Suppose we don’t wait until the missile is launched & heads in a potentially-threatening direction – let’s say we do just whack it on the pad for being a potential threat.

    What would you say if NK or Iran or China made similar threats to take out the space shuttle on the pad the next time it’s scheduled to go up with some ‘classified military payload’?

  14. Legion,

    You pose an interesting question, but at its heart there is an assumed notion that all countries are equal. China and India have launched missiles that could have been a ruse for launching a nuclear strike on the US. They have the nuclear capability. We have not discouraged (and I suspect if asked we would encourage) their space programs.

    Now why do you think that the US would be getting upset about NK fueling a missile prior to launch and not upset about China and India fueling a missile? The missiles launched by India and China could have produced a strike anywhere in the US vs the NK launch which only threatens parts of Alaska.

    Once you work out why the US is upset with the NK plans and weren’t upset with India and China, then see if you can answer your own question. It might be an interesting exercise in logic and clear thought for you.

  15. legion says:

    You pose an interesting question, but at its heart there is an assumed notion that all countries are equal.

    Well, legally speaking, they are. We have long since recognized NK as a sovereign state. Corrupt, belligerent, and batsh*t crazy, but sovereign nonetheless.

    To put it individual terms, Crazy ‘ol Joe can lean out of his window and curse and scream at people all he wants. Maybe someone knows or finds out he’s got a gun. Unless he’s actively threatening people by waving it around or telling folks he’s gonna shoot them (or in NK’s case, saying they’re gonna launch it at a country or actually putting a live warhead on it), you can’t have the cops bust in his door, and you definitely can’t shoot him first.

    The obvious parallel to all this is when Israel took out those arab nuke facilities, but I frankly don’t know much about the political details or saber-rattling that went on prior to that attack…

  16. Legion,

    I don’t think you have quite thought through this all the way. What proof do we have that NK doesn’t have a nuke on the warhead? What proof did we have that China or India didn’t have a nuke on their missiles? Yet we are still treating them differently.

    While it is true that de jure all countries are “equal”, surely you can recognize that there is a de facto difference.

  17. Bithead says:

    I don’t think we can honestly sit here with a straight face and tell each other we know that they’ve actually get something on the pad and ready to go, fueled up, etc.. The fact of the matter is that this is a liquid fuel rocket, and takes some time to load with fuel. Further, it can only sit on the pad for short period of time in that condition before the corrosive fuel eats through the side of the rocket. Further,what I’ve seen suggests that the Koreans don’t have the capability of removing the fuel from the rocket once the thing is fueled. This is a point that James confirms, in his writeup. In short, I doubt the things’ even got any fuel and it.

    Dave points up the idea of the Just War Theory. Which makes me think a little…

    Since the left is usually the one out there waving the white flag… for example, in Iraq, screaming about an ‘unprovoked attack on Saddam, and an “unjust war”…. this seems a foundational position change to me. And I wonder why they’d do that just now.

    To be blunt, I’m not sure I buy into the Liberal definition of what defines a just war. That said, that definition seems to have changed somewhat since the argument was centering on Iraq. One must wonder why some among the left are now calling for us to get involved in another preemptive strike. Perhaps they’re taking fear of another attack a little more seriously than a lot on as regards to the jihadists, for example?

    Further, we invaded Iraq and far more complete Intel than what we have on what the North Koreans have up their sleeve. Certainly, what Intel we do have suggest that there’s a rocket on a pad in North Korea. Just as certainly the technicians there have been at least going through the motions of fueling this thing up. But what if we’re dealing with a ruse, here? Who, do you suppose, gets the blame for invading on false information? Do you suppose it would be the ones now urging the President to make a preemptive strike in North Korea? You and I both know that’s not true. So why the change of attitude, then?

    I think, as with all things involving the left, this bottom lines at Politics. When Democrats go so far offer their usual well worn paths, it’s because they have something political in mind. I suspect that the only reason for this position is because it’s something Bush has not directly said he would do. Any chance, after all, to oppose him… this being an election year, and all…

    In my perception, North Korea seems far more liable to put fake equipment of the spark an international incident, that are the Muslim extremists we are now battling and winning against in Iraq. It’s my judgment that the rocket were all so concerned about, will never see any flight time whatever , because it never had the capability.

  18. legion says:

    YAJ,
    It’s a bit out of my field, but I would assume that there are significant extra precautions and special procedures needed to put a live nuke on the pad. You (and Bithead, at least at the beginning) do raise a good point tho – I have no idea what sort of sat coverage we have, I’ve seen nothing in the press beyond what NK PR machine has put out – we don’t actually know _what’s_ on the pad, or how much our own gov’t know about it…

    We do treat China and India differently because they’re, for lack of a better term, more mature – they know the ‘rules’ and generally play by them, while NK is a complete wild card. My question was meant more to spark discussion about ‘pre-emptive’ strikes vs. ‘preventative’, as well as thinking about what rules we expect other nations to play by & whether or not we play by those same rules. We may be the only superpower in the world right now, but I think that’s only because China learned a lot from watching the USSR’s mistakes…

  19. Bithead says:

    Lack of a better term?

    legion, my boy, I think rather than that description suffering from anything, that you’ve rather hit the thing square on. There IS a maturity issue at work here. Or more specifically, a lack of maturity at work.

    The little gargoyle that’s running that little hellhole is the proverbial yappy little dog.. always seeking to show himself to be larger than he is.