Trump’s North Korea Tweet Puts Spotlight on US Ballistic Missile Defense Capabilities.

During the cold war we watched the cardinals in the Kremlin closely looking for any clues, no matter how minuet or trivial, that might provide insight into politics behind the Iron Curtain. This we called “Kremlinology,” and we’ve been doing pretty much the same with North Korea over recent years.

Now the action is on Trump’s twitter feed as analysts and reporters scramble to decipher the latest tweet from President elect Trump. For the next four years, it would appear, we are going to be, akin to Sylvester the Cat forever chasing Tweety, hurriedly analysing Trump’s twitter feed as he fires one tweet after another.

Hot on the heels of Kim Jong Un declaring that North Korea was putting the final preparations for a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, most likely the Hwasong-13 (KN-08 US designation), Donald Trump tweeted that

North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen.

This had the twitterologists furiously deconstructing the above tweet.

When in Rome do as the Romans do, and so I join the fray.

The first thing I would say is that Trump’s tweet is a wee inaccurate. North Korea stated it is in the final stages of preparing an ICBM test, not in the final stages of developing a fully tested nuclear weapons capability for final operational deployment, ie warhead, booster, re-entry vehicle.

I will come back to this point.

The “it won’t happen” part could be a declaration that the test will be a dud; there have been plenty of dud North Korean missile tests. However, it is unlikely that this is what Trump means.

The standard interpretation is that Trump, should a test occur after January 20, will order the US military to shoot it down using available ballistic missile defense technology, most likely an attempted boost phase intercept using the Aegis SM3 based BMD system.

That would surely alarm the Missile Defense Agency for there exists few viable intercept options to pursue should Trump issue such an order. This could lead to a public relations disaster for the MDA, which has an aversion to testing BMD under realistic combat conditions. When the Aegis SM3 based system shot down a wayward satellite that was easy, and largely functioned as a PR stunt for missile defence. This would be the opposite, that is a potential PR disaster. A failed attempt at an intercept would have many asking why so much money was spent on a BMD system that cannot meet its advertised role.

The “it won’t happen” part of Trump’s tweet demonstrates that he too, like most of us, thinks that BMD is a sure bet technology. It isn’t, and a failed intercept of a North Korean ICBM test would put BMD firmly back in the spotlight. Some have expressed concern that Trump’s so tweeting lowers deterrence, because it will expose BMD. I would argue that, to the contrary, a demonstration of BMD’s inadequacies would show up the folly of current North Korea policy which we tend not to worry too much about because, hey, there’s missile defence right?

The MDA will be hoping the KN-08 explodes a few seconds after lift off, highly likely, that way BMD will be off the hook should Trump order a shoot down.

Of course, all this is to leave North Korea’s potential reaction unmentioned.

The second interpretation of Trump’s tweet is a little bit more alarming. Taken literally Trump has tweeted that the United States will not allow North Korea to acquire a strategic nuclear capability against the continental United States. Let us take him literally and assume his tweet means precisely that, and so was not written in error. That is, the US will not exist in a relationship of mutual nuclear deterrence with North Korea, and if necessary will engage in preventive counter proliferation to prevent North Korea acquiring such capability.

The time, should it ever have existed, that the United States could surgically strike North Korean nuclear capabilities are long gone. A preventive counter proliferation strike against North Korea would involve many sorties, and as such would constitute a sizeable air campaign with quite a large footprint which risks a wider war on the Korean peninsula. Furthermore, the counter proliferation strikes would not achieve their denuclearisation objectives.

Of course, there does exist a way in which Trump could, perhaps, make good on his declaration that “it won’t happen.” Namely, Trump could reverse US North Korea policy that long held sway in both the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Most are of the view that both administrations, Obama’s especially, sought to engage in meaningful diplomacy to denuclearise the Korean peninsula which has been rebuffed by North Korea.

This is not true. North Korea is not a paragon of diplomatic virtue, but the United States, both Bush and Obama, have pursued a policy of graduated escalation of pressure on North Korea, in the expectation that the regime might collapse or come to terms with US preferences in the region, which uses North Korea’s nuclear programme as a rationale for the progressive ratcheting up of pressure on Pyongyang.

The US has scuttled denuclearisation initiatives, agreements, and avenues on more than one occasion and that includes by Obama.

Trump could reverse this policy and pursue meaningful diplomacy that leads to a deal that normalises the situation on the Korean peninsula. If Trump were serious about his “it won’t happen” tweet this would be his most viable policy option.

The North Koreans have accelerated their nuclear and missile programmes, especially under Kim Jong Un, because, I tend to think, Kim Jong Un has abandoned the approach of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong il, namely of using the North’s strategic programmes to coercively bandwagon with the US. I have the hunch that Kim Jong Un has taken the view that this policy has failed and no permanent deal can be reached with the United States, so it’s full speed ahead on the nuclear programme and under its umbrella North Korea will seek to find its place in the post cold war world with or without the United States.

Perhaps coercive bandwagoning still obtains, however North Korea believes that it must go to the very brink of acquiring a strategic nuclear capability against the US homeland before the US can be prodded into serious bilateral diplomacy.

A final point regarding Trump’s tweets. It may well be the case that their main function is to keep Trump in touch with his base, and that in a direct and unmediated fashion. Trump needs to be constantly in touch with his base, for if he loses contact with some of his core constituency when in the White House he could readily be politically outmanoeuvred and staying in contact with his base means he retains a credible threat of mass mobilisation. Consider the matter of the House Ethics Committee.

If Obama really was serious about all that “hopey-changey thing” he too would have maintained contact with the base he mobilised for the 2008 campaign, rather than demobilising it when he descended into the Oval Office which is effectively what he did. Hope and Change was always a charade.

Trump’s tweets, one might conclude, are really directed at his enemies closer to home, rather than abroad, especially those within the Republican Party.

But, with Trump, who knows.