Framing North Korea’s Solid Fuel Missile Programme as First Strike Weapons

The week has seen further developments regarding North Korea’s solid fuel missile programme. I have already written about some of those developments here. Basically, it appears that North Korea is upgrading and preparing to upgrade production facilities associated with the manufacture of its solid fuelled missiles, the Pukgugksong-1 and 2 MRBMs, the production of additional TELs (not many by the way) for the Pukgugksong-2, and news that North Korea intends to develop a new submarine for launching the Pukgugksong-1.

The interesting thing was the way in which this was all framed. It certainly bears critical scrutiny. This article by Scientific American captures the flavour

Solid-fuel rockets can be especially threatening because they “permit little-to-no-warning launches, thereby raising the danger of surprise attack and severely complicating the ability for layered missile defenses to detect and neutralize incoming missiles,” says Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Center for a New American Security’s Asia–Pacific Security Program. “Liquid-propelled engines can be detected and provide far greater opportunity for early warning.”

The same applied to the story regarding North Korea’s intent to manufacture a new submarine for the Pukgugksong-1. This is the leading report by The Wall Street Journal

U.S. officials consider the program a threat because such missiles are harder to identify and destroy before launch, potentially giving North Korea a greater element of surprise in an attack. The U.S. Embassy in Seoul couldn’t immediately comment.

That is to say, the solid fuel missile programme and the submarine for the Pukguksong-1 are seen as destabilising because they are considered more useable first strike weapons. But road mobile solid fuelled missiles and submarine launched missiles have been considered stabilising weapons according to traditional deterrence theory because of their greater survivability. Certainly, submarine launched nuclear missiles are so seen. Survivability lessens the use them or lose them dynamic that would otherwise characterise a nuclear crisis.

That means North Korea’s solid fuel missiles, both ground and sea launched, can just as much be seen as providing for greater, not lesser, strategic stability and so lowering the prospect of a nuclear exchange in a crisis. That is, they could be regarded as lessening the first strike threat from North Korea even in situation characterised by a crisis. But you don’t get any hint of this interpretation from any of the commentary in the media, nor in the analysis by the liberal arms control community.

Indeed, this is noteworthy when compared to developments that occurred at the very same time regarding ballistic missile defence in the region. It was reported that Japan was set to agree on purchasing the LRDR radar for THAAD BMD, which gives Japan greater tracking range, greater volume track, and a better capability when attempting to discriminate real warheads from decoys. In South Korea, integration of THAAD with PAC-3, also announced in the week, in part, expands the area of interception coverage of BMD. In traditional arms control and deterrence theory BMD is seen as destabilising.

The sea launched Pukguksong-1 is often regarded as a weapon designed to provide North Korea with an all azimuth attack capability in order to complicate the task of BMD, especially THAAD BMD in South Korea.

So, we have ourselves here an interesting combination. The survivability of solid fuelled missiles, and sea launched missiles, is interpreted as being destabilising when traditionally they have been considered stabilising yet the augmentation of BMD, traditionally seen as destabilising, is pretty much ignored certainly ignored compared to the solid fuelled missiles.

This shows you how the obsession with denuclearisation is something shared across the spectrum of mainstream opinion in the United States, something which the latest developments in the bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea demonstrates to be destabilising.