Washington and Seoul’s rancor at North Korea in the wake of its missile tests, illustrated by negotiations on the joint deployment of Thaad (Theater High Altitude Air Defense), has shaken things up in ways that the US undoubtedly finds gratifying. Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) supported a new UN Security Council sanctions resolution and have delivered, at the very least, stern language.
Russia delivered an unprecedented smackdown of Kim Jong-un for his most recent outburst of furious nuclear bloviating:
“We consider it to be absolutely impermissible to make public statements containing threats to deliver some ‘preventive nuclear strikes’ against opponents,” the Russian foreign ministry said Monday in response to North Korea’s threats.
I would say that Kim had more of a point than usual, since the object of his indignation—the 2016 iteration of the annual US-ROK military exercises—contained, in addition to twice as many troops as it usually does, some interesting elements, thoughtfully revealed to the South Korean media and picked up by the Washington Post:
The United States and South Korea started huge military exercises Monday, kicking off drills that will include rehearsing surgical strikes on North Korea’s main nuclear and missile facilities and sending in special forces to carry out “decapitation raids” on the North Korean leadership …
The exercises will revolve around a wartime plan adopted by South Korea and the United States last year, called OPLAN 5015. The plan has not been made public but, according to numerous reports in the South Korean media, it includes a contingency for surgical strikes against North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile facilities, as well as having special forces practice “decapitation” raids to take out the North Korean leadership. The JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported that Kim Jong-un would be among them.
The joint forces will also run through their new “4D” operational plan, which details the allies’ pre-emptive military operations to detect, disrupt, destroy and defend against North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal, the Yonhap News Agency reported. “The focus of the exercises will be on hitting North Korea’s key facilities precisely,” a military official told the wire service.
Kim might have thought his nuclear exhibitions would earn him a place at the table negotiating with the United States at China’s expense (an alternative that appears attractive to a number of analysts who actually know something about North Korea); instead he’s looking at the US murdering him and blowing up his arsenal.
Let’s leave aside the term “surgical strike”—in actual practice usually an indication that post-op the surgeon will be OK, thank you, but no guarantees for the patient, nurses, or the hospital—and focus on the return of preemption as a US government tactic.
Preemption is back, baby!
Preemption got a bad name thanks to President Bush’s abuse of the privilege to invade Iraq absent a plausible imminent threat (required to pretty up a preemptive strike under international law), but the military never gave up on it. And with Asian threats inching into the “imminent” zone thanks to North Korea’s continuing work on miniaturizing warheads and perfecting its missiles, it’s not surprising that preemption has reared its head in the Asian theater.
There are, of course, consequences.
The standard response to an adversary’s announcement it intends to take out the national nuclear deterrent preemptively (as well as the North Korean leadership, something that surely caught Kim Jong-un’s attention) is to say, I’m gonna use ‘em first before you blow ‘em up! And you know what? If he packages it the right way, he’s might even be within the bounds of international law in that he’s preempting a preemptive strike.
But the Russians and Chinese are putting immense public pressure on Kim to swallow the provocation, in my opinion, because his reaction plays into the threat narrative, escalates it, and provides further excuse for the United States to “militarize”—hey, that’s a word I’ve seen in some other context!—the Korean peninsula, particularly by putting Thaad in South Korea.
The PRC is certainly paying attention. North Korea, after all, traditionally serves as a convenient stalking horse for the US military to insert new forces, weapons, doctrines, and policies into the region for tryouts and eventual use against China.
Weapons like Thaad. Doctrines like preemptive strike. And willingness to escalate.
The US posture toward the PRC seems to be evolving toward a strategy reliant on a crippling first strike supported by disabling the PRC’s retaliatory ability. And this impression is supported by the US manifest disinterest in trying to resolve the most recent nuclear contretemps by some sort of engagement with the DPRK in favor of a charge toward Thaad—a high altitude anti-missile/radar combo that will do little to protect the ROK from the North.
The PRC has traditionally relied on the idea that the US would be deterred from confronting China by the awareness that any direct conflict would require massive US strikes against the PRC’s numerous missile, air, anti-missile, and communications capabilities scattered throughout the mainland, triggering escalation to a nuclear crisis, and the threat of PRC nuclear retaliation against the American homeland.
Thaad in South Korea, while a minor factor against DPRK missile attacks, is a key building block in theater missile defense which chips away at the PRC retaliatory credibility.
In the context of conventional deterrence, the PRC response would inevitably be more missiles, more decoys, MIRVing, so on and so forth.
And, if Thaad does go into ROK, it also means the PRC putting a giant bullseye on South Korea as a strategic threat to be blasted as soon as possible in case of a military confrontation with the United States—a point the PRC has undoubtedly made forcefully to the ROK in private discussions.
So, Thaad in South Korea: dangerous and destabilizing.
But I believe to the US military, “dangerous and destabilizing” is a feature not a bug. Because the United States, proud possessor of the biggest, most technologically advanced, and most experienced military in the world, likes it “destabilizing and dangerous” especially since any battles, as usual, will be fought several thousand miles away from the American homeland, albeit on top of 2 billion Asians.
I think the evolving US military strategy is not just, Let’s put Thaad into ROK and give the PRC an excuse to build more strategic missiles, in which case the Thaad gambit in South Korea would just be a manageable if expensive irritant for the PRC.
I think the US is trying to drive regional military postures toward a situation in which the credible threat of an unstoppable, crippling, and unanswerable preemptive US strike is acknowledged as the norm—and the PRC is deterred accordingly.
Instead of the PRC enjoying a strategic advantage by possessing assets close to the battlefield that the US is loath to attack for fear of escalation, the US turns the tables, exploits the fact that the PRC has placed its most important strategic assets within range of US forward-deployed forces, and fast forwards to the endgame before the PRC has the ability to react.
In other words, if Taiwan declares independence, the US doesn’t wait for jaw-jaw, a PRC expeditionary force, wholesale emptying of missile inventories throughout the region (marked by the inevitable failure of somebody’s supposedly invincible missile shield), followed by a nuclear escalation and the end of the world as we know it.
Instead, the day before Taiwan declares independence, the US just blasts the PRC military & command structure with a massive preemptive strike, Taiwan is free, evil destroyed, high fives for everybody.
I wouldn’t be surprised if one reason JAM-GC (the more Army-friendly successor to the notorious AirSea Battle concept for slugging it out with the PRC in the West Pacific) remains classified is because it addresses “blind/suppress/defeat” as pre-emptive/offensive objectives, as opposed to just sitting back, getting pummeled, reacting, and then blowing up the world, which is where ASB scenarios apparently always ended up.
A lot of what the US is doing seems to involve improving its odds of success in a preemptive strike scenario.
Thaad in South Korea, which is based on a high-powered radar that can look deep within the PRC, looks like part of that effort.
There’s quite a bit more:
The proliferation of attack submarines in the West Pacific (there are already two dozen in the vicinity of the PRC, and another new boat will be added each year for the next ten years at a cost of $2.8 billion per, the largest single procurement contract in DoD history; however, Admiral Harris complained that “only 62%!” of his sub requirement was being met, an indication that maybe he really wanted to get two per year);
Improvements in the range of shipborn missiles (the LRASM, actually a ship-mounted stealthy cruise missile with a range of 500 miles is, along with subs, the key priority for Admiral Harris);
The Pentagon’s effort to secure bases close to China, both in the Philippines (8 bases under the new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement) and by clinging to the unpopular Marine Air Station on Okinawa;
Moving a second carrier into the Pacific (the USS Stennis just did its middle finger sailthrough of the South China Sea, the sailthrough itself much less significant than the demonstration that the US is shifting operationally toward two carrier groups in the West Pacific, albeit one of them the hapless and possibly still radioactive Ronald Reagan “undergoing maintenance” at Yokosuka; wake UP, journos!);
Lots of satellite operations both to locate and target PRC military assets on the ground and threaten the PRC’s own satellites;
And of course encouraging Japan to bulk up its military/ISR capacity at home and also throughout China’s periphery.
Add to that Prompt Global Strike, a program designed to deliver a conventional weapon hypersonically within one hour to anywhere in the world.
And cyber cyber cyber.
With the threat of preemption, the PRC has to think about its own preemption program; in other words, it faces the same “use it or lose it” conundrum we’re currently setting before Kim Jong-un, compounded by the PRC’s formal adherence to an old-fashioned MAD-based “no first use” doctrine. The PRC is supposed to take the first nuclear hit but then get at least one or two ICBM’s onto a US city in retaliation.
However, the US is working to deploy enough conventional goodies, both in terms of bunker busting ordnance against hardened silos and anti-missile batteries, to plausibly degrade the PRC nuclear capability to acceptable levels without itself crossing the nuclear threshold. But, since platforms are dual use, also keep the PRC guessing that maybe a few nukes are on the way.
That means the PRC has to be prepared to Launch On Warning i.e. when it has a suspicion things aren’t going right, because if it waits for trouble to show up, it’s too late. Its targets, in addition to USN ships, will include US bases i.e. Japan, ROK, and the Philippines, which is diplomatically a bit sticky and feeds the scary China/scared neighbors dynamic that is oxygen for the pivot.
And since the US is crowding the West Pacific with military hardware, the PRC is facing a shrinking time window to react.
I believe a widely held opinion within the US military establishment, and for that matter throughout the officer corps of our Asian friends and allies, particularly in Japan and the ROK, is that the PLA sucks i.e. it is filled with untested weapons, systems, officers, and doctrines, burdened by a command-and-control apparatus clogged with risk-averse Commie apparatchiks, and ill-equipped to figure out what’s going on in the half-hour or so after US missiles pop over the horizon, let alone come up with a successful defense or mount a devastating retaliation.
Therefore, I posit that the Pentagon strategy is this: pile as much stuff into the Western Pacific as close to China as possible on any pretext; characterize the PRC as a looming threat no matter what it does or doesn’t do (which shouldn’t be too hard thanks to the ongoing public relations activities of various defense departments and the dedicated steno-work of patriotic journos), and especially if the PRC is seen migrating to an aggressive LOW doctrine that targets local US allies; and let Beijing know the US military is ready to plaster the PRC with a crippling preemptive strike if deemed necessary.
As to what the president and civilian leadership think, bluntly, I don’t think it matters what they think. The China hawks won the policy fight with the removal of Secretary Hagel and Admiral Locklear from the Pentagon and PACOM, an aggressive China strategy has subsequently been baked into US policy in a thousand think tank, defense contractor, and uniformed service ovens, and the region will be eating “Asia Rebalance” cake for the next twenty years.
Best case: PRC deterred from regional adventurism, has to swallow a Taiwanese declaration of independence, and demonstrate to the Asian nations and the world and its own dismayed citizens the CCP’s totally humiliating paper-tigerness.
Second best case: PRC spends itself into the ground trying to keep up with the military buildup on its doorstep and stumbles into a USSR-style crisis.
Most likely case: a lot of expensive, dangerous muddling through by anxious and distracted Asian states that might prefer regional economic integration but have to settle for US-driven security polarization.
Really bad case: Japan and South Korea both go nuclear in response to the heightened threat environment, the US loses the vital leverage over its allies of holding the nuclear umbrella, and becomes a bystander to the Japan/PRC strategic rivalry.
Worst case: a massive war but, hey, mostly if not completely fought 8,000 miles from North America.
That is why, I believe, the PRC (and Russia) are dead-set against Thaad (and why the US is probably pulling out all the stops to get the system into South Korea with the help of its China-hawk allies in the ROK military/spook apparatus before South Korea completes its transformation into an economic appendage of the PRC).
Thaad isn’t just missile defense on China’s doorstep; it’s a big building block in an emerging US preemptive strike strategy.
Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.