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Firing Starts and a Twist Emerges

Posted by Bob Kohm on December 20, 2010

Twitter lit up at about 12.10EST with reports of artillery fire being heard near Yeonpyeong Island (now confirmed by the RoK media), and almost simultaneously the news broke that Kim has told New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson that he will agree to ship nuclear fuel rods outside of the country thus limiting North Korea’s ability to reprocess the uranium and build more nukes.

In the large post this afternoon I mentioned that Kim would try and do what he always does– go charging to the brink and then try and pull back. At this point it will be very interesting to see what he does– he has obviously applied one break with the concession to Richardson, but if he fires on Yeonpyeong and/or other targets the RoK & US governments will not likely be swayed by that concession as there have been too many instances of the North making and then failing to live up to precisely this kind of concession.

If Kim does not fire on Yeonpyeong the tea leaves will be analyzed and reanalyzed by every Asia watcher going. What would it mean? It could mean that Kim was told flat out by Beijing that firing would cost him his regime and his life. It could mean that the power struggle within the North Korean government has reached a conclusion. It could simply be weakness in the resolve of the DPRK government, which will end the Kim regime once and for all. His military might be on the brink of rebelling, understanding the suicidal nature of initiating a war.

Of course, he still may fire. This RoK live fire is expected to go on for two hours. The DPRK response, if it is coming, will come within three after that by my estimate.

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Posted in China, Foreign Affairs, Korea, Nuclear Weapons, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

And So It Begins

Posted by Bob Kohm on December 19, 2010

Hold tight– several Korean sources and even CNN (hey, welcome to the party, American MSM!) are now reporting that residents of Yeonpyeong and several nearby islands have been ordered to take shelter immediately, signalling that firing will begin within the hour. Initial reports say that during a pre-exercise drill by the RoK forces a North Korean battery opened up and fired 30 rounds of artillery into the waters near Yeonpyeong.

As I said on Facebook the other day… if you pray for peace, now would be an outstanding time to do so.

Posted in China, Foreign Affairs, Korea, Nuclear Weapons, Uncategorized, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Korean Conflict Imminent

Posted by Bob Kohm on December 19, 2010

I’m going to resurrect the blog for the next few days to chronicle what I suspect will be the outbreak of open hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, continuing my commentary from RotoJunkie.com

As the situation stands on Sunday afternoon in the US and overnight in Korea, the skies over Pyongyang and the DMZ have cleared and all indications are that the South Koreans will carry through their promised live fire exercise on Yeonpyeong Island in the morning.

The UN Security Council emergency session, taking place  today at the behest of the Russians to try and stop the RoK artillery exercise and defuse tensions, will amount to nothing as the Americans are not on board. Politically South Korea (henceforth the RoK) can not draw down from these exercises as the government almost fell over the lack of response to the North’s shelling of civilian targets on Yeonpyeong on 23 November.

The Background

Taking a look back at the origins of this crisis and to give a general primer on the strategic situation on the Peninsula, the immediate roots of this crisis lie in two acts of North Korean aggression, the sinking of the corvette Cheonan on 26 March 2010 and the aforementioned shelling of Yeonpyeong. Military aggression from the North  (the DPRK) is not a new phenomenon; over the years they have fired across the DMZ too many times to count, have been caught landing commandos via mini-sub inside the RoK’s borders, have shot down reconnaissance planes and famously took captive the USS Pueblo back in the late ’60s. This year’s events, however, have reflected a departure from the norms of DPRK aggression both in terms of scale and targeting.

The Cheonan was most likely sunk by a DPRK mini-sub not far from Yeonpyeong near the holy disputed “Northern Limit Line” in the Yellow Sea, a maritime boundary separating RoK water from DPRK water somewhat arbitrarily drawn by US General Mark Clark at the end of the 1950-3 Korean Conflict. Sinking this ship with its large crew marked a decided and especially provocative escalation in the types of attacks the North was willing to perpetrate. The subsequent shelling of Yeonpyeong represented the first intentional targeting of civilians and civilian areas since the 1953 Armistice and has had a huge impact on the South Korean public’s outlook on intra-Korean relations.

The South’s response to both incidents, and particularly the Cheonan, was perceived both internally and abroad as being somewhat feeble. After the sinking, the South made some nasty declarations about protecting its own, went to the UN with proof of the North sinking the ship after raising it from the floor of the Yellow Sea, held a few naval demonstrations and largely nothing more despite the high death toll aboard the stricken vessel. The response to Yeonpyeong was little better at first– increased caterwauling about the North cutting it out, threats of retaliation “next time” and very showy tours and exercises on the island. The South Korean population had had enough of that behavior, however, and as a result the RoK’s Defense Minister was sacked by the government of President Lee. Shortly after– and hugely against the wishes of the Chinese– a large scale naval exercise was held with the US Navy in the Yellow Sea, which China considers to be off limits to the major navies of the world. The point was made that the United States would stand behind its RoK alliance by inserting the USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group (CSG) into the Yellow Sea and revealing that our most advanced attack submarine, the USS Jimmy Carter, had already been operating in the Yellow Sea before the Yeonpyeong strike occurred. That was followed by US-Japanese exercises off of the East Coast of North Korea, some uncharacteristically tough talk from President Lee both at home and abroad, and ultimately the scheduling of the current artillery live fire exercise.

The reason for the RoK’s repeated timidity in the face of DPRK aggression lies just over 30 miles north of Seoul. Emplaced along the DMZ are over one hundred North Korean 170mm “Koksan” artillery pieces capable of putting direct fire on any target in Seoul in addition to as many as several dozen 240mm Multiple Rocket Launch Systems capable of putting artillery rockets into Seoul, as well. These weapons are located in hardened postions called HARTs (Hardened ARTillery) and would be somewhat difficult to destroy before they managed to fire several volleys. It is that capability, along with the very large reserve of SCUD-variant, LUNA-M, NK-02 and FROG artillery missiles further north that have dialed down the RoK’s will to retaliate in the past– they have an awful lot to lose by escalating a crisis with Pyongyang. How much?  Many authorities foresee up to one million casualties in Seoul in the first two hours from full artillery bombardment by the North using only conventional warheads. I don’t agree that casualties on that scale would occur as the US & RoK would silence or disrupt many of those those guns and launchers within less than an hour, but it would still be a disastrous occurrence. Apparently the South Koreans have overcome that fear this time around, however, as it is the normally dovish population that is driving the calls for retaliation.

With that brief history in hand it is easy to see that the situation on the Peninsula has moved in a new direction as 2010 has played itself out. As mentioned earlier, the RoK is not in a political position in which it can stop the scheduled exercise in the face of North Korean threats— and North Korean threats have been dire. This week alone the DPRK has threatened to attack not only Yeonpyeong but also, depending on the speaker, two, three, or more other sites, to hit US assets in Japan with missile fire, to use its nuclear weapons, or to take on the US Navy. Much of this rhetoric is being driven by succession planning within the DPRK, as the reign of Kim Jong Il draws to an end and he tries to hand power to his son, Kim Jong Un, against the will of some factions of the military and possibly the regime in Beijing, the North’s most important supporter. Kim Jong Un is seen as a weak pretender by many, just as his father was when he took the reins of power from his father, Kim Il Sung. It seems evident that the Kims are ratcheting up tensions with the hope of stopping them at the tipping point to show that Kim Jong Un is not only ready to command but is essential to the continued existence of the Stalinist regime. Their ability to stop them, however, seems to be predicated on the RoK acting as it always has and refusing to escalate military tensions and the United States not rocking the boat. Today this seems a  highly flawed premise.

The Coming (?) Storm

Ever since the joint naval maneuvers in the Yellow Sea, the United States Navy has been putting more and more assets into play in the Western Pacific. Last weekend the Navy surged an incredible nine nuclear attack submarines to sea in a 72 hour period, and this week two more have set out putting an extraordinary 67% of our nuclear attack subs at sea. Joining them are as many as three (and my money is on all three) of the most powerful undersea combatants ever built, the Ohio-class cruise missile subs (SSGNs). These boats are a rare glimpse into what the US military can do when it works with a good idea and stays within budget to recycle assets instead of giving General Dynamics carte blanche to spend taxpayer money. Each of these boats are a converted Trident submarine that has had its ballistic missile launch systems removed and replaced by 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles optimized for land attack. In addition, the boats are specialized intelligence and special ops platforms, with lockout chamber and mini-craft to covertly deliver SEAL teams to the beach and all manner of electronic intelligence gathering capabilities.

On the surface things get no better for the North Koreans. At the conclusion of its joint exercises with the Japanese, the George Washington CSG returned to its home port of Yokosuka, Japan with the announcement that it would be in port through the holidays and New Year. Earlier this week the Washington CSG returned to the sea with no prior announcement. The CSG is comprised of the carrier and its air wing, a Ticonderoga class AEGIS cruiser, an Arleigh Burke class AEGIS destroyer, a nuclear attack sub and attached frigates for anti-submarine (ASW) defense. It is the basic building block of American power projection and each of our ten CSGs outpower the entire navies of most other countries. The presence of the USS Essex Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) is confirmed in the Yellow Sea and consists of the Essex, a “baby” carrier loaded with USMC AV-8b Harrier strike fighters, Sea Cobra attack helicopters and various troop transport & ASW choppers along with an USMC Expeditionary Group, consisting of a reinforced battalion of Marines with full equipment along with the same cruiser, destroyer, frigate and submarine assets of the CSG.

Potentially coming into play will be the USS Carl Vinson CSG, currently underway in the Pacific (more on them in a bit) and the USS Ronald Reagan CSG, also in the Pacific and coming off of its pre-deployment trials. The USS Boxer ESG is also in the Pacific and may be moving towards Korea already. The prospect of the combined striking power of three CSGs and two ESGs along with the Ohio SSGNs and the various Improved Los Angeles and Seawolf attack subs is, in a word, massive.

Not to be left out is the US Air Force, which has been known to deploy its B2 Spirit stealth bombers to Andersen AFB in Guam and which would play an important role in a US strategic campaign against the DPRK. Coupled with B1 Lancers and B52 Stratofortresses, the strategic assets of the USAF will come into play early in the game if escalation becomes inevitable. The US also maintains large numbers of  tactical fighters and fighter-bombers in South Korea and Japan that would round out our air supremacy package with the Korean F-15s and Navy F-18s.

The Koreans feature a formidable military designed precisely to strike quickly and deep into the DPRK with American backing. Their Air Force is first rate, featuring many modern US aircraft types such as F-15 and -16 variants along with older F-4 & F-5s and their Army features superb tanks (unlikely to be used here) and ample supplies of attack helicopters. Training across Korean Forces is superb and their Special Operations Forces are amongst the world’s elite.

In addition to US & RoK forces, the Japanese, who have grown very concerned with the unstable nuclear armed regime occupying a portion of the peninsula historically known by the sobriquet “The Dagger Pointed at the Heart of Japan”, have put a large portion of their formidable naval assets to sea in the past two weeks in response to the growing tensions.

The Deadly Wildcard

In the face of so much opposition it would seem that the North should back down, but there has been growing evidence over the past few years that coupled with the attitude that the RoK is “too soft” to withstand attacks on Seoul and thus will never attack the North, is the reliance on the North’s fledgling nuclear weapons program to stop the US from moving against them. Having often both heard and expressed the idea that having a nuclear weapon makes you too dangerous for the United States to ever take on, the Kim regime has poured a high percentage of its scarce resources into developing, with assistance from Pakistan and Iran, nuclear weapons and delivery systems for them.

North Korea’s history of testing their nukes is a bit spotty, to say the least. Their first  declared test, in Ocotber of 2006, may or may not have been an actual nuclear detonation at all but a staged event with massed conventional explosives.  Even if it was a nuclear test, it would have been regarded as a “fizzle”– meaning that a self sustaining nuclear chain reaction was not maintained long enough to extract the maximum potential of the blast. They seem to have done better in 2009, setting off a blast that was roughly the equivalent of the Nagasaki atomic bomb. They have been frantically working on a third test, with news comign out this week that they’ve dug a 500 foot pit to conduct it in.

If we assume a small stockpile of dodgy nuclear weapons in North Korea’s hands, the next questions become “Can they deliver them?” and “Under what circumstances?”. Neither is easy to answer. The North has launched several variants of the SCUD (locally called the Nodong) series of missiles of Iraq fame with great success; these missiles have greater ranges, higher payloads and in some cases better accuracy than the ones Saddam Hussein fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia in the First Gulf War. They have certainly been outfitted with chemical warheads and likely biologicals in addition to high explosive conventionals (unlike Iraq, the DPRK WMD programs are well documented), and Kim has claimed that they’ve been fitted with nuclear warheads as well. That is unconfirmed. The Koreans have also built the longer range Taepodong-1 and Rodong-1 missiles, capable of hitting Japan and the US bases in that nation and again claimed by Kim to be nuclear armed. The Taepodong-2, which has been tested but has never flown successfully, is a true ICBM made to take a nuclear warhead to America’s West Coast with all cities from Anchorage to San Diego and all of Hawaii theoretically in range. An attempt in 2009 to launch one of these as a satellite booster failed when the second and third stages, with the payload, fell into the Pacific.

If it chose to, there is little doubt that the North could at least make a credible attempt to put a nuclear weapon on Seoul or any other RoK location and could very possibly make a credible attempt to hit Tokyo or American bases at Yokosuka or Okinawa and perhaps even Guam with nuclear weapons.  The immediate result of that would likely be the total destruction of North Korea’s ability to make war and, depending on targets hit, the population of North Korea could well be targeted as well. North Korea’s nuclear program is centered at Yongbyong and at a select few other locations, all heavily hardened to the extent of being built into and under mountains. They would be almost impossible to destroy with any conventional weaponry currently known to exist and would necessitate the use of American nuclear weapons to destroy. Fortunately the regime is more afraid of losing control of its weapons than it is of the US taking them out, so they are kept at a very few sites and not spread all over the place. Unfortunately those sites, being buried, would require in my opinion the employment of multiple penetrating and ground-bursting US weapons, the absolute dirtiest employment of nuclear arms from a fallout standpoint. South Korea, Tokyo, the major naval base and population center at Vladivostok in Russia and areas of China could all be in the fallout pattern at the caprice of the winds.

What situations could produce a nuclear exchange? With Kim that crystal ball is very hard to read given his instability and history of making good on threats. Just this week his regime has threatened to hit targets within and without the RoK with nuclear weapons and the Japanese are notably rattled by that; it is thought that US ballistic missile defense ships are likely on station between Japan and Korea as well as at Okinawa and Guam. How would Kim react to Pyongyang being bombed, as it possibly will be if the North hits the RoK tonight? What if the South mobilized and signaled an impending invasion (they haven’t at this point)? How will Kim react to American air power coming out of Japan? There are rumours of a North Korean nuclear torpedo and nuclear seabed mines– would they dare to try to employ them against a United States Navy CSG or ESG?

There are no great answers to what is clearly the greatest question of fighting the North Koreans.

If it became apparent that an all out war was going to begin in Korea involving ground forces, be aware that most authorities agree that American doctrine for fighting the Soviets throughout the Cold War was to employ tactical nuclear weapons not only first but immediately, and my supposition is that doctrine would apply to North Korea as well to prevent them from getting a shot off at Seoul or Tokyo and killing millions. You can bet that there are one or more likely more than one Ohio-class nuclear missile subs (SSBNs) off the Korean Coast this afternoon set to fire depressed trajectory missiles that would arrive on target in under ten minutes.

Conclusions

It is highly likely that at least limited artillery exchanges and air strikes will be carried out over the next 8-24 hours in Korea in response to the live fire exercise at Yeonpyeong Island. Once the first shot is fired, it will be difficult and may prove to be impossible to stop escalations over the following 72 hours, which could see severe civilian casualties in and around the RoK’s national capital area. DPRK doctrine has always heavily relied upon special forces raids and over the years many DPRK special forces cells have been uncovered in the South; the possibility for terrorist style attacks on civilian and government targets throughout the South and possibly in the Japanese home islands certainly exists. It is my belief that the United States will not be involved in the first stage of retaliatory strikes against the North outside of air defense missions unless US forces are previously targeted or heavy civilian casualties occur, but US intelligence and aerial recon elements along with Special Forces (most likely SEALs) are almost certainly already being used and are in place in North Korean territory. If a second or third round of retaliatory strikes happen, it is certain in my opinion that US forces will become actively embroiled in the fighting, largely from the sea and air. I do not anticipate in any case a 1950-style invasion of the South; the DPRK ‘s tanks are so mechanically poor that they likely couldn’t cover the distance without massive mechanical support that they don’t have available. It is also the onset of winter in Korea, meaning harsh conditions but rivers that have not yet frozen solid enough for the North to use them. The possibility of a last minute coup or one that occurs early in an exchange is also not to be discounted– the Chinese and Russians want no part of a war to be fought on their doorstep and they both hold sway with factions within the DPRK government and military. Russia and China have both deployed troops to their respective borders with North Korea and can be assumed to be at a heightened state of military readiness; while their engagement in the fighting is extremely unlikely, it cannot be forgotten that China has been here before and that neither China nor Russia would look kindly on an American ally having a border so close to so many vital Chinese and Russians national security locales and assets. If fighting does come, it will most likely largely consist of air strikes and artillery duels at the outset followed by heightened air and naval engagements and the potential usage of any class of WMDs by the North if Pyongyang starts taking appreciable damage and the regime looks as if it might fall. That stage could be reached at any point after the first DPRK artillery shell falls or specal ops raid occurs and it is that unpredictability that makes this the geopolitically terrifying scenario that it is.

Posted in China, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence (and lack thereof), Korea, Nuclear Weapons, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Folly of a Denuclearized Iran

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 6, 2009

I have, in the past, been an advocate for taking extreme measures to prevent Iran’s ascension to the ranks of nuclear armed nations. Clearly a nuclear-armed Iran presents problems for many nations in the Middle East and, of course, remains an unfavorable outcome. The question is just how unfavorable that outcome is and how much of our national prestige, treasure, influence and ultimately blood we should expend in the effort to prevent it.

Atomic weaponry is at its base a 1940s technology, nuclear weaponry a 1950s one. The major hindrance to producing these weapons is not exotic technologies, amazing leaps of knowledge in physics or even access to raw uranium , it is access to centrifuges to refine and enrich the uranium or, if one wishes to build plutonium weapons, the construction of breeder reactors. This is not to say that building the cascade of high-speed centrifuges needed to produce sufficient quantities of enriched uranium isn’t a major undertaking– it surely is, requiring a bit of underhanded dealing and a whole lot of cash. Therein lies the problem– building centrifuges is merely very difficult, and merely difficult is not all that much of an impediment to even less developed nations. It wasn’t to South Africa, a pariah nation at the height of the Apartheid Era which constructed a nuclear arsenal and even tested a nuke in conjunction with Israel. It certainly hasn’t been to the North Koreans, who field an arsenal that might already include 15-20 weapons. Pakistan has had no trouble not only developing but distributing nuclear technology and, perhaps, weaponry. Argentina and Brazil abandoned weapons programs under superpower pressure at the final stages of construction. Basically, this is “rocket science”, not light speed technology. My five year old builds rockets. He doesn’t have to design a rocket, formulate and synthesize the fuel, do the aerodynamic testing on the stabilizers or engineer the best nozzle. It’s already been done for him, just as all the hard parts of building a nuclear weapon have been done for Tehran. It’s just a matter of collecting the parts and established technologies and then following the steps to turn them into something. My son is a bright kid, but as yet he hasn’t proven himself to be Oppenheimer, much less Einstein.

If we posit that stopping any determined nation from building an atomic or nuclear weapon over sixty years after the engineering work was done is not a matter of technologic secrecy, then we have to ask just what it is that will prevent a nation from building their own nukes. Even during the Cold War era of dual superpower pressure to limit the expansion of nuclear leverage South Africa pulled it off despite the clear application of US-USSR pressure; in a era of unipolar power, then, how do we presume that expansion can be absolutely stopped?

Clearly, we cannot. With the technology out there, any nation that can scrape together the money, technicians and political will can and will develop nuclear weapons in the next two decades. Nobody wanted North Korea to have nuclear weapons; they now have them. Nobody– nobody– wants Iran to have nuclear weapons. An Iranian weapon is a passing threat to the Untied States and Europe, a very slightly more real threat to Israel, but a huge threat to the national interests of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Iraq. It is a direct challenge to the Arab leadership engendered in the Egypt-Saudi system, and a confirmation of the fealty of Syria & Lebanon to Tehran. It is the avenue by which Iran sees itself returning to the prestige of Darian Persia, being the hegemon not only of the Persian Gulf but asserting its alpha presence into the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey. In Tehe\ran’s mind, fielding nuclear weapons undoes the millenia of humiliation that followed Alexander’s defeat of Darius III. A nuclear armed Iran in domination of the Gulf also promotes another of Shi’a Iran’s major goals– the refutation of the Sunni Islam in favor of an ascendant Shi’a Caliphate, with unfettered Shi’a access to Mecca and Shi’a philosophy and beliefs making clear inroads into the presently Sunni/Wahabbi dominated Islamic culture. Given these prizes, this is not an aspiration that Iran is going to negotiate away– what could be offered them that would trump regional hegemony and the justification of their religious beliefs?

If technology is not a barrier and diplomacy not an option, we are left with a military solution to preventing Iran from deploying nuclear weapons. Israel is seen as a primary actor in that supposed drama, but I have great difficulty in finding the mode by which they could accomplish anything meaningful with their current force structure. Operations against Iran would presumably be carried out by the IDF’s principal strike systems, the F-15 & F-16 attack planes. Those planes face tremendous hurdles in operating against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, not the least of which is raw distance. While the F-15I, Israel’s primary strike aircraft, has a maximum range that would enable it to strike Iranian targets that presumes an aircraft lightly loaded, operating at optimal altitude and at a steady, moderate speed with external fuel tanks replacing weaponry. Changing the assumptions to include a more realistic combat profile– heavy weaponry, long periods of low altitude flying, periods of high speed flight– and the F-15I would, at minimum, need refueling over the Persian Gulf itself going in and coming out of Iran. It would also necessitate violating the airspace of either Iraq and Syria, Turkey, or Jordan & Saudi Arabia not only by the high speed strike aircraft but also by the slow, easy to shoot down tankers… who would also have to linger in hostile territory waiting to refuel the exiting strike. To further complicate the matter, defense suppression aircraft would also need to get in as the Iranian nuclear sites are highly defended by the latest Russian SAMs. All of this presumes that the Israelis have some weapon that even the Americans have not been able to produce– an effective, very lightweight munition capable of being carried over extreme distances and then penetrating the deepest, most reinforced bunkers in the world. Given that there are at least 30 sites spread throughout Iran, many of them literally built in caverns under mountains, the ability of Israel to stop the Iranian program via airstrikes is likely nil.Given that outcome, we can also dispose of the concept put forward by some that the Saudis or Turks would grant an air corridor for the strike; nobody wants to kick a nuclear armed hornets nest if they can’t be assured of its destruction.

The only path open to Israel for actually destroying Iran’s nuclear program is via its own nuclear weapons. Good luck with the politics on that one, Mr. Netanyahu.

America, similarly, has limited options here. We could fight our way through Iranian air defenses at some cost to put bombs on the surface above Iranian facilities, but we could not destroy those facilities with any level of confidence and would have to absorb incredible political damage to do even that in addition to seeing greatly expanded Iranian deviltry in Iraq and across the globe. A general invasion of Iran is, of course, not an option and even establishing and defending temporary airheads at the sites of their nuclear facilities to effect their destruction would seem to be a nearly impossible task.

With no diplomatic, technological, or workable military options, we must soberly reasses our goals and abilities vis-a-vis Iran. A nuclear armed Iran does not pose a threat in the sense of their threatening or actually carrying out strategic nuclear strikes against Western cities or military targets– clearly doing so would result in the total destruction of Iran. While many have stated that Iran is somehow divorced from physical reality by their alleged desire to become martyrs for Allah and thus are not subject to the threat of death, isn’t it clear from the events of the past three weeks that even the Ayatollahs are firmly invested in the power, rewards and goals of “this” life?

Where Iran poses a threat is in the limitation of America’s ability to project power in the Gulf and the end of Egyptian-Saudi leadership of the Islamic world. Israel listens to the words of Ahmahinejad and hears the voice of doom, but in reality Iran as a nuclear power is of little enhanced threat to Israel as compared to Iran of today. At worst Israel and Iran would exist under the very stable MAD regime that the US & USSR existed under for decades.

Iran as a nuclear power complicates the world, but doesn’t pose much of a real threat to the West. We should react accordingly.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Iran, Israel, Middle East, Nuclear Weapons | 2 Comments »

Submarines Collide, Questions Abound

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 17, 2009

It’s a big ocean. There aren’t that many submarines in it.

There are even fewer nuclear missiles subs (SSBNs) in it. The US has the largest contingent with 10 Ohio boats  assigned (with 4 usually on patrol at any one time), the Brits and French have four each, and the Russians sometimes send a few into the North Atlantic but generally keep them much closer to home in the Barents Sea.

Somehow, on the night of February 3-4, one of those four French subs found one of those four British subs and crashed into it, placing a big chunk of each nation’s strategic nuclear deterrent on the shelf for the foreseeable future. It’s almost unbelievable. Actually, it’s totally unbelievable; let’s explore why.

To say that these subs had the entire Atlantic to operate in would be incorrect; SSBNs have “patrol boxes” based on factors like their missile ranges, security requirements, transit times to and from port, etc.  which greatly reduce the area of ocean they can operate in. The French L’Triomphant class carry up to 16 M45 missiles with a range of 6000km, the British Vanguard boats sport 16 US designed Trident II missiles with a classified range known to be upwards of 7300km, so that is the first stricture on their patrol areas– they must be maintained within range of their primary targets, assumed to be European Russia and the Middle East. The French doctrine also is rumored to demand that their SSBNs be maintained within land based air cover. Combine those strictures– a flight radius of 5000-5500km of Tehran and Moscow and under land based air cover– and you can see why the widely assumed operating area for French SSBNs has always been the western Bay or Biscay and its approaches in the East Atlantic. The British boats, given the much longer range of their missiles, operate considerably to the northwest of that area.

Another limit to patrol areas is an Agreement by NATO on carving out operating areas for member subs. The Atlantic is broken up into sectors, with those sectors being assigned to the US, British, Norwegians, Dutch, Germans and Belgians, all of whom have operated subs during the last thirty years. They are not exclusive operating zones, but if the boats from one nation crosses or operates in the zone of another they are expected to notify the “owner” nation. The zone system wasn’t put into place to prevent collisions; it was put into effect so that if a Dutch sub picks up a sub operating in its AO on passive sonar it can be reasonably sure that it was tracking a Soviet/Russian sub, not an American 688 or British Trafalgar. Notably missing from the hunting preserve list is France, who maintains itself outside the NATO military command structure and thus refuses to acknowledge this orderly system or notify other allied nations of the transit of their subs.

So, we’ve greatly carved down the swath of available ocean that these boats operate in. That still leaves not only an incredibly huge tract of ocean relative to the size of these subs, but an incredibly huge swath of ocean multiplied by the operating depth of these submarines. Subs, of course, operate in two dimensions– the incredibly unlikely event of the two boats being in the same geographic place doesn’t alone give us a collision– they must also both be operating at depths basically in the same sixty foot band out of the roughly 1500 foot operating ranges of these boats.

So, even though we can’t say these two subs had an entire ocean to play in, we can safely say they had a huge amount of water, both in area and volume, with which to miss each other. To put in in perspective, let’s totally clear the airspace over the United States from Maine to Florida to Cleveland. Now let’s randomly put two airplanes in the skies in that area… and watch them smash into each other. That’s a decent example of what we’re talking about in this collision… only with 48 nuclear warheads and two nuclear powerplants involved.

Want to know the most disturbing bit of all of this? From photos taken of the two subs, it is apparent that the French L’Triomphant crashed nose-first into the side of HMS Vanguard, t-boning her in the kind of accidental collision you’d see if someone ran a red light. What makes that quite so crazy in this instance (just in case we need more crazy here…) is that the bow of the submarine is where her sonar dome is located. Assuming that these subs were both operating under passive sonar– basically just listening to the water in front of and around them with their hydrophones– the one place above all others that the L’Triomphant should’ve had an excellent picture of the water around them was right in front of the bow. Granted the Vanguard is an extremely quiet ship and the L’Triomphant a bit less so but still quiet, but still… they didn’t know they were about to hit Vanguard? While not impossible, it is highly unlikely barring the sonar operators being asleep at their consoles or the sonar being degraded in some fashion. Quite strange.

So, how did these two boats with different operating areas defy all odds and crash into each other under the Atlantic Ocean on the night of February 3-4? It is believed that this collision occurred well to the northwest of the assumed French patrol area, probably within the British patrol box. What was the French sub even doing there, at the very edge or even outside the range of its missiles from their primary targets? Given the secrecy with which SSBN operations are handled, we may never know, or more likely we probably won’t know until twenty years from now when some retired Royal Navy captain spills the beans in a book, much as American and Russian captains and civilian contractors have been doing over the past five years with regard to US-Soviet submarine games and disasters.

That being said, do you really think this was compeltely a fluke occurrence, against astronomical odds, of two subs being in the same place at the same time, one of them with no discernible reasons for being there?

Me either.

Last week satellites collided against huge odds, this week it’s nuclear missile subs. What crashes next week?

Posted in European Union, NATO, Nuclear Weapons, Submarines | 1 Comment »

Now Where Did I Leave That Nerve Gas…?

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 10, 2009

It would be comical if it weren’t so terrifying– after a year of the Air Force misplacing, mis-shipping, and basically mishandling nuclear weapons to the point that generals are getting fired and entire command structures are being redone, the Deseret News (Salt Lake City) disclosed on Sunday that–oopsies!– the Army may or may not have had a slight accounting discrepancy with the amount of nerve gas it’s storing for destruction at the Deseret Chemical Depot in Utah.

Any sensible military would’ve put half of the USAF command structure in front of firing squads this year, but as it turns out that would violate OSHA or some such regulation. In America, instead, we’re forced to retire to lucrative positions with defense contractors the dopes who send nuclear detonators to Taiwan and watch planes under their command fly around the US with “We thought they were test dummies but– oopsies!– were actual strategic weapons” bolted to the wings of their aircraft.

The scary thing isn’t just that those events happened, it is the reason why they have happened– crappy training and discipline. The two great separators between the US military and all others have traditionally been level of training and sophistication of weaponry. The US spends more money training its enlisted and especially officers than any other military in the world. For that investment, we theoretically get a force that can be trusted to think for itself, to carry out complex orders using sophisticated systems, and generally not to trod upon its own penis with combat boots. Guess what we’ve been stepping on of late? Lax standards and under-trained staff officers have been the proximate cause of all of the Air Force’s strategic weapons blunders this year; reviews have found QA checklists unchecked, officers who have no clue what is in the procedural manuals for handling nuclear weapons that they’ve allegedly been drilled on, weapons handlers who can’t tell a detonator from helicopter batteries. We’ve spent years pumping money into the Russian military to secure their arsenal and agonizing over the possibility of them misplacing a few nukes; anybody taken a look at Minot AFB or, I don’t know, under the carpet at the O club at Barksdale?

Lapses in training as it pertains to nuclear materials are a huge fear we have with Pakistan; it is unthinkable that it should be occurring within the US force structure. One has to wonder if the suddenly crappy training being given to our nuclear weaponeers isn’t the result of the financial pressure being exerted on DOD by the ongoing wars. Clearly strategic nuclear weapons are not the priority that they were in the darkest days of the Reagan-Evil Empire era’ s it possible that the USAF is pulling training dollars and competency out of the strategic arsenal in favor of spending with direct application to this war? It seems a reasonable assumption, especially given the unconscionable screw-ups going on. One more little gift from Mr. Bush’s war that keeps on giving even after the mission is accomplished, I suppose.

Now we see that the Blue Boys aren’t the only ones who can’t be trusted with a WMD– the Army may or may not know how many tons of deadly nerve agents they have or have destroyed or have shipped to god knows where. The United States went out of the chemical warfare business in 1985 when the Congress voted to destroy all stockpiles of US chemical warfare agents. Nearly a quarter century later we’re still in the process of doing so as the things are damnably hard to safely dispose of, requiring highly specialized incinerators. We still have stockpiles of artillery shells, bombs, rockets, spray tanks, storage tanks, mines, and the like mainly sitting out in the Utah desert at Deseret, at a handful of other sites in the nation (eight, according to GlobalSecurity.org), and offshore on Johsnston Atoll in the South Pacific… at least as far as the Army knows. 

We now know that the Army doesn’t actually know for sure– oopsies!– just how much nerve agent it has destroyed at Deseret or indeed how much they ever had or were supposed to have. They are putting the blame on accounting problems and tell us that they are “reasonably sure” they’ve gotten everything destroyed that they were supposed tot destroy by this point and know how much is left. Are you reasonably assured by that? 

Here in DC a few years back we had a bit of first hand experience with this issue– it seems that during the World War One era chemical weapons research was conducted in what is now the Spring Hill neighborhood of the city and on what is now the campus of American University. Due to some accounting errors and forgetfulness, nobody realized that when Spring Hill and AU were built that there were not only buried storage pits of toxins under the sites but also the odd unexploded mustard gas shell or six hundred. Nobody realized this until, in December of 2000, someone noticed that kids were getting sick at an AU childcare facility. Soil samples revealed huge levels of arsenic, which led to some digging and then an odd metallic clink when a shovel hit an artillery shell–oopsies!– still full of gas, which led to half the neighborhood being dug up and a boatload of munitions and toxins cleared. At least we know that what’s going on at Deseret isn’t a new problem, I suppose.

We are the kings of sanctimony when it comes to responsible stewardship of WMDs, which we absolutely should be– the things are a wee bit dangerous. Lax disciplinary standards and poor training are antithetical to the lowest infantryman in our system; that they seem to have become prevalent amongst the highest security areas of our military structure is unacceptable.

To have this emerge now, of all times, with Dick Cheney still predicting nuclear and chemical attacks against out cities… well, it does make you wonder just how sloppy we’ve been, doesn’t it?

Posted in Nuclear Weapons, terrorism, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Money,Missiles, and a Question of Credit

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 28, 2009

Ben Smith had a very interesting short in his blog today, about your friend and mine Dmitry Medvedev and the Bush iskandermissile1v. Medvedev standoff over the proposed US missile shield in Eastern Europe and the Russian SS-26 forward deployment to Kaliningrad.

Smith, drawing on Joshua Keating’s piece in Foreign Policy, posits that President Obama and SecState Hillary Clinton’s tough talk on the US-Russia relationship may have catalyzed the rumored Russian decision to hold off on the deployment of the nuclear missiles to the Russian enclave less than 100 miles from Gdansk and 300 miles from Berlin. As much as I agree with most of Obama’s positions on foreign policy, I have to question whether anything he’s done has much to do with this decision.

As Obama ascends to the Presidency, the world does seem to be breathing a sigh of relief at the end of the seemingly random belligerence of the Bush Administration and some concrete results are building from it– the possibility of allies taking released Gitmo detainees and the possibility of true economic coordination to resolve the global financial crisis both having made news of late. If you told me that Russia had become amenable to revisiting this issue on that basis, I might have less of a problem with the analysis– the writing is on the wall that Western Europe will be giving Obama a honeymoon and Russia should try to capitalize on that to seek renegotiation of what has been a roundly botched and needlessly aggravating situation.

What I have trouble buying is that Russia has been cowed into making a unilateral decision, even if it is in anticipation of a delay or reversal of the deployment of the American missile shield to the Czech Republic and Poland. Are we to believe that Russia is more afraid of Obama’s posturing than that of the Bush Administration, which actually explored and had advocates for deploying American combat troops into Georgia during the 2008 South Ossetian conflict.

So, if we can discount that tough talk of Obama and Clinton while also questioning whether or not Russia is simply defusing a messy situaiton under the guise of joining the honeymoon party, what are we left with? To my mind the answer is simple– it comes down to money. Russia recognizes that Obama, who has never been a huge proponent of missile defense, would love to shed the expense of this system’s deployment to Eastern Europe but really can’t due to the fatc that the Czech Republic and Poland have stuck their necks out to accommodate the Bush Admin and by extension America  in playing host to the system. They also recognize that the downturn in petroleum prices is trashing what had been up until a few months ago their own boom economy and that they may once again need Western and Central Europe not just as clients for Gazprom and the rest of their petroleum industry but also as economic partners. Forward deploying clearly offensive missile systems in Kaliningrad meant to threaten Prague, Warsaw, Berlin, Copenhagen, Oslo and the Baltics is not necessarily the best way to foster the kind of mutual trust economic relationships that Moscow may well need.

Economics, goodwill, fear, hidden circumstance– it is hard to ascertain precisely what Moscow’s driving influence right now might be with regard to the deployment of the Iskander missile system to Kaliningrad, although we can make some educated guesses– most of which come down to money. Will the G20 meeting, to be held in April, be the forum in which the two leaders finally resolve this issue by agreeing to basically backburner all of it, as Keating suggests? Possibly, but I suspect that will be the “public” resolution to a problem whose outcome has already been dictated by forces outside of the control of Obama, Medvedev or indeed anyone. As always, strategic military issues are tied so tightly to economic realities that they become indistinguishable.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Nuclear Weapons, Russia | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Pakistan’s Troubling Nukes

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 12, 2009

pakistanThe Sunday New York Times Magazine ran an interesting piece on the question of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal last weekend, focusing largely on the twin concepts of stockpile security and political stability. It’s a lengthy read, but well worth the time; you can find it here.

The article focuses mainly on the efforts and difficulties of one Khalid Kidwai, the Director of Pakistan’s Office of Strategic Plans. Mr. Kidwai is, effectively, in charge of the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and arsenal whose existence creates for Mr. Kidwai many foes. The article speaks of Indian saboteurs, alQaeda penetration agents, various and sundry other Islamist groups seeking the entree to the power of the atom, and American commandos whom Kidwai presumes are waiting at the ready to swoop in and take Pakistan’s arsenal back to America at the first sign of major instability within Pakistan.

Pakistan poses a unique problem for the United States, and, indeed, the Western world. A technologically advanced nation still buried in crushing poverty, a modern state struggling with an immense Medieval fundamentalist movement, an urban nation bounded by a lawless mountain territory that it can exercise no control over, Pakistan is the prototypical land of contradiction. That contradiction extends, troublingly, to the fact that while this is a state advanced enough to create and use nuclear weapons, it is also backwards enough to give the world little or no confidence in its stewardship of those weapons.

Pakistan’s internal justification for being a nuclear-armed state is clear enough on the surface levels– it sits next door to and upon land formerly owned by the much large India, which has been pursuing nuclear weapons for decades and has many clear strategic advantages over Pakistan, not the least of which is the sheer size of its population. Throughout the latter days of the Cold War, the United States & Soviet Union vied for the friendship and alliance of these putatively “non-aligned” nations, with India favoring Russia while Pakistan has gravitated towards American arms and power. One result of that constant four-handed gamesmanship was that neither the Soviets nor the Americans were willing to bring much pressure on nations like India, Pakistan or even South Africa to halt their weapons research; doing so too overtly would decisively push any of these nations to the orbit of the rival Great Power, thus we held our collective tongues. As a result India and Pakistan made all of the necessary moves to create nuclear weapons technology while South Africa built its first atomic weapons and dismantled them. With the knowledge that India was proceeding at full pace towards atomic and eventually nuclear weapons, Pakistan felt it had no choice but to reciprocate.

Pakistan’s path to nuclear weaponry was marked by two visionary scientist who contributed greatly not just to Pakistan’s ability to field a nuclear arsenal but also to the world’s disquiet over the arsenal’s presence. A.Q. Khan is a name well known– the father of Pakistan’s program, Khan freelanced his knowledge, plans (both created and stolen), and technical expertise to other states desiring nuclear weapons, states such as Iran, North Korea, Libya, and supposedly Syria. The question of whether his motivations were strictly monetary or if they were influenced by his religious beliefs remains somewhat open; the Pakistanis have kept Khan under house arrest and have not made him available to Western intelligence agencies of civilian entities to answer questions. The other scientist was Sultan Bashirood Mahmood, and he is a stickier situation– an avowed Islamist and Islamic Fundamentalist who has referred to Pakistan’s stockpile as the “Islamic Bomb” and who has sought to share his knowledge and expertise to countries and groups based on their “Islamic Purity” to balance out the “Zionist” bomb.

Mr. Kidwai surely has his work cut out for him.

Further complicating a picture already crazyquilt with concerns over security and stewardship is the fact that Pakistan is, to be kind, a political mess. From the open air arms bazaars of Peshawar, where a NATO supply depot & convoy was just shot up, from the Khyber Pass, the Main Supply Route for US forces in Afghanistan which was recently closed by Pakistan due to operations against rebellious tribes, to the madrassas and militant mosques of the big cities, Pakistan is sure of only one politically reality every night when she goes to bed and upon awakening every morning– that today could be the day.

Politically troubled almost since its inception, Pakistan has in recent years gone through a series of asassinaitons, attempted and completed coups, a military dictatorship and democratically elected leaders whose elections were the subject of much scrutiny & derision. Their own government institutions are totally unreliable; the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, has worked openly against Pakistan’s previous three administrations and is an exporter and facilitator of terrorist operations– the latest of which appears to have been the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. The ISI was also the major facilitator of the Taleban takeover of neighboring Afghanistan, with all the excesses and terrorist attacks that entailed. The ISI shares a compound with Kidwai’s own nuclear security operation and is rumored to have the program itself thoroughly infiltrated.

Amongst those vying for political control in Pakistan are vehement anti-Indians, who seek a war over the disputed province of Kashmir, organized fundamentalist cliques, elements from within the ISI, democratic reformers and latter-day communists. The military, which installed Pervez Musharraff, also can never be counted out as the next government of Pakistan. The “tribal areas” of Pakistan, places like Baluchistan and Waziristan, also harbor large armed bands of dedicated Islamists who are believed to be sheltering Osama bin Laden and are a tremendous force for political instability within Pakistan.

What would happen if the ISI, with its fundamentalist leanings and penchant for large scale anti-Western terrorist operations, teamed up with their allies in the tribal regions or with one of the urban Islamist factions to topple the government and install their own? In such a scenario we would be looking at a government with similar religio-political leanings as those held by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary forces in Iran… but with a highly organized paramilitary/intelligence operation already up and running to enforce internal security and export trouble.

In such a scenario, the first and most hopeful outcome would be for the military to fight it out with ISI and the Islamists in the streets; such a happening is foreseeable as a possibility, but not terribly likely, The fact is that the Pakistani Army & Air Force, equipped largely with modern American weaponry, are shot through with Islamists and Islamist sympathizers; I would be surprised to see them fighting to keep Pakistan a secular nation in the face of an Islamist coup.

A more likely scenario, perhaps, is that the coup takes hold quickly and with the support of the military, leaving the United States with a series of choices– intervene? Put Mr. Kidwai’s notional American commandos into action to take out Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure? Wait and hope for the best? Encourage India to move on Pakistan?

There is, of course, no opportunity for large scale military intervention into an Islamist coup in Pakistan for America– it would be totally unsustainable and our forces would be constantly in an environment perhaps worse than the one prophesied for the invasion of Japan. Are those commandos waiting? In the waning months of the Musharraf egime in 2008, possibly, perhaps even with the knowledge of Mr. Musharraf. Now, that is highly unlikely– we most likely don’t even know the extent of their dispersion of the nuclear force in times of peace, much less crisis. India would not be inclined to go to war with Pakistan under Islamist, either– much too likely that when India ran roughshod over the smaller Pakistani forces that the Islamabad regime may see a nuclear exchange as an inviting scenario.

The question quickly devolves to this– do we want an extremely hostile Islamic nation sitting idly around looking for mischief and with the connections to make it or do we act precipitously to take out their ability to put our cities at risk through low-tech deliverable nuclear warheads?

Quite a question, that.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Intelligence (and lack thereof), Islamists, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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