Billion Dollar Miscalculation: B-52s, Korea, and Missiles
Miscalculation is underway on the Korean Peninsula and it’ll likely get worse soon.
Recent events around North Korea indicate the United States still has a fairly classic understanding of nuclear deterrence and the rule-set (think Wohlstetter and Kahn). The recent B-52 flyover is one such event. The US meant to send a finely trifurcated deterrence message to three disparate audiences (North Korea, US allies, and China) by flying a nuclear-capable (though not nuclear-armed, so far as we know) B-52 to South Korea. Yet even with a US classic understanding of deterrence dynamics, the message, the semiotics, and the strategy seemed to have had the desired effect on only one of the three parties. The other two intended recipients seemed to have received a different message and set the stage for even more miscalculation.
As Peter Hayes points out in his March 20 essay entitled “Tactically Smart, Strategically Stupid,” North Korea understands the B-52 as an expression of a hostile intent from an airpower that destroyed a large portion of North Korea’s structures and people during the Korean War. Sending a nuclear capable B-52 is likely viewed by the North Koreans as the US tacitly treating North Korea as a nuclear power. North Korea propagandizers received all the justification they think they needed to justify diving for bunkers and all other war preparations. According to Hayes, North Korea wasn’t deterred, but rather inspired by the B-52’s appearance to develop more capability and develop it more quickly.
But even if we believe that the DPRK doesn’t need motivation to speed up its nuclear development, the appearance of the B-52 matters for other reasons. The US allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, were to have understood that the U.S. would extend nuclear deterrence to the region in the form of a platform (the B-52) and a tanker bridge. However, conventional deterrence is really what should have been emphasized. For the U.S. to rely on nuclear deterrence, there is a subtle signal to the allies that conventional forces are less important (and perhaps even less capable), a signal which leaves open the possibility that the Allies would need to receive direct blows before the US engages in nuclear deterrence to avenge the wrongs. North Korea’s own recent threats to do just that may not be random lashing out, but an effort to exacerbate existing tensions in South Korean/Japanese defense discussions with Washington. Clearly this would be a negative security development as it would likely lead to an arms race which drains resources from all the economies in the region.
China, or at least some in China, received the intended message. Central Party School professor Zhang Liangui was on Phoenix TV suggesting in public for one of the first times that it may be time for the US and China to discuss a contingency on North Korea. (The statements are made via the above link, from about 1:14 – 2:00). China understands that North Korea is negatively impacting China’s security by providing a reason for the US to divert a billion dollars to strengthening a missile shield against a non-existent North Korean ICBM threat. As Jeffrey Lewis points out in “Billion Dollar Baby,” even in the age of sequestration that’s a sizable chunk of money, and same shield only might protect against a proven and existential Chinese ICBM. In a classic case of fear-based budgeting in Washington, one knows for sure, so no one wants to take a chance.
There is also a report that South Korea may bomb North Korean statues in surgical strikes if North Korea attacks South Korea. How could all this end but badly? Even if the US does not participate in the strikes, will North Korea consider the U.S. innocent? Will China intervene if the US intervenes? Where does the spiral end? There is one certain end point to the spiral, but that pathway features mushroom clouds, death and economic devastation. At least one proven method to slow miscalculation is to hold some talks, or, failing that, make a more comprehensive and clear verbal statement of US intent in the region. Even a mediocre speech doesn’t cost a billion dollars and can clear some miscalculation.
Blog by: Roger Cavazos