Arms Control is Back – or is it?

According to US leaks the Biden administration is open for real discussion about arms control, provided that that is indeed the intent of the Putin regime. These could include confidence building measures surrounding military exercises, the number of US and Russian troops stationed in and opposite Poland and the Baltic States, as well as reductions in long-range weapon systems.

Make no mistake, this would without doubt be a most welcome development.

One of the most under-reported aspects of this new Cold War is the almost complete breakdown of what in fact was a rather extensive number of arms control and arms reduction treaties covering both conventional weapons and forces as well as weapons of mass destruction. This year will see the fifty year anniversary of SALT I, and in the time since there has been (or rather, had been) significant advances in the field. A rejuvenated arms control regime would certainly be a fitting way of celebration, because at the end of the day, while no treaty is perfect, the world in general is safer, there’s less room for misunderstandings, and you have a better situational picture and understanding of your opponent and their options if there is a solid framework of treaties in place. Even a simple “let’s get back to the CFE, INF, and Open Skies“-would be most welcome.

Any reduction in troops in Europe is often seen as favouring Russia as troops moved beyond Ural are easier to ferry back to the border than troops pulled back to the states. That is indeed the case, but arms control is one of the fields were allowing the lack of the perfect to stand in the way of the good might prove counterproductive. An imperfect agreement might still be better than none at all. Source: via Wikimedia Commons

The current diplomatic situation as a whole is in many ways not beneficial to the free world, as most of the recent talks between Russia and the US has taken place following threatening Russian behaviour. You don’t have to be a genius to realise that that reward the Kremlin doing bad things to get attention. Everyone knows that the US would like to pivot to China, which obviously also tells Moscow that Washington sees the current superpower hierarchy as going 1) themselves, 2) Beijing, and 3) Moscow (maybe, or then they’re just a regional power with nukes in an important region). That is obviously not how the Kremlin would prefer things, and if the only way to get to the US to treat them as equals is to march a hundred-thousand troops up and down the Ukrainian border, well, so be it. Perhaps, just perhaps, it might be worth settling in for one of two options: either talks should happen without the need for serious threats to kick them off, or alternatively talks shouldn’t happen at all, regardless of the Russian behaviour. The second option obviously is a somewhat dangerous one, while the first easily could lead to appeasement.

It is important to remember that arms reduction treaties are not a reward for good behaviour and being a decent chap. Instead, the reason for talks is exactly that the other side is made up of jerks that are doing stupid stuff. When the JCPOA-treaty about Iran’s nuclear weapons was in the headlines, a friend of mine who is a staunch supporter of democracy was surprised to learn that I supported the deal with that decidedly undemocratic and untrustworthy country. “Would I have supported a deal with Hitler?” my friend asked. “Yes,” was my answer. “Because one of the few things worse than fighting the Second World War would have been fighting the Second World War against a Nazi-Germany armed with nuclear weapons.”

That analogy is a bad mix of Goodwin’s law and counterfactual history, but it gets the point through.

Having established why I believe that arms control talks in principle would benefit the West by giving us a clearer picture on what the Russians are doing and removing or transferring some of the most aggressive capabilities further from the border to ensure a longer build-up before any Russian attack, I will unfortunately have to crash my own party by stating that I don’t think there is any hope for real and productive talks any time soon. This basically rests on the worldview found in the Kremlin.

In short, the basic premise for any arms control treaties is that they are based on reciprocity, i.e. that the sides agree to take similar steps and allow each other to have the same rights. Unfortunately, I don’t believe Russia sees the security concerns of Estonia as equally valid as their own ones, and I don’t believe Russia sees NATO as a valid partner. It has been rather clear from the outset that eyes are fixed on the price of a bilateral Russia-US agreements. There are a few possible reasons behind this, one of which is that Russia believe it is easier to get concessions from the US compared to the states neighbouring Russia, or that trying to split NATO would make eventual decoupling of the US and its allies easier. However, a possibility that in my view certainly is worth serious thought is that Russia does not understand that NATO is indeed for real an organisation made up off independent states and based on consensus decision making. The US is indeed primus inter pares when it comes to anything happening within it, but this is not the same as the role played by the Soviet Union in the Warsaw Pact where the leading nation extended Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in the form of invading armies into countries that felt they could make decisions independently (something that happened not just once, but twice, and very nearly a third time). If that is the frame of reference you have when thinking about alliances, involving the rest of the countries in any discussions are just a waste of time, and it also very effectively reduces the easternmost countries from independent states with independent security concerns into just buffer states (this certainly might explain why countries are more interested in joining the other country’s alliance instead of the one you are promoting, but reaching that insight require a certain amount of introspection and self-critical reasoning that might be anathema to the whole thing).

A word of caution here as well: if the US authorities doesn’t remember these basic facts as well, there is a very real risk of an agreement indeed leading to some level of decoupling with the easternmost NATO-countries feeling left out. Besides other obvious issues, the benefits the US gets from its network of allies and partners after all is based on the US ability to get independent states to at times compromise their own interests in the understanding that in the long-run having US support is more beneficial. If their allies start believing that they are about to be sold out in a Munich 2.0-style agreement, the US will loose influence and might indeed instead of arms reduction along both sides of the Russian border see an uptick, potentially even a small-scale arms race as countries start to invest more heavily in systems they feel hold deterrent value – such as the long-range missile systems which both the US and Russia apparently agree constitute an issue (at least the enemy once constitute an issue, the own one are obviously just peaceful deterrents).

The F-16 and the free-fall B61 nuclear bomb – not a system even close in capability to a nuclear-tipped Iskander-M (or the RS-26 Rubezh), not even with the upcoming upgrade to F-35A and B61 Mod 12. Source: USAF via Wikimedia Commons

A short tangent: some have compared NATO’s enhanced forward presence to the Cuba Crisis and asked why the US strong response there was warranted if the Russian one here isn’t. There is an obvious issues here, namely that the country which has aggressively placed nuclear-armed long-range systems close to the heartland of other countries is Russia and not NATO – the only nuclear weapons found in Europe outside of Russia is the handful of UK and French SLBMs on their submarines, a limited number of French air-launched cruise missiles stationed in France and aboard the French carrier Charles de Gaulle, as well as a modest number of traditional free-fall bombs found on a handful of air force bases in the old NATO countries. Russia on the other hand has aggressively developed and deployed new weapons and delivery systems, the most notable of which is the Iskander-M deployment to Kaliningrad. Of course, if the European countries doesn’t have valid security concerns and should just be happy that they aren’t occupied and should forget about being able to freely choose their partners and allies, then the argument becomes more understandable, but I rarely see those using the Cuba-card to justify Russian demands also supporting the US blockade on Cuba or the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Where does that leave us? Well, in the best of worlds, mutually constructive talks can be had and a number of steps decided upon between NATO as a whole and Russia. These might include e.g. the withdrawal of Iskander-units from Kaliningrad and the regions close to the Russian western border in exchange for NATO commitments to not station the upcoming post-INF systems within range of Russian territories, or the movement of the 76th Guards from Pskov to a more eastern location in exchange for set limits on US troops in eastern Poland, or simply the lower hanging fruit of pre-announcing exercises and attaching observers to said exercises.

Unfortunately, as mentioned I expect the Kremlin not to appreciate the fact that the EFP and other steps taken by NATO countries in the east is largely based on the very real concerns these countries have, in no small measure based on their experiences from decades of Soviet occupation and dominance. As such, reciprocity will most likely be hard to achieve. In that environment, any arms control treaty is most likely a bad idea, and won’t achieve the desired effect. Instead, there is a very real risk that any agreement would just lead to splits within the alliance.

A very specific word of warning for Finland and Sweden: in the unlikely scenario of a major transatlantic security agreement that would include restrictions to e.g. long-range weapon systems near the Russian border based on the understanding that Poland doesn’t need JASSM because the corresponding capabilities can be supplied by other NATO-members, Finland and Sweden would be left vulnerable being both unable to buy high-end capabilities from NATO-members as well as not having the protection offered by being part of the alliance. The obvious solution is to join the alliance to ensure a seat at the table, and not just the courteous phone calls afterwards informing about what the decision is.

…and while the US just selling out the countries of eastern and central Europe – either under this administration or the next one – might be an unlikely option, it is also an extremely high-impact one, and since the options for the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea then would range from bad to expensive, it is high time to start thinking about what our plan is in that case.

On German Nukes and Tornadoes

Few fighter procurements go completely without a hitch these days, and the German Tornado-replacement program is no exception. Critics have decried it as the worst of all options, questioned the idea of a small Super Hornet/Growler-fleet, asked why the Eurofighter ECR doesn’t get any love, and whether nuclear strike really should be included at all in the German mission set.

In reality, things are usually more complex that they seem, and outrageously stupid decisions are rarer than a quick look in the tabloids would have you believe. So what’s the method to the German madness?

To begin with, it is first necessary to look at the capabilities about to be replaced. Germany is in fact looking at three different replacement projects, which include a number of different roles.

The first is Project Quadriga, which looks at replacing 38 Tranche 1 Eurofighters. These early Eurofighters lack several of the more modern systems of the later Tranche 2 and 3 versions, systems that crucially allow for the relatively easy upgrading of these. Due to this, most countries have opted against upgrading the Tranche 1’s (Spain being the exception). The logical solution, which has been reported to be in the work for quite some time, is a one-to-one replacement with new-built Eurofighters. These are to be of the top-notch standard currently offered, with E-Scan AESA radar and other niceties. While Germany officially calls them Tranche 3, the Eurofighter consortium refers to them as Tranche 4 to distinguish them from the earlier Tranche 3’s which are of a lesser configuration. The Project Quadriga jets are roughly corresponding to the standard offered to Finland, which also share the Tranche 4 designation.

A German Tornado ECR with two AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles under the fuselage. Source: bomberpilot via Wikimedia Commons

More controversial is the Tornado replacement program, which is actually made up of two different parts. Besides the Tornado IDS fleet (more on this later), Germany operate the survivors of 35 Tornado ECR. These are specialised electronic warfare aircraft, flying the SEAD/DEAD (or more popularly the ‘Wild Weasel’) mission of taking out enemy air defences and radars. This is an extremely rare capability for any air force to have, besides Germany only Italy (also with a small Tornado ECR fleet), the US Navy, and Australia sport dedicated tactical SEAD jets, both of the latter doing so in the form of the EA-18G Growler (an Israeli dedicated SEAD-variant of the F-16D is rumoured to exist, but especially after the introduction of the F-16I I am unsure what to make of this claim). This is part of the issue – if Germany is to buy a stop-gap SEAD-jet, there is just a single alternative on the market today, namely the Growler. There are other multirole aircraft with the capability to carry out the mission to varying degrees, including jets sporting anti-radiation missiles and advanced EW-systems. However, the only true SEAD-platform able to do the escort jammer mission which Germany specifically spells out, is the Growler. The Eurofighter consortium last year rolled out the Eurofighter ECR concept, which I discussed on the blog earlier. To reiterate:

The Eurofighter ECR concept is tailored to meet the German requirements, and include signal-homing missiles in the form of the AGM-88E AARGM, new large podded jammers, two more ‘wet’ stations to allow the drop tanks to move out of the way for said jammers, and a new decoupled rear cockpit for the WSO. The ECR as such is not part of the offer to Finland, but “as with any technology developed by the Eurofighter consortium, the option of an ECR will be available to Finland as a future growth option.” The options also include picking just the parts of the concept deemed suitable for Finnish needs. This could e.g. translate into acquiring just the jammers without the new ‘wet’ stations and accepting the range and endurance limitations it causes.

However, the Eurofighter ECR is still a paper product, at a time when the Growler is already a mature and combat proven design.

The majority of the Tornado-fleet is made up by the IDS variant (interdictor/strike, designated GR.x in RAF service), with the German Luftwaffe and Marineflieger acquiring a total of over 300 aircraft, of which just under a third are still in service with the Luftwaffe. The Interdictor-designation refers to strikes deep behind enemy lines, aimed at affecting the battlefield by e.g. stopping enemy supplies from reaching the front lines. The Tornado IDS was one of the best dedicated platforms for the role during the later part of the Cold War, being known for the ability to slung a serious combat load at high speed and very low level to avoid enemy air defences. While still a potent airframe, the basic design is rapidly heading towards obsolescence, and the age of the aircraft are starting to show, already causing significant headaches to the maintenance personnel.

The Eurofighter has already replaced the Tornado in British service, and isn’t necessarily a bad choice. The aircraft can sling two heavy cruise missiles (in RAF service the Storm Shadow is used), as well as a sizeable load of precision-guided bombs and smaller missiles such as the Brimstone for precision targets and anti-vehicle use. On the horizon, the SPEAR light cruise missile is about to open up some new interesting options as well.

However, what isn’t found in the arsenal of the Eurofighter is the B61 free-fall tactical nuclear weapon. The German Tornado-fleet form part of NATO’s nuclear sharing agreement, under which Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey have US tactical nuclear weapons stored in their country for delivery by their Air Forces.

Now, to grasp why the German decision played out the way it did (or seemingly is about to do, more on this later), it is extremely important to understand a few things:

  1. The nuclear weapons aren’t exactly uncontroversial. The general population in most of the host countries are divided at best and directly hostile at worst to the sharing agreement. Germany is no exception,
  2. The idea that NATO is a nuclear alliance is generally seen as a key part in it’s strategy to deter other nuclear-armed states (i.e. Russia) from using nuclear weapons against the member states. The sharing agreement is an attempt to ensure that decoupling doesn’t happen (“Will the US trade New York for Paris?“, as De Gaulle famously questioned), to make sure that the NATO allies keeps retain their trust in US and the alliance (and doesn’t try to acquire their own weapons, as De Gaulle did),
  3. You don’t just sling along a tactical nuke on any aircraft, but the integration and certification is quite a complex process, and relies on the country owning the nukes being ready to share some of their most highly classified military secrets.
    © Dassault Aviation
    In the event of a major war, France would use it’s land- and carrier-based Rafales to launch a limited number of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles as a final warning that France has identified threats against its vital interests, in an attempt to make the enemy to back off before France feels it has to go all-out nuclear with air- and submarine-launched strikes. The Rafales would each carry a single ASMP-A cruise missile on the centre station, which in the picture is occupied by an ASM.39 Exocet. Source: © Dassault Aviation

If you only look at the destructive power of nuclear weapons, the multirole fighter you want today is the Dassault Rafale with the impressive ASMP-A nuclear cruise missile. The Rafale is designed from the outset to be able to perform the nuclear strike mission, being “entry first-capable” as the French puts it, and there’s little denying that the ASMP-A offers a significantly greater chance than the B61-12 of getting through and putting your bucket of sunshine on whatever it is you don’t want to exist anymore. And indeed there has been an argument for a German nuclear deterrent, either in the form of Franco-German sharing or as an independent arm developed with French aid. However, this overlooks the simple fact that the majority of Germans aren’t too keen on nuclear weapons to begin with, and while it would solve the potential military need of putting nukes on a target, it does not adress decoupling (as a matter of fact, it can be argued to make the risk of decoupling US from its European NATO-allies higher). For the time being, the militarily less-effective US B61 free-fall tactical nuclear weapon might on a strategic scale actually be a better option than a German (or Franco-German) bomb. Crucially, it is also most likely the only option that has any hope of getting through the German parliament.

This brings the key question to the Tornado replacement program of what aircraft to certify for the B61. The Eurofighter is, at least according to Airbus, technically able to start lobbing nukes. However, this would obviously require the US to play along. The argument has been put forward that the nuclear sharing is important enough to the US that they would have no choice but to agree to integrating the B61 on any platform Germany wishes. There is probably some truth to this, but on the other hand it is likely that integration on a non-European platform could both require more work (i.e. it would take longer) and not receive the priority integration on a new US platform would get (i.e. it would take longer). This makes the Eurofighter less than ideal for the nuclear delivery mission, an in addition the German Air Force would like to avoid a single type fleet due to the risk of a safety issue grounding the whole fleet.

Which brings us back to the quest for a US solution. Some have voiced concern whether Germany would be interested in a US platform at all, and while it is true that currently Germany has an impressively European fleet, the country has been a prolific user of US fast jets up until rather recently in the form of both the F-4F Phantom II (retired in 2013) and F-104G Starfighter before that (retired in 1987). In addition, much of the current arsenal of weapons, including the AIM-9L Sidewinder, AIM-120 AMRAAM, and GBU-series of laser/GPS-guided bombs are all US made. While a new US-built fighter would likely add to the list of in-service weapons, it is hard to argue this would be any kind of a serious issue to an air force the size of Germany’s (especially considering the obsolescence issues currently facing the continued operation of the Tornado with it’s Cold War-era technology).

Having kicked out the F-35 due to political considerations, there are three more fighters being built in the US today: the F-15 Eagle, F-16, and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. As noted, the F-16 has seen service in Europe in the nuclear strike role, but the light multirole aircraft isn’t really the obvious place to go looking for a Tornado replacement, and in any case Lockheed Martin haven’t been interested in offering it to countries that are potential F-35 buyers. Boeing manufacture both the F-15 Eagle and the F/A-18 family, and the ‘Mudhen’, as the F-15E Strike Eagle is affectionately known, does hold a number of benefits over the ‘Rhino’. Crucially, the F-15E is already certified for the B61, including the latest B61-12 version, something that none of the other aircraft discussed here (including the F-35) currently is. The integrated conventional weapons also matches the current German arsenal more closely, including the Taurus KEPD-350 heavy cruise missile that is integrated on the Korean F-15K variant. The aircraft is also already based in Europe, as the USAF operate F-15E units from UK bases, and as such German Strike Eagles would slot directly into current NATO tactics. However, while the latest F-15E(X) is a very potent strike aircraft, it does suffer from the lack of a SEAD/DEAD-variant.

The F-15K Slam Eagle of the South Korean Air Force is a good example of the modern Strike Eagle family. Able to carry a lot of ordnance and go far, as opposed to the Tornado it can also hold it’s own in an air-to-air fight. Source: Republic of Korea Armed Forces via Wikimedia Commons

The issue can obviously be solved in a number of ways. Roger Näbig over at Konflikte & Sicherheit argues for the F-15E(X) for nuclear strike with the Eurofighter ECR taking over in the SEAD-role. This would probably be the simplest solution when it comes to getting the nuclear strike role sorted, but it is highly doubtful if the Eurofighter ECR would be ready by 2025, even if the German order was placed today.

And that is another piece in the puzzle that doesn’t get the attention it would need – the order isn’t exactly placed yet. While everyone seems to agree that the Tornado replacement really needs to happen (especially since it has already been delayed a number of times), the junior coalition partner SPD is decidedly unhappy with how the MoD has handled the issue, including bringing up a number of talking points:

  • The importance of the Eurofighter for German work,
  • Whether the nuclear sharing should continue at all,
  • The decision making process itself,
  • Why isn’t the F-35 under consideration, as it is used by the Netherlands for nuclear strike?

It is obviously not the same people asking the last two questions, but it shows how deeply torn the party on the issue. A real can of worms is what would happen if Germany would retire from the nuclear sharing altogether, as the former frontline state abandoning the politically tiring duty of hosting nukes would most likely not sit well with the current frontline states, several of whom already have varying degrees of trust issues when it comes to how strong Germany’s commitment to solidarity in case of an attack on Poland or the Baltic countries really is. Something of a nightmare scenario would be a German withdrawal followed by Poland (another F-35 buyer) requesting nuclear weapons on their soil instead, which would have all kinds of “interesting” political and deterrence effects. And if we see Trump reelected this autumn, I don’t hold it completely beyond the realms of possibility that some kind of bilateral US-Polish agreement could be worked out, with or without (likely the later) the approval of the other NATO countries.

The whole Tornado replacement deal obviously leaves ample room for political manoeuvring in Germany, especially considering the rather messy state that German domestic politics currently find itself in. As such, while there is a clear official line – Gareth Jennings had the very nice graphic capturing it all – it is far from certain that the deal will get through parliament any time soon.

In principle, the idea isn’t bad. A joint Eurofighter- (55 aircraft) and Super Hornet-fleet (30 aircraft) with the Super Hornets being dual-roled conventional and nuclear strike and the Eurofighters focusing on replacing the Tornado’s interdiction and reconnaissance capabilities, and 15 EA-18G Growlers in the escort jammer/SEAD role under the luWES program does solve the most pressing military and political issues. A key thing here is that, in the same way as with the current Tornado IDS/ECR-fleet, the EA-18G Growler and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet share a very high degree of commonality, meaning that the 45 Boeing fighters could all be served by the same ground equipment and maintenance organisation. While some have questioned the ability of the German Air Force to get a meaningful contribution out of 15 EA-18G Growlers, that’s two to three times the number of Growlers serving aboard any US Navy carrier at any given time. Especially considering the aforementioned synergies and economics of scale with the regular Super Hornets, I don’t see this as an issue. Both the Super Hornet and the Eurofighter are also fully multirole, although their designs are optimised somewhat differently, meaning that with the exception of the nuclear strike and EW-missions, they could stand in for each other if the need arises. A combined 45 aircraft fleet is also the size of a number of smaller air forces, so it is hard to see that as an argument against the split buy.

What does this mean for HX then? With the caveat that this is based on actually getting an inked German order before the HX decision is made, it would be a small additional credit for the two aircraft. For Eurofighter it further assures continued investment in the aircraft for the next few decades (though in this case it doesn’t help with the post-2050 part of the timeline), and as the German fleet likely will likely mean that the Taurus KEPD-350 is finally fully integrated and potentially some other new capabilities might be unlocked as well, it might be possible to squeeze some of these into the best and final offer at a cheaper price than what would otherwise have been the case. For the Super Hornet the difference is more marked, as the addition of another operator in the Baltic Sea region with deliveries under the same time frame open up possibilities for joint training and test and evaluation opportunities. While this is marketed as a stop-gap solution, Germany has had a tendency of keeping their fast jets in service for quite a while, and there is obviously a risk (or opportunity, if you are looking at this from Boeing’s angle) that the Super Hornet-era might stretch on quite a bit longer than currently envisioned (which likely was part of why France saw the F-35 as such a threat to the FCAS). However, over all the effects are largely marginal for the Finnish competition, and perhaps the most important is the hard-to-measure but still present factor of the idea that an aircraft has momentum on the market.

Review: The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Attacks on The United States

“Cassandra cried, and curs’d th’ unhappy hour;
Foretold our fate; but, by the god’s decree,
All heard, and none believ’d the prophecy.”
Aeneid 2.323

Jeffrey Lewis is something as rare as an arms control rockstar, sporting not only knowledge of his niche field, but sharing it primed with one-liners such as his (in)famous ‘goat rodeo‘-analysis of the US-North Korea relationship. Recently Lewis released his first work of fiction. Unsurprisingly, it is about a nuclear war with North Korea.

2020 cover

The book, described as a “speculative novel”, has an interesting format in that it is written in the form a government commission report issued a few years after the events it deals with. This avoids the classic ‘non-fiction writer writing fiction’-trap of a subject matter expert actually not being that great at writing fiction, thereby dispensing with the need for a ghost writer. With that said, the book was not overtly dry in style, being on the more flowing end of the government report spectrum.

The fact that the synopsis of the book is given in the introduction makes it a somewhat strange read. Like Cassandra in the opening quote of this review, the reader knows that things are going to turn bad, and can only watch as the actors (more than a handful of which are real-world politicians) happily stumble on towards the disaster. The attention to detail (including the baseball cap) adds to the non-fiction feel. A large number of real-world events from history have also been ‘reskinned’ and brought into the story. For the (amateur) historian some are immediately recognisable, while others are more obscure. The combination of current-day details and past episodes provide a strong case for that while this might be a nightmare, there’s really nothing in that promises that it will remain that way. And while the plot of the book is a nightmare leaving millions dead, it isn’t your worst one.

The plot covers what is usually referred to as a limited nuclear exchange. There is no extinction event, no mutually assured destruction, just a couple of guys who aren’t deterred by what was supposed to be the ultimate deterrence weapon. Worse outcomes are hinted at, but the fact that the story never evolves into a full-blown apocalypse means that it is still possible to somehow grasp the huge amount of human suffering that even a limited nuclear exchange would cause. The decision not to invoke mutually assured destruction is one of the keys to why the book manages to hold the reader’s interest the way it does.

The basic premises of the book likely doesn’t come as a surprise for followers of Lewis’ writing or the Arms Control Podcast. This issue also hints at the single major flaw of the book, namely that it is likely that it is preaching to the choir. That is no fault of the author, nor of the book he has written. However, as the issue of the North Korean nuclear program is so closely associated with Trump, it seems impossible for the plot to be judged on its own merits and credibility. Nor will it likely be picked up by the people that would benefit the most from reading it. That’s a shame, as The 2020 Commission Report deserves a fair chance as a warning for our particular time. Let’s just hope Lewis doesn’t turn into a modern-day Cassandra.

Missiles and Machining

My wife’s grandfather was a mechanical engineer. The handbook he used during the fifties include a sizeable chapter on how to correctly dimension flat belt drives for power transmission, using leather as the material of choice. When I took up the same trade half a century later, the corresponding literature had abandon leather belts, computer-controlled manufacturing methods such as CNC milling receiving much coverage instead. This simple fact is something most people would acknowledge without further questions when confronted with, but it’s impact when discussing the North Korean weapons program is rarely discussed.

Picture of a centralised flat belt drive powering a weavery in the early 1930’s. Via Wikimedia Commons

But let’s take it from the beginning. The speed of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs have shocked a number of commentators. How could a country best known for being dirt poor and ruled by a madman be able to master some of the world’s most powerful weaponry? While understandable, this reaction overlooks three fundamental issues: the strength of the driving forces behind the program, the nature of the regime, and the technical advances which has taken place in the last decades.

It is easy to dismiss the North Korean regime as a modern-day version of Game of Thrones with Chairman Kim in the leading role. However, there is preciously little to indicate that Kim Jong-un would be mad in the sense that he is crazy. Evil, yes. Ruthless, certainly. Ruling a bizarre country, without a doubt. But in the end, his actions are sensible and valid if his main goal is the survival of himself and the regime. The fate of recently deposed dictators does give ample room for concern for those still in power. Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević died in his prison cell in The Hague during a trial lasting several years, Saddam Hussein was hanged, Hosni Mubarak was only saved by the 2013 coup by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Muammar Gaddafi was lynched in a particularly gruesome way. The fate of Mubarak also shows that even purportedly friendly autocrats should be careful to trust the US administration when it comes to having their back in the case of an overthrow attempt.

That the US supports democratic movements and that crimes against humanity are punished are certainly positive factors for anyone believing in a society based on human rights combined with law and order. However, if you happen to be a vile despot, this is bad news, and should compel you to find a solution to deter any external attempts at your ouster. For Kim, the natural answer was nuclear weapons, and the surest way of delivering them unintercepted is long-range missiles.

An Atlas ICBM in their later form being used as a orbital launcher. Source: RyanCrierie via Wikimedia Commons

But how could Pyongyang ever afford such a venture? It is true that the state of the North Korean economy is deplorable. At a gross-domestic product of $28.50 billion, it is a mere fraction of that of its southerly neighbour, with Seoul coming in at $1.34 trillion. Perhaps more relevant is the fact that according to U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis numbers, the US economy grew from around $300 to over $500 billions (today-dollars) between 1950 and 1959, the decade when the first US ICBM was developed in the form of the SM-65 Atlas. The comparison however overlook the fact that the underlying societies are fundamentally different. The US was and is a free market economy with only a part of the GDP being available for the state to allocate, and the state having to heavily factor in public opinion when deciding on how to spend its piece of the cake. In contrast, the North Korean regime exercises control over a vastly larger relative share of the economy, and has shown that it’s prepared to starve its own population if it judges the resources to be better allocated elsewhere. If Kim judges that a nuclear deterrence placing the continental US at risk is what guarantees him from suffering Gaddafi’s fate, there is no telling how big a share of the country’s (arguably limited) resources that are routed to the program.

However, what really sets the North Korean program apart from those of the recognised nuclear weapons states of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is the fact that neither intercontinental missiles nor nuclear weapons are modern inventions any more. It is easy to forget due to their limited service numbers, but the ICBM is actually a sixty year old invention, with the fission bomb being a decade older still. That doesn’t mean that they are easy to design and manufacture, but the work is considerably easier today than in the fifties. To begin with, while the detailed designs of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles are highly guarded secrets (which occasionally does leak), many of the basic concepts are known to researchers and academics through open sources. It is also close to certain that North Korea has actively at least tried to gather non-open information through either friendly sources or espionage. As such, even if Pyongyang wouldn’t have gotten complete blueprints or complete pieces of equipment, there would still be a number of healthy pointers to direct where to focus the research for maximum effect.

The RD-250 engines of a Soviet R-36 ICBM. The design seems to be related to the engine of the Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 missiles in the North Korean missile program. Source: US DoD via Wikimedia Commons

This is also where the radical change in manufacturing comes into play. Modern materials and high-performance alloys available on the open market makes the production of highly advanced assemblies possible. To make full use of these materials, advances in manufacturing machinery means that even small machine shops are nowadays able to produce machine parts with tolerances measured to the fourth decimal of a millimeter. Computer-aided design, CAD, simplifies the design process, and makes it possible to model both the manufacturing processes (e.g. modelling if a casting form fills up correctly) and how the final assembly will operate. It is hard to overstate the impact this has had on how complex machines are designed and manufactured. The ability to simulate the behavior of the finished machine in such varied fields as strength, aerodynamics, and heat propagation gives valuable insight into the performance that can be expected (though it should be noted that exactly modelling something as complex as an ICBM in flight is hard, and the quality of the simulations highly dependent on how skillful the engineers are). Again, suitable hardware and software are available on the open market.

No rogue state is an island, and as such it is clear that part of the know-how behind North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction has been acquired abroad, either from willing channels (state or individual actors) or through outright espionage. However, writing off the country as stuck in the fifties and hence unable to produce anything more advanced than copies of Soviet tanks is an oversimplification. It does seem like Kim Jong-un feels the nuclear-armed ICBM is of crucial importance to be able to both deter the US from forcing regime change and to give Pyongyang more room to push its own agenda on the international scene. In addition, due to the nature of the North Korean society he is free to allocate significant parts of the country’s limited resources to the military (it might in fact be argued that the allocation of resources to the military is in part to blame for the rest of country being on the verge of starvation). Most importantly, the resources allocated provide significantly larger returns on investment due to the leap in manufacturing technology and being able to base their research on cues coming from earlier successful programs. Considering all of this, the speed of the North Korean ICBM and nuclear programs aren’t necessarily out of the ordinary.

The Consequences of Crimea for the NPT

One thing that has been mentioned but seldom actually discussed during the Crimean crisis is the fact that 20 years ago, Ukraine hosted the third largest stockpile of strategic nuclear weapons, next only to Russia and the USA. As has been stated a number of times by different media, they transferred their warheads (and some carriers) back to Russia for dismantling, and in exchange received written promises that Russia would “respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine [and] to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind.”[1]

The problem here is that the obvious lesson seems to be that being nice doesn’t work in the real world.

It is difficult to say whether keeping a nuclear stockpile would have worked as a deterrent against the Russian invasion of Crimea, and if Ukraine would have met the economic and technical requirements to maintain such a deterrent. However, what we do know is that the written assurances did not work, so it is no far-fetched guess that in Ukraine today at least some of its leaders asks themselves if it was a mistake.

I don’t believe Ukraine will ditch the NPT to develop a new arsenal due to a number of reasons, not the least of which is how Russia would react to such a decision. However, there are a number of places in the world where this might have implications.

That nuclear weapons are restricted to certain countries is not a law of nature. In fact, quite a number of countries studied whether or not they should acquire their own weapons in the early part of the Cold War, but in the end, the costs and technical difficulties meant that only a handful of countries actually created operational weapons, and in the meantime nuclear weapons had received a fairly bad reputation amongst civilians, something which further restricted their use. However, this is in no way an irreversible process, as e.g. North Korea has shown.

If it is felt that the NPT does not work, countries that feels threatened by their neighbors (especially if the neighbors are armed with WMD’s), might very well start to look into the possibility of acquiring their own. Especially in the Far East, where China has both a sizeable nuclear stockpile and is starting to flex its muscles more aggressively, countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan/ROC may feel that the added security of a nuclear shield is worth the worsening diplomatic relation such a move would create. This will not happen in the near future, but I believe it is not impossible in the medium term. Japan is struggling with worsening demographics and an uncertain economy which might hamper its planned expansion of its conventional forces. South Korea has the latest nuclear state as its neighbor and is quarrelling with China about its sea borders. Taiwan is always looking for ways to stop a Chinese assault, and while China rapidly is expanding the PLAN, the US is a far from certain ally. In all cases, having a nuclear deterrent might be just the solution the politicians are looking for.

And Ukraine being invaded by the country it gave its weapons too, might be just the spark needed for a new nuclear arms race to start.

Edit: Over at KKRVA a nice analysis partly about the same subject can be found in Swedish under the title Ukraina – Tre döende patienter.