Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Ready, Fire, Aim

Why the U.S. should have launched an ICBM during the North Korean crisis.

USAF/Getty Images
USAF/Getty Images

Even good intentions can backfire, as the Pentagon has just been reminded. In April, amid constant threats of nuclear war from Pyongyang, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel decided to postpone the regularly scheduled test-firing of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base. North Korea, it was feared, could misinterpret the launch either as a blunt show of resolve, which could have further escalated the crisis, or, less likely, as an actual attack which could have provoked god-knows-what. But, ironically, the decision to delay — and to announce it very publicly — may have created more problems for Washington than it solved.

At the time of Hagel’s directive to stand down, North Korea was threatening to strike U.S. territories and allies with nuclear weapons, and it was taking its mobile-missile launchers for a joyride. During the crisis, the United States intentionally used military maneuvers as deterrence messages to Pyongyang. In response to these moves, such as B-52 overflights of the peninsula, the Kim regime’s tantrum grew louder and louder. So it is understandable that the Pentagon would have been eager to avoid having one of its Minuteman launches perpetuate this escalatory spiral.

But, despite the Pentagon’s insistence that the routine Minuteman test had nothing to do with North Korea and could therefore be delayed without consequence, the postponement created the opposite impression. Minuteman launches don’t usually make a splash (at least not outside the South Pacific, where they come down), but international media attention to the test, which finally took place on May 22, has been unusually high. In South Korea, news of the test flight crept into reporting of North Korea’s recent short-range missile launches and even of North Korean envoy Choe Yong-hae’s visit to China. The Associated Press, Reuters, and RIA Novosti also covered the Minuteman launch in the context of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. All of this is exactly what the United States did not want.

The unintended link prodded Pyongyang to respond with more fiery words. Since the Pentagon’s announcement, the North Korean propaganda machine has painted the planned launch as yet another demonstration of the U.S. imperialists’ relentless adherence to their "hostile policy." It asserted that a U.S. Minuteman test will bring "dark clouds of a missile race to hang over North East Asia" and warned that "intercontinental missiles [are] by no means a monopoly of the U.S."

This may seem like typical North Korean posturing, but it’s not. Between January 1996 and April 2013, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) mentioned the Minuteman only once — in relation to details leaked from the 2002 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review. (When slamming U.S. "warmongering," North Korean propaganda usually references the specific weapons system being brandished. However, even searches for general mentions of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles yield only around a dozen results.) However, since the Pentagon’s delay, there have been three specific mentions of the "Minuteman." All berate the decision to proceed with the launch.

In contrast, from January 1996 to the present, KCNA condemned the B-2 approximately 52 times and the B-52 approximately 126 times. References to U.S. ballistic missile submarines are slightly more difficult to count, as North Korean propaganda happily muddies the distinction between nuclear-powered and nuclear-weapons submarines. KCNA citations of U.S. "nuclear-powered submarines" number in the hundreds, and they often refer to ballistic missile subs. In addition, there are 17 references to Ohio-class submarines — most of which carry ballistic missiles — and to specific submarines within that class.

Apparently, North Korea has not been scared of all U.S. nuclear weapons equally. Platforms that have been directly linked to U.S. extended deterrence guarantees for Japan and South Korea, or that can be theater-deployed, seem to be the ones that keep the Korean People’s Army up at night. Bombers and submarines can be incorporated into U.S.-South Korean military exercises in the region, which North Korea allegedly fears might be used as a veil for a sneak attack against them. After all, military exercises are the cover Kim Il-Sung used to start the Korean War. KCNA spelled out its concerns with the air and naval legs of the deterrent in March: "What should not be overlooked is that the U.S. picked up B-52 and nuclear-powered submarines out of these nuclear strike means… for a nuclear strike drill under the simulated conditions of actual war against the DPRK."

ICBMs housed in North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana cannot be theater-deployed or used to visibly signal U.S. alliance commitments to South Korea and Japan. Perhaps that is why, when a Minuteman III took off from Vandenberg AFB in the middle of the July 2006 crisis with North Korea, Pyongyang did not notice or did not care. Nevertheless, the Pentagon may have felt that delaying the April 2013 Minuteman flight test was a necessary precaution. This is a decision for which Hagel should not be chided.

But why not simply postpone the test launch and stay mute? Few outside of the U.S. defense community would have noticed the absence of the launch, and even fewer would have publicly remarked upon it. Delaying forced the Pentagon to explain the situation repeatedly — problematic when it was insisting that the launch was irrelevant to a particular geostrategic context — and the rescheduling itself became a news event.

Aside from creating something of a public relations mess, the Minuteman launch may further exacerbate North Korea’s inferiority complex. Instead of firing a Musudan intermediate-range missile as many had feared, the only thing North Korea has sent flying so far this year are short-range rockets. Rather anti-climactic. But Pyongyang may feel that pressure is mounting for it to back up its recent threats with a demonstrated, longer-range missile capability or face significantly diminishing returns on its rhetoric. After all, if anything could draw unwarranted attention to — and belittle — North Korea’s short-range firings, it is having its sworn enemy demonstrate an extremely accurate intercontinental range missile capability immediately thereafter.

Even good intentions can backfire, as the Pentagon has just been reminded. In April, amid constant threats of nuclear war from Pyongyang, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel decided to postpone the regularly scheduled test-firing of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base. North Korea, it was feared, could misinterpret the launch either as a blunt show of resolve, which could have further escalated the crisis, or, less likely, as an actual attack which could have provoked god-knows-what. But, ironically, the decision to delay — and to announce it very publicly — may have created more problems for Washington than it solved.

At the time of Hagel’s directive to stand down, North Korea was threatening to strike U.S. territories and allies with nuclear weapons, and it was taking its mobile-missile launchers for a joyride. During the crisis, the United States intentionally used military maneuvers as deterrence messages to Pyongyang. In response to these moves, such as B-52 overflights of the peninsula, the Kim regime’s tantrum grew louder and louder. So it is understandable that the Pentagon would have been eager to avoid having one of its Minuteman launches perpetuate this escalatory spiral.

But, despite the Pentagon’s insistence that the routine Minuteman test had nothing to do with North Korea and could therefore be delayed without consequence, the postponement created the opposite impression. Minuteman launches don’t usually make a splash (at least not outside the South Pacific, where they come down), but international media attention to the test, which finally took place on May 22, has been unusually high. In South Korea, news of the test flight crept into reporting of North Korea’s recent short-range missile launches and even of North Korean envoy Choe Yong-hae’s visit to China. The Associated Press, Reuters, and RIA Novosti also covered the Minuteman launch in the context of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. All of this is exactly what the United States did not want.

The unintended link prodded Pyongyang to respond with more fiery words. Since the Pentagon’s announcement, the North Korean propaganda machine has painted the planned launch as yet another demonstration of the U.S. imperialists’ relentless adherence to their "hostile policy." It asserted that a U.S. Minuteman test will bring "dark clouds of a missile race to hang over North East Asia" and warned that "intercontinental missiles [are] by no means a monopoly of the U.S."

This may seem like typical North Korean posturing, but it’s not. Between January 1996 and April 2013, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) mentioned the Minuteman only once — in relation to details leaked from the 2002 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review. (When slamming U.S. "warmongering," North Korean propaganda usually references the specific weapons system being brandished. However, even searches for general mentions of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles yield only around a dozen results.) However, since the Pentagon’s delay, there have been three specific mentions of the "Minuteman." All berate the decision to proceed with the launch.

In contrast, from January 1996 to the present, KCNA condemned the B-2 approximately 52 times and the B-52 approximately 126 times. References to U.S. ballistic missile submarines are slightly more difficult to count, as North Korean propaganda happily muddies the distinction between nuclear-powered and nuclear-weapons submarines. KCNA citations of U.S. "nuclear-powered submarines" number in the hundreds, and they often refer to ballistic missile subs. In addition, there are 17 references to Ohio-class submarines — most of which carry ballistic missiles — and to specific submarines within that class.

Apparently, North Korea has not been scared of all U.S. nuclear weapons equally. Platforms that have been directly linked to U.S. extended deterrence guarantees for Japan and South Korea, or that can be theater-deployed, seem to be the ones that keep the Korean People’s Army up at night. Bombers and submarines can be incorporated into U.S.-South Korean military exercises in the region, which North Korea allegedly fears might be used as a veil for a sneak attack against them. After all, military exercises are the cover Kim Il-Sung used to start the Korean War. KCNA spelled out its concerns with the air and naval legs of the deterrent in March: "What should not be overlooked is that the U.S. picked up B-52 and nuclear-powered submarines out of these nuclear strike means… for a nuclear strike drill under the simulated conditions of actual war against the DPRK."

ICBMs housed in North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana cannot be theater-deployed or used to visibly signal U.S. alliance commitments to South Korea and Japan. Perhaps that is why, when a Minuteman III took off from Vandenberg AFB in the middle of the July 2006 crisis with North Korea, Pyongyang did not notice or did not care. Nevertheless, the Pentagon may have felt that delaying the April 2013 Minuteman flight test was a necessary precaution. This is a decision for which Hagel should not be chided.

But why not simply postpone the test launch and stay mute? Few outside of the U.S. defense community would have noticed the absence of the launch, and even fewer would have publicly remarked upon it. Delaying forced the Pentagon to explain the situation repeatedly — problematic when it was insisting that the launch was irrelevant to a particular geostrategic context — and the rescheduling itself became a news event.

Aside from creating something of a public relations mess, the Minuteman launch may further exacerbate North Korea’s inferiority complex. Instead of firing a Musudan intermediate-range missile as many had feared, the only thing North Korea has sent flying so far this year are short-range rockets. Rather anti-climactic. But Pyongyang may feel that pressure is mounting for it to back up its recent threats with a demonstrated, longer-range missile capability or face significantly diminishing returns on its rhetoric. After all, if anything could draw unwarranted attention to — and belittle — North Korea’s short-range firings, it is having its sworn enemy demonstrate an extremely accurate intercontinental range missile capability immediately thereafter.

Andrea Berger is research fellow for nuclear analysis at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Follow her on Twitter at @AndreaRBerger. The views presented here are her own.