We are for the moment, naturally, heavily focused on the hard and altogether more tangible aspects of North Korea’s strategic nuclear programme, most especially its land and sea based ballistic missiles, reentry vehicles, and nuclear warheads.
But just as important, for us at least, is an intangible and that is North Korean strategic nuclear command, control and information (C3I). Whilst we analyse the hardware of North Korea’s strategic nuclear forces, we neglect the software, that is the C3I.
In part, this is a reflection of lack of knowledge. North Korea is hardly a paragon of transparency, and we have little clues regarding how North Korea’s nuclear forces will fit into Pyongyang’s wider military posture and doctrine.
But there are some things we do know, and from this we might be able to draw some reasonable inferences. North Korea, we know, to no small degree is a highly centralised monolithic Stalinist state. The concept of the monolithic party is a central feature of what we might refer to as “Kim ilsungism,” and you can see the concept of the monolithic party often in North Korean pronouncements and propaganda.
I rather suspect that this means a core feature of North Korea’s strategic nuclear C3I will be the maintenance of tight centralised party control over its strategic rocket forces, indeed that this will be a sort of obsession of the party and state leadership in Pyongyang just as much as it was in the Soviet Union. The strategic rocket forces of the USSR had a different system of C3I to that of the United States during the Cold War, and a key reason for this was that Moscow wanted to retain very tight centralised political control before, during and, hopefully for them, after a nuclear crisis or nuclear conflict at its very worst.
This meant the Soviet strategic nuclear C3I system was quite the technical feat. That system collapsed with the collapse of the USSR, but that collapse and the woes that befall the Soviet nuclear C3I system in the 1990s should not distract us from appreciating what a feat of technical engineering it was. For example, the status of Soviet nuclear missiles as they were deployed in the field, to the individual silo, were readily monitorable by political authorities in Moscow.
As this system developed and matured with the build up of the strategic rocket forces in the 1970s that elaborate, tightly controlled from the political centre, system of strategic nuclear C3I became more of an overt target of US strategic nuclear doctrine, which was reflected in the Carter era PD59 and Regan era NSDD13, nuclear weapons employment doctrines. The targeting of that centralised system of strategic nuclear C3I was seen as a, if not the, key centre of gravity in a nuclear conflict with the USSR.
That, naturally, meant that Soviet political leaders became concerned about the vulnerability of its tightly controlled system of strategic nuclear C3I, and that proved highly destabilising. For instance, Soviet planners were concerned about the ability of the Pershing II IRBM, with its short flight time and highly accurate terminally guided MaRV warhead, to knock out key facets of the Soviet C3I system in a nuclear conflict. There isn’t any doubt that these concerns played a very important role in the 1983 crisis over NATO’s Able Archer exercises, in itself a nuclear command and control exercise ironically enough, which almost led to an inadvertent nuclear war between Washington and Moscow.
Pyongyang may well have, or go onto acquire, similar concerns. There just can’t be any doubt about that, in my view to be frank, and it is reasonable to surmise that a key feature of the nuclear strike options of OPLAN8044-FY (FY being Fiscal Year), that is the US strategic nuclear war plans (plural intended), related to a North Korean contingency will focus on targeting very early, with both conventional and nuclear assets (US Strategic Command does the works these days; OPLAN8044-FY isn’t that Cold War era SIOP), the strategic nuclear C3I system of North Korea.
Furthermore, the US operational plan for war on the Korean peninsula, OPLAN 5027-FY, has undergone a number of revisions in the post cold war period and has incorporated plans for manoeuvre warfare with the goal of enveloping Pyongyang, terminating the political control of the regime, and uniting the Korean peninsula on Seoul’s terms. US-South Korea military exercises, which always get Pyongyang hot under the collar, doubtless are reflective of OPLAN 5027 and they have become progressively larger and progressively simulate large enveloping counter offensive manoeuvres. A reported interesting feature of OPLAN 5027 is preemptive strikes to detect, disrupt and destroy North Korea’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Presumably such preemptive strikes, which strongly feature the use of airpower, placing the frequent US display of air assets during the current phase of the crisis in an interesting context, would be directed at the strategic nuclear C3I system of North Korea.
That means North Korea can’t really rely on a protracted nuclear conflict leading to a negotiated outcome commensurate with the highly centralised political system’s continued survival and viability. North Korea’s strategic war planning system, given the concern regarding tight centralised control, may very well have a bias toward a full strike option, and that early in a crisis, built into it. That, therefore, could well lead to a “use them or lose them” dilemma for Pyongyang in the event of an acute crisis on the Korean peninsula.
One thing that would likely add to North Korean concerns regarding the survivability of its, most likely, tightly centrally controlled system of nuclear C3I is the widespread discussion of cyberwar directed at North Korea’s nuclear programme, especially during the Obama era. It was widely reported that Obama had initiated a cyberwar campaign directed at slowing down North Korea’s nuclear programme especially its missile testing programme.
It was argued that a string of failures in the Musudan MRBM programme could be attributed to this. That was always false, and should not have been readily accepted by analysts even though it was, but the fact of the cyberwar campaign is highly plausible. The United States and Israel are often attributed with developing the Stuxnet worm which hobbled Iran’s nuclear programme because it made its gas centrifuges, used to enrich uranium, crash and burn as it were.
North Korea likely will be concerned that a US campaign of cyberwarfare during a tense standoff, let us say, could lead Pyongyang to surmise that it may lose its highly centralised control over the strategic nuclear C3I system and that such a campaign, moreover, would form the first basis, or foundation, of a massive US military strike upon North Korea. In this sense, even a cyberwar campaign waged during a tense standoff could lead to nuclear war because of North Korean concerns regarding the survivability of its C3I system.
I am suggesting that we need to know more about the relative intangibles of North Korea’s strategic nuclear programme, especially we must know more about Pyongyang’s strategic nuclear C3I system and how it might well work in a conflict or during a crisis that could precede one. North Korea, it would seem, seeks to attain a comprehensive strategic nuclear deterrent based on the credible capability to strike South Korea, Japan, US strategic bases in the Pacific, and the continental United States with nuclear weapons. North Korea likely will seek to retain a highly centralised system of strategic nuclear C3I much as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War.
That means that, once such a system of comprehensive strategic nuclear deterrence develops and the C3I system to support it matures, even a cyberattack directed at North Korea could be perceived as the first shot in a US strategic first strike.
We are heading into some uncharted waters, and that expression is appropriate for North Korea has developed the Pukguksong-1 SLBM to be launched on submarines. The idea here is to out manoeuvre THAAD , especially in South Korea, by presenting it with an all azimuth attack. At the recent Kim Jong-un photo-op at the Chemical Material Institute at the Academy of Defence Science Pyongyang showed off a poster, and a filament wound solid motor case, of a Pukguksong-3 two stage sea launched intermediate range missile.
Now imagine how concerned North Korea might get to be with the maintenance of a very tight centralised system of strategic nuclear C3I that consists of nuclear armed submarines during an acute crisis or military standoff.