They Actually Did It

Are we all going to die from an Iranian-built, North Korean ICBM?

In retrospect, we should have known North Korea might finally succeed (mostly) in launching a satellite into space. Last week, the state-run Korean Central News Agency announced North Korea was extending the launch window after engineers found a "technical deficiency in the first-stage control engine module."

This was such a normal, grown-up explanation that we might have inferred a sudden bout of competence. (I kind of pine for the old days, where they would have pressed ahead, drunk on juche, sending another flaming ball of wreckage into the sea.)

The success, more or less, of the Unha-3 launch raises important questions. Does North Korea have a functioning ICBM now? Is this an Iranian ICBM? Are we all going to die?

Maybe, I don't know, and yes -- but not today.

First, this is a lot like an ICBM, even if it is not quite precisely the same thing.

You have undoubtedly read that a three-stage Taepodong-2, which is what we call the Unha-3, could rain death and destruction as far as 15,000 kilometers away. That is an U.S. intelligence community judgment assuming a slightly modified missile with a 500-kilogram payload. North Korea's plutonium-based nuclear weapons are probably a bit larger than that, and in any event the payload must also accommodate a few hundred kilograms of shielding. (Reentering through the atmosphere is very hot.) A 1,000-kilogram payload would reduce the range of a three-stage Taepodong.

David Wright and Ted Postol, both physicists, estimated that, if the Unha is structurally sound enough to handle 1,000 kilograms of payload, the missile could travel about 10,000 kilometers -- far enough to reach about half of the lower 48 states. David wrote me the other night to say that they've concluded that is a bit of an overestimate and that I'd be safer to say 8,000-10,000 kilometers. The North Koreans, in any case, have repeatedly said they have missiles that can reach the United States.

Still, the Unha is not an ideal ICBM. In addition to issues with warhead mass reducing range and compromising the structure, there is the issue of fueling the missile. The several-day period during which North Korea erected and fueled the missile has evident drawbacks from a military operations perspective. (Although the quick replacement is worth noting. Perhaps there was a second airframe on site.) North Korea could attempt to deploy the missile in silos or perhaps go the Chinese route of storing the missiles in mountains, rolling them out to launch. They haven't done that yet.

What North Korea has done is to parade a much better idea though Kim Il Sung Square this spring. If I had to guess, North Korea's ICBM will be a three-stage mobile missile with storable propellant that looks very much like the probable mockups we saw trundling down the avenue. Although some of my colleagues are not convinced this is a plausible path forward, I'll take the North Koreans at their (belligerent) word until I have some compelling reason to think otherwise.

The real value in any Taepodong-2 is what it teaches the North Koreans about staging -- the tricky task of stacking one rocket on top of another -- and the other niceties of building long-range missiles. These are useful skills that have been in short supply for the North Koreans as of late.

Second, we've heard a lot about the presence of Iranians at the test.

There are many reports of Iranian observers at prior launches -- in 2006, 2009, and this spring -- but it's always been hard to tell whether they've been technicians or just VIPs in town for the bulgogi. Prior to this launch, U.S. and South Korean news outlets reported that the Iranians had permanently stationed a delegation from Shahid Hemmat Industries, maker of the Shahab-3 and Ghadr missiles, in North Korea.

The relationship between Pyongyang and Tehran is an interesting one. Iran started out as a customer, like Pakistan, eventually purchasing Nodong missiles from the North Koreans. (AQ Khan reportedly made his early contacts through Pakistanis working with North Koreans in Iran, during the Iran-Iraq War.) But while Pakistan contented itself with a copy of the Nodong called the Ghauri, Iran made the missile its own, substantially redesigning it to create the Shahab-3.

A few years ago, North Korea was rumored to have sold a small number of Russian SS-N-6 missiles to Iran. While North Korea appears to have developed a modified version that we call the Musudan, Iran seems to have used small engines (vernier engines if you are a rocket nerd) to power the upper stage of its Safir-2 launch vehicle. The Unha appears to use this Iranian innovation as its third stage. It is possible that the flow of talent and expertise has now reversed itself, with Iran helping North Korea. The apprentice has, perhaps, become the master.

Iran, for whatever reason, has yet to launch something that would resemble an Unha. The Iranians have showed off a rocket, called the Simorgh, that appears to use a similar cluster of Nodong-like engines as the first stage. Perhaps Tehran is inhibited by international scrutiny, or has a preference for a different path forward, such as solid-fueled missiles.

Third, all we all going to die? Well, yes -- that along with taxes is a certainty. But probably not from a Taepodong-2.

It is always a challenge to strike the right level of concern about the North Koreans. When not busy making fissile material for nuclear weapons, launching rockets, or kidnapping Japanese citizens, the North Koreans are shelling their South Korean neighbors and sinking their corvettes.

On the other hand, a good deal of those rockets blow up in flight, and the North Koreans can't help but release pictures of their rotund Respected Young General sitting at a computer console, smoking a cigarette. What on earth is going on in these people's heads?

A clue, which a colleague and I have written about elsewhere, might found in a recent five-part North Korean film, The Country I Saw. This is a big-budget production from the state film studio about a Japanese professor of international relations, Aiko Kayama, who teaches in Tokyo. The film is propaganda, as the writer explained to the Chosun Sinbo, depicting "a series of international events surrounding North Korea from an ‘objective point of view' so that our viewers can realize themselves, without any explanation or objectives, that the our nation's path is justifiable."

These events include missile and nuclear tests. The film offers a rather depressing account in which North Korea's missile and nuclear programs are seen as integral to the survival of the North Korean regime. The ideological basis of the state has been replaced with a rationale based on the material measures of power. At one point, Professor Aiko launches into a long explanation of why "the current global politics transcends theories and ideologies and is now based on physical power such as missiles and nuclear." Clearly, John Mearsheimer is popular in Pyongyang.

If you can stomach six hours of North Korean propaganda, maudlin story lines, and bad acting, you might come away with some insight into the DPRK. (Otherwise, my colleague Hanah Rhee has subtitled choice clips.)

The good news is that the film reiterates that North Korea badly wants recognition from the United States, ultimately in the form of normalized relations. The Country I Saw ends triumphantly with a visit by Bill Clinton, touting his April 2009 mission to free two American journalists as a major step forward induced by North Korea's growing military might.

That's also the bad news. The movie could not be clearer that North Korean leaders are hardly likely to bargain away the nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that form the paltry basis for the state's legitimacy and security. North Korea's very existence, as expressed in the film, is a function of capabilities like those on display this week. During the Clinton administration, the United States and North Korea explored a verifiable end to North Korea's missile programs in exchange for international assistance, including space launches for North Korean satellites. Those efforts look much less likely to bear fruit today.

Despite our long-standing assertion that we will not "accept" a North Korean nuclear capability, that seems to be pretty much where we are today. The good news is that we have some experience with containing a nuclear-armed state that poorly provides for its citizens while spending vast sums to create a garrison state. Of course, North Korea is not the Soviet Union. And Kim Jong Un is not Leonid Brezhnev. But it is easy to look at the Young General, wedged in a tank or smoking a cigarette, and think of Marx's witty comment comparing Louis Napoleon to his more famous uncle: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

KNS/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Armageddon on a Budget

Don't worry, we can still nuke Russia even if we go over the fiscal cliff.

As we speed toward the so-called fiscal cliff, we are confronted by dire warnings. A Thelma-and-Louise style plunge will drag the country back into recession, inflict terrible hardship on the less fortunate, and decimate our military might.

Well, perhaps. But here's a little good news: we'll still be able to nuke the bejesus out of the Russians.

About a year ago, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta sent around a "heartburn" letter warning of the dire implications of across-the-board budget cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act. Panetta outlined the cuts that might occur under the process commonly referred to as sequestration. This was, in part, an exercise in panic-mongering to generate political will to avoid sequestration.

In case you need a refresher, the United States maintains a stockpile of about 5,000 nuclear weapons, about half of which are backups for the deployed force. Under the New START treaty, the United States will field up to 420 ICBMs with one warhead each, 14 submarines carrying up to 240 SLBMs with four or five warheads apiece, and up to 60 nuclear-capable bombers. That will work out to 1,550 deployed "strategic" warheads, although the real number will be higher because of the way the treaty counts warheads on bombers. The United States also has a few hundred "tactical" nuclear weapons -- gravity bombs for use by U.S. and NATO fighter aircraft.

This is a lot of nuclear firepower. The U.S. nuclear stockpile was designed to be resilient in the face of unexpected technical failures and geopolitical surprises. No one planned on the catastrophic scenario being self-inflicted, but it works against that, too. Even if we apply worst-case sequestration cuts, the force looks surprisingly healthy. Here is Panetta's list of "devastating" cuts, along with the savings, in billions, over 10 years:

  • Terminate Joint Strike Fighter; minimal life extensions and upgrades to existing forces ($80B);
  • Terminate bomber; restart new program in mid 2020s ($18B);
  • Delay next generation ballistic missile submarine; cut force to 10 subs ($7B);
  • Eliminate ICBM leg of Triad ($8B).

The first fact that should be obvious is that much of the savings comes from simply deferring modernization of some systems. Really, the only near-term pain comes from eliminating the ICBM leg of the triad. In the other cases -- terminating the JSF, delaying a new bomber, and delaying the replacement ballistic missile submarine -- the consequences will not be felt for years. (The current fleet of subs will begin to age out at a rate of about one per year starting in 2027. The aircraft should remain viable through the 2020s, with the Air Force planning on retaining some B-52s through 2035. 2035!)

Now, let's be clear. It takes a long time to build replacement systems, so delays now may lock in gaps that will appear later. And maintaining old systems too long can be a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach as maintenance costs rise. But it is hard to make the case that the resulting sequestration deterrent would, in the near term, "presage the end of democratic Western Europe" or some such nonsense.

The bulk of the deterrent would be based on 10 submarines, each with 24 missiles. Those missiles can carry up to 12 warheads each, but we needn't be so aggressive. An average of six would do, resulting in a sea-based force of approximately 1,440 nuclear weapons deployed on submarines, a few hundred of which might be at sea at any given time. The United States would also have, for flexibility, 18 B-2s capable of carrying up to 16 gravity bombs (B83s and B61 Mod 11s) and some number of B-52s capable of carrying up to eight gravity bombs or 20 nuclear-armed cruise missiles.

Suck that, Vladimir Putin.  

Such a force would allow us to keep as many nukes as Russia. Indeed, I would rather be in our worst-case scenario of relying perhaps too much on submarines than the current actual-case Russian situation of relying too much on land-based ballistic missiles. The sequestration deterrent would also be an order of magnitude larger than anything deployed by Britain, France, China, or anyone else.

Now, I should add that the delivery vehicles are only half the equation. The budget of the Department of Energy, which provides the nuclear warheads for this force, is also likely to get whacked. It is a little harder to determine what might be cut, largely because Energy officials have been somewhat sanguine about sequestration. While Panetta was sending out his heartburn letter, Thomas D'Agostino, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, was simply noting that "[i]If there is a reduction in this area, the thing we are going to focus on first and foremost is doing the surveillance work ... on our existing stockpile [to ensure] that today's deterrent is taken care of." (Can someone teach this man how to panic-monger?)

Still, we can imagine the sort of cuts that might accompany the reductions selected by DOD. According to the Office of Management and Budget, weapons activities would take a $678 million hit in FY2013 under sequestration. With that, it is easy enough to generate a heartburn list for NNSA.

One big-ticket target leaps to mind: the life-extension program for the B61 bomb, budgeted at $369 million in FY2013. The actual cost of the program has doubled, which means that next year it will cost even more than budgeted. Given that the Joint Strike Fighter is likely to be terminated, the B61 will be a bomb without a plane to drop it. We've already discussed in this space the questionable political value of these weapons. Nice to have, perhaps, but not in this budgetary environment. Eliminating the B61 solves most of our problem. Wow, halfway home already -- that was easy!

Now, we're just looking for another $309 million. Since in this scenario Leon Panetta has axed the ICBM leg of the triad, we can go ahead and retire the W78 and W87 warheads, saving us $139 million and $86 million, respectively. We can also eliminate much of a $47 million budget increase currently planned for Sandia National Laboratories to support the now-canceled B61 and W78 life-extension programs. (This money would also have gone toward supporting a new arming, fuzing, and firing system for the W88 SLBM warhead. It's an important program, but not an essential one -- at least not right now and not in this budgetary environment.) Another $272 million saved, and I haven't even found my green eye-shades yet.

That leaves us just about $37 million, which pretty much is loose change for NNSA. One solution would be to reduce funding for dismantling nuclear warheads we're getting rid of. Look, I am an arms control guy through-and-through, but in an era of budgetary austerity it isn't clear to me that a longer dismantlement queue is a mortal threat to national security. And since we're talking about lopping one leg off the triad, I think we'll be okay at the next NPT Review Conference. The dismantlement budget is just over $50 million.

And, just like that, we've endured the awful pain of sequestration. What remains is a relatively robust dyad, with two redundant nuclear weapons designs for both the SLBMs and the bombers. There would be only one cruise missile warhead, but that's all we have today as well. There may be some costs associated with life-extending a larger number of W76s or placing into service some rebuilt W88s, but these should be manageable issues.

Notice what I have not mentioned: the Uranium Processing Facility, clocking in at a fat $566 million in FY2013. My editor asked me to explain what UPF does. Officially, it provides "a state-of-the-art, consolidated facility for enriched uranium operations including assembly, disassembly, dismantlement, quality evaluation, and product certification." Unofficially, it compensates two Republican senators from Tennessee, where UPF is to be built, for having voted for the New START treaty. You may recall this facility from press stories about how the nearly complete building is 20 percent too small to house the necessary equipment and must grow by 13 feet. Or perhaps you remember when the 82-year-old nun breached security and scrawled "Woe to the empire of blood" on the wall. Well, no budgetary woe for UPF, one of two big-ticket infrastructure projects from the New START ratification process. (The other, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility at Los Alamos has already been sacrificed, for now, to the budgetary gods.) UPF is a big, juicy target, but eliminating the B61, W78, and W87 warheads probably saves it. I should note that there is also a political calculation here. While UPF is part of the New START deal with Republicans, the Senate ICBM caucus is a surprisingly Democratic affair. But I'll leave the politics to Barack Obama. On the merits, if push comes to shove, I'd rather have the UPF than the ICBMs since infrastructure improvements represent a long-term investment in sustaining the nuclear deterrent.

So, if sequestration is really about the ICBM force, it is worth asking what function, precisely, that force serves. The core argument in favor of ICBMs has always been that the president can issue a launch command to land-based missiles more quickly than to missiles located on submarines at sea. A few months back, I looked into that particular claim. How much difference exists between land- and submarine-based missiles in the time it takes for an order to produce a mushroom cloud (also known as "promptness")? No more than a few minutes. As the Government Accountability Office concluded, "Contrary to conventional wisdom, SSBNs [missile subs] are in essentially constant communication with national command authorities and, depending on the scenario, SLBMs from SSBNs would be almost as prompt as ICBMs in hitting enemy targets."

That's a whole lot of "nice to have" at $7 billion dollars of missiles and a pair of pricey warheads.

Now, there are other advantages to having ICBMs. Some people see them as valuable insurance in the event of a Russian breakthrough in anti-submarine warfare technology or as a "sink" that requires many Russian nuclear weapons to target. I don't find most of these arguments compelling. The idea that the Russians will suddenly be able to hold our boomers at risk strikes me as far-fetched. And it is not clear to me that the citizens of North Dakota would be pleased to learn their contribution to national security will be soaking up much of a Russian nuclear attack. In any case, the merits of these arguments are now beside the point. It is hard to argue that either advantage, even if true, is essential in the current era of austerity. Whether we base our nuclear-armed missiles in silos or on submarines is largely irrelevant.  The United States can sustain its basic approach to deterrence even with a sequestration force.

Of course, push needn't come to shove. All things being equal, I would prefer to keep ICBMs as part of a triad of nuclear delivery vehicles. I would happily pay Clinton-era taxes to keep them. (I am just delighted to no longer be earning my Clinton-era salary as a research assistant at CSIS.) But I can't in good conscience tell you that the loss of the ICBM leg of the triad is an insurmountable threat to the stability of deterrence or the security of the United States. It buys us a minute or so response time, the loss of which is a manageable inconvenience. It pales in comparison to all the other catastrophes that will presumably befall us if the geniuses in Washington opt for the Thelma-and-Louise plunge over the fiscal cliff.