Between The Lines

21 Mar

B-52 TrainingNorth Korea isn’t the only place on the Korean peninsula talking loosely about nukes. South Korea wants a submarine from the United States to stay in the neighborhood. Jeffrey Lewis thinks this March 12 Joongang Daily story is just crazy. (I know this is old news, but the Boards are insightful, too.)

“We decided to convene another Korea-U.S. submarine drill after the Foal Eagle training ends at the end of April,” the official told the JoongAng Ilbo. “We are still negotiating [with Washington] how to utilize the nuclear weapons after then.”

The official did not specify which warships would remain behind with nuclear weapons.

Sources in the South Korean military told the JoongAng Ilbo that a nuclear-armed submarine is a strong candidate.

Now, “핵탄두 장착이 가능한 핵추진 잠수함” means a nuclear-propelled submarine with the capability to mount a weapon equipped with a nuclear warhead. Lewis identifies three possibilities:

1. It is possible that exercise includes a nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). The United States does, in fact, have nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines participate in exercises, although I have not heard of one participating in a multinational exercise. There has been some chatter about resuming port calls of nuclear-armed SSBNs in South Korea, something that happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s when extended deterrence was rocky. (Pictured above, maybe, according to Hans.) Maybe this is a step in that direction.

2. It is also possible that the exercise includes a converted ballistic missile submarine that does not carry nuclear weapons. The USS Ohio, a nuclear ballistic missile submarine the Navy converted to a carry conventional guided missiles, participated in Key Resolve/Foal Eagle 2009. The South Koreans enjoyed using it as a press backdrop. While an SSGN is not nuclear-armed, it is indistinguishable from the real article to my eye. The confusion is understandable and, in fact, might be a benefit.

3. Finally, it is possible that a Los Angeles-class attack submarine, like the USS Bremerton, is participating. Some Los Angeles-class attack submarines, including the USS Bremerton, can carry the TLAM/N — the nuclear-armed Tomahawk. The United States has not deployed TLAM/N on any attack submarines since early 1992, following the September 1991 President’s Nuclear Initiative. The airframes and warheads have been in storage. The Navy did not plan a replacement system, leaving the Obama Administration to allow the retirement of the TLAM/N to proceed without replacement. In April 2010, Jim Miller testified that the timeline for the retirement of the TLAM/N was over the “next two to three years.” I would be surprised if there were any residual TLAM/N capability at this point, but I can’t rule it out and the South Koreans may simply be none the wiser.

I think you can see there’s a world of difference between the three possible ways to identify what that South Korean official was talking about. Lewis also thinks this whole plan to leave a submarine in South Korean waters “ridiculous”.

1. As far as I know, there are no nuclear weapons stationed in Okinawa or Guam, nor any facilities to accommodate nuclear weapons. The Administration does talk about the ability to forward-deploy B-2 bombers to Guam as a symbol of extended deterrence, but I think this is a silly symbol. As I have noted before, ”Nor would the United States forward deploy nuclear-armed B-2s, either in Guam or elsewhere. The B-2 can reach targets from North Korea to Iran directly from Missouri, which is what the United States did in the early stages of operations against Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq. The only rationale for forward-basing is to permit more sorties – something of interest only in ongoing conventional operations.” Nuclear death and destruction visited upon North Korea will probably come with a 65336 postal code.

2. The flight-time argument is impenetrable to me. Setting aside what difference minutes or hours might make in various nuclear-use scenarios, the flight time for a nuclear-armed ballistic missile is minutes. Putting an SSBN closer to Korea isn’t really necessary and is, in fact, undesirable for any number of reasons. As for the TLAM/N, among the undesirable properties that persuaded the Navy to part with that system, one drawback is the relatively long flight time to target, which is to say nothing of the tendency to crash en route. There just is not, as far as I can tell, any military reason to have a nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine leave its Pacific patrol grounds to hang out around Dokdo.

Third, and finally, this episode illustrates my pet peeve about extended deterrence. We don’t do ourselves any favors by attempting to reassure our allies with false promises. The effort to reassure South Korea through our ability to forward deploy B-2 bombers in Guam — something we wouldn’t do for nuclear-use scenarios — simply reinforces misconceptions that exist in Seoul about the nature of extended deterrence. The whole Guam nonsense leaves unaddressed the inaccurate belief on the part of many South Koreans that extended deterrence functions better if there are weapons “close by.”

These misconceptions hamper relations — now we have to turn down a South Korean request to keep a nuclear-armed submarine lurking in the East Sea/Sea of Japan — and over time will undermine the credibility of our commitment. I have been hopeful that new mechanisms like the Extended Deterrence Policy Committee might allow consultations to reduce our tendency to use obsolete hardware as a symbol of our commitment.

Mark Hibbs points out why the South Koreans might like to have an American submarine around, and it might be a saner alternative than a South Korean nuke.

Increasingly, South Korea has thrown its weight behind a policy of economic development based on international cooperation with trading partners, participation in international organizations and compacts, a security alliance with the United States, deployment of nuclear power technology, and — especially since the late 1990s — establishment of democratic institutions and a civil society. Today, most or all of these developments stand in the way of South Korean leaders pursuing nuclear weapons.

Consider the country’s growing reliance on nuclear power. Four decades ago, South Korea turned to the atom when the cost of imported oil began to threaten the growing economy’s balance of payments. Since the 1970s, South Korea has built and is now operating two dozen power reactors generating nearly a third of the country’s electricity. South Korea is building more reactors, and it has installations for nuclear research, medicine, engineering, equipment manufacture, waste treatment, disposal, and fuel fabrication. Leaving aside the considerable investment in human capital associated with this effort, South Korea’s peaceful nuclear energy assets might be worth several hundred billion dollars.

Should South Korea reach for nuclear arms, its nuclear program and its energy security would be at risk. Reactors would run out of fuel, and access to imported substitute fossil fuels might be embargoed. It is unclear whether the United States would sustain its security guarantee to South Korea. Outside the NPT, South Korea might be far more vulnerable to attack from the North, and its relations with China, Japan, and Russia might be frozen. On the other hand, with increasing wealth, perhaps South Korea might conclude in a crisis it could afford to take such risks.

The United States is not worried that, if it allows South Korea to reprocess its spent fuel, Seoul will start working on a bomb. But it is concerned that other countries would follow in South Korea’s footsteps, that tensions with North Korea would increase, and that the threshold which has deterred Korean politicians from considering development of nuclear weapons might be lowered.

Enter the B-52s, which the North Koreans really don’t like.

Commenters on the ACW Boards tend to agree that the South Korean official is not well-informed about the subject of his leak. But then, neither is the public – or me for that matter. There’s a line between the actual deterrence of North Korea and creating a certain perception for Pyongyang’s leadership to acknowledge that is complicated by how South Koreans and their government perceive America’s commitment to their defense. I think we can deter North Korea without resorting to excessive displays of power for the benefit of a clique of South Korean leaders and perhaps a plurality of the broader public.

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