Among nuclear weapon states there exists a subset that could be said to constitute a nuclear complex. A nuclear weapons complex consists of states that possess an intercontinental nuclear targeting capability, a capability that might see the states of the complex interact in advertent and inadvertent ways.
North Korea, from 2006, has been an overt nuclear weapon state. Following the test of the Hwasong-15 ICBM in late 2017 North Korea has become a card carrying member of the nuclear weapons complex. That might prove of some significance to us.
The current round of the nuclear crisis with North Korea has seen many draw parallels with the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance the most well known descriptor of the current round is due to Scott Sagan who has called it The Korean Missile Crisis. The more time has passed since the Cuban crisis the more we have learnt about how close we came to a nuclear exchange, especially an inadvertent exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States. Should there have been one, it is hard to imagine that French and UK nuclear weapons would’ve sat by idly.
Many analysts, myself included, have argued there exists conceivable scenarios where crisis dynamics could lead to an inadvertent nuclear exchange between North Korea and the United States. The most far-reaching discussion, in terms of consequence rather than analysis per se, of inadvertent nuclear war in the Korean context focuses on the possibility of an inadvertent nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States.
Joshua Pollack has the most detailed discussion of this. Essentially the idea here is that a North Korean launch of an ICBM upon the United States would lead to the US launching its GBI missile defence interceptors, part of the GMD programme, to intercept the warheads. Pollack argues that it is conceivable to imagine, given the flight profile of the GBI interceptors, that Russian early warning would interpret the GBI launch as a US attack upon Russia.
One can see here how a nuclear complex can interact in ways originally unintended, which should remind us of the normal accidents theory of Charles Perrow.
What I would like to focus on here is less inadvertent and more advertent. Admittedly what is discussed here is speculative, perhaps overly speculative, but it is well worth reflecting upon lest strategic planners be entertaining some of the ideas to be broached.
We begin our account with the observation, made in the Trump Nuclear Posture Review, but long repeated elsewhere and borne out by the facts, that North Korea has been an enabler of nuclear proliferation. The NPR states (p12),
In addition to explicit nuclear threats enabled by North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, North Korea poses a “horizontal” proliferation threat as a potential source of nuclear weapons or nuclear materials for other proliferators
I have long considered that interesting in the context of what is often called “the negligence doctrine” as applied to the deterrence of nuclear terrorism. The negligence doctrine goes back to the Bush administration. A version of it was articulated by the Bush administration, repeated by the Obama administration in its NPR, and reaffirmed by the Trump NPR. I wrote about this at the time, and I think you will find I was one of the earliest to write about it.
The Trump NPR repeats Bush and Obama on the deterrence of nuclear terrorism when it states (p67)
The United States will hold fully accountable any state, terrorist group, or other non-state actor that supports or enables terrorist efforts to obtain or employ nuclear devices
The “enables” part is often seen as encompassing negligence. Should a state negligently oversee the security of its fissile materials, say, and should those fissile materials be stolen and fabricated into an improvised nuclear device, and nuclear forensics traces the fissile materials to the negligent state, then the US would consider that as meeting the enabling condition.
That opens the prospect that the United States may attack the negligent state with a nuclear weapon. The ambiguity of the deterrence message provides states with a powerful incentive to manage their fissile materials in a responsible manner, so making it harder for terrorists to go nuclear.
I had the suspicion that as North Korea acquired the capability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon, as it now has, that the negligence doctrine might be made applicable beyond nuclear terrorism.
The Trump NPR seems to have done this (p33)
Our deterrence strategy for North Korea makes clear that any North Korean nuclear attack against the United States or its allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime…
…Further, we will hold the Kim regime fully responsible for any transfer of nuclear weapons technology, material or expertise to any state or non-state actor
Should North Korea proliferate its nuclear know how and technology, no clear delineation is made between missiles and warheads, and should the proliferant state employ nuclear weapons against the United States, and/or its allies and partners, then North Korea will be attacked with nuclear weapons as well. That is on a par with the deterrence of nuclear terrorism.
One area where this might apply would be if there was a breakdown in the JCPOA process with Iran and a future Middle East conflict involving a nuclear armed Israel and Iran. It might also be applicable with respect to Pakistan and India, given that North Korea has supported Pakistan’s missile programme. What if India adopts similar declaratory policy?
If the Pollack analysis is plausible, then notice you get some interesting possibilities to add into the above mix. Such comes with a nuclear complex.
But what if the negligence doctrine were to apply in reverse? That is, to states deemed to have supported or enabled North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes. So, should North Korea launch ICBMs targeting the United States they too might be attacked under a reverse negligence doctrine. This would encourage states to do their utmost to prevent the transfer of nuclear technology, materials, and expertise to North Korea.
Analyses continue to abound regarding the reasons why North Korea has successfully conducted a number of IRBM and ICBM tests, one type attributing that success to external support. The classic case is the debate on the RD-250 engine. That fits a reverse negligence doctrine. As would the matter of TELs from China. As would the matter of centrifuge technology from Pakistan. As might the continued provision of oil and gas by Russia and China.
If consistently applied a negligence doctrine of such nature would cover Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran. That’s global nuclear war.
One might want to regard this as fanciful, and I am the first to admit it very much appears so. But consider. There was a time I thought the original negligence doctrine was fanciful, but it was discussed and was subsequently adopted. There was a time I considered the deterrence of cyberattacks as fanciful, but it too was discussed in strategic circles and now, in the Trump NPR, it has been adopted. The scope of deterrence can and has expanded in ways considered fanciful.
Nuclear proliferation analysis, especially in the United States, is dominated by the supply side approach. That is, stopping the supply of technology, materials and expertise is key to nonproliferation. Expanding the scope of deterrence so that it encompasses state-state transfers through the invocation of something akin to the negligence doctrine is readily conceivable, and has, albeit partly, been made applicable to North Korea.
There are other reasons why such a doctrine might be made fully applicable, in reverse fashion, in the North Korean case. Many analysts, yours truly included, argue that a North Korean ICBM capability gives North Korea the option to pursue the stability-instability paradox, especially should Pyongyang be further squeezed by the US and its allies. A reverse negligence doctrine could be viewed by strategic planners in Washington as providing an incentive for Russia and China to place economic and diplomatic sanctions upon North Korea to help rein in North Korean adventurism.
But there is another matter that might apply in the North Korean case, and it too bares an initial fanciful air. Declassified planning documents I have seen suggested that, during the Cold War, the United States would have also struck China with nuclear weapons in a large exchange with the Soviet Union so that after a nuclear war Washington would not be subject to coercion from Beijing. During the 70th anniversary parade marking the founding of the Korean People’s Army North Korea paraded 4 Hwasong-15 ICBMs. Perhaps they were mock ups, perhaps not. Despite the matter of the non-existent TELs for the Hwasong-14 at the same parade and the possible mock ups, we did see 4 9-axel TELs for the Hwasong-15.
As North Korea’s fissile and thermonuclear production capability grows and its TEL and ICBM manufacturing proceeds at some point it may reach something coming close to Assured Destruction, which doesn’t require as many thermonuclear weapons as commonly supposed. Say North Korea develops 20 Hwasong-15 ICBMs with high yield thermonuclear warheads, the throw-weight of the Hwasong-15 is more than sufficient for high yield hydrogen bombs, and so acquires the capability to destroy the 20 most populous urban-industrial centres of the United States. Might the United States strike Russia and China during a nuclear exchange lest Moscow and Beijing inherit the Earth? At what point in the growth of North Korea’s nuclear forces would strategic planners in the United States broach this?
That would be quite irrational. Losing 20 cities is much worse than losing the United States, and the United States would still retain the capability to assure the destruction of Russia and China at any rate. But then again, great power politics has been called “tragic” for good reason.
A weakness of the reverse negligence doctrine is that it opens up the prospect of catalytic war, a possible side effect of any nuclear complex. North Korea could manipulate the risk of global nuclear war, opened by considerations such as the above, so providing Pyongyang with leverage encouraging its permanent integration into the Northeast Asian economic, political, and strategic architecture. One might regard the granting of such leverage to Pyongyang as irrational from Washington’s perspective.
But to cite Gillian Taylor in response to Spock in Star Trek IV The Voyage Home, who ever said the human race was logical?