|No one can discount the threat of nuclear war, even when the threat is still materializing and remains far lower than some media reports would indicate. At the same time, it makes little sense to define the nuclear threat simply in terms of the range of ballistic missiles and the reliability of their reentry vehicles without considering all of the factors that shape the real-world effectiveness of such weapons, and why and how they might actually be used. Worse, it makes even less sense to focus on nuclear exchanges without regard to the broader strategic context in which such exchanges might take place.
Jumping the Nuclear “Gun”
First, there is a very real difference between having a potential or token nuclear-armed missile threat and having a real one. Simply demonstrating a large booster is very different from having a nuclear-armed missile that can actually be used in war. A fully functional missile requires a re-entry vehicle with a warhead that minimizes weight but must handle the movement of the missile in the field, the vibration of the boost phase, and the heat and shock of reentry. Hard decisions have to be taken about arming the warhead, which is most reliable in the prelaunch phase, but can be a nightmare that strikes on your own soil if the missile malfunctions.
Getting a predictable yield and set of effects requires a great deal of simulation at a minimum, and probably the test and recovery of simulated nuclear warhead designs to show the actual effect of firing a missile with such warheads, and the impact of launch and recovery. Plus, it requires telemetry tests of warhead detonation in other missiles to confirm the ability to control the height of burst—which is critical in determining the real-world effect of a nuclear warhead in terms of blast, radiation, thermal, and fall out.
Missile design has advanced a great deal since the first nuclear-armed missiles, but reliability is still a critical issue. A failed launch or flight by a nuclear-armed missile raises major problems, even if the warhead does not detonate. This is particularly true when a nation has only limited nuclear forces. In such cases, the nation has to make hard decisions about how many nuclear missiles to launch against a given target, whether to launch them in sequence or at the same time, and what happens if the missiles malfunction at the desired point of detonation (or hit and explode in very different locations from the ones they were aimed at).
There are a wide range of things that can go wrong that a few “white suit” firing tests from a test range won’t reveal. Missile transportation, aging, and storage effects can all alter missile behavior. Problems that arise in programming the missile launch, and in setting up its Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL), seem less likely to be severe, but can occur. Real world missile accuracy requires extensive tests—not simply a few demonstrations. Missile component failure is a constant problem.
Guidance system failure may be less likely, but can occur. More importantly, the theoretical accuracy of the guidance platform is usually measured in terms of Circular Error of Probability (CEP)—a measure that only tries to predict where the 50% of the most accurate missiles go relative to their intended target—if all the measurements are perfect down to the meter, and, if the complex linkages between the guidance platform and the features of the missile that control its flight can function perfectly to the point of impact.
In the real world, there are many other things that can go wrong that determine the “error budget” of missile behavior. They can all be dealt by major and/or high technology powers, like the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, and France, and Israel, if they carry out the necessary realistic test launches. They are much more serious challenges to powers like North Korea, Iran, India, and Pakistan.
The cost of failure is also far greater for such powers. Firing conventionally-armed missiles that don’t work according to plan can easily be compensated for by firing more missiles. In fact, this is a critical aspect of modern warfare, even with the most accurate and reliable systems. Failures and accidents do happen all the time, but they generally don’t matter relative to the number of successes.
A single nuclear-armed failure can be critical, particularly if the nuclear missile force involved is vulnerable, small, and sufficiently inaccurate and unreliable to force launches against area-sized target like cities. Moreover, some methods of compensating, like targeting multiple or sequential missiles, seem likely to trigger far more massive retaliation if all of the launches succeed since they tend to instantly eliminate calculations that the smaller launch power may show restraint.
Weapons of Mass Destruction: “The Threat of Committing Suicide is Not an Adequate Deterrent to Being Murdered”
Second, Iran has no near-term capability to arm its missiles with nuclear warheads. At least for now, its missile threats are evolving in very different ways. As for North Korea, it may be able to gain a great deal from creating a real-world nuclear-armed missile threat, and steadily upgrading it over time, in terms of political pressure, “wars of intimation,” and deterring a major conventional attack on North Korea. It is far from clear, however, how quickly North Korea can create a serious real-world nuclear-armed missile threat against given countries.
Moreover, both North Korea and Iran will face a grim reality if they ever go beyond threats to actually using nuclear weapons. Even when a relatively small power does possess actual nuclear-armed missiles, it faces a clear strategic dilemma. To paraphrase a comment Henry Kissinger made in a very different context, the threat of committing suicide is not an adequate deterrent to being murdered. Every major missile launch confronts the target country with having to choose between launching its own nuclear and other strike forces and riding out an attack to see if the incoming missiles are nuclear-armed.
At a minimum, even a limited actual local strike—say on South Korea — seems likely to trigger a massive U.S. strike on North Korea using conventionally-armed weapons, and even nuclear weapons if the target is South Korean cities. Any ICBM or SLBM strike on the U.S. could trigger a major nuclear strike on North Korea even if the North Korean missile is not nuclear-armed.
For example, the U.S. might well feel it could not wait to see if a missile it destroyed with missile defenses was actually nuclear-armed, and a demonstrative strike with a conventionally-armed ICBM would probably push U.S. restrain too far. The advantages of a U.S. nuclear first strike would have limits that will diminish as nations like North Korea acquire larger numbers of mobile, concealable, and shelter missiles, will still probably more than justify a damage-limiting precision strike for at least the next decade, regardless of how North Korean forces develop and evolve.
In each case, the threat to “destroy” North Korea—and any future nuclear-armed Iran—could become an instant warfighting reality. Valuable as nuclear-armed missiles might be to a state like Iran and North Korea in shaping the limits of conventional forces used against it, or the limited probability of any kind of U.S./Japanese/South Korean nuclear first strike without clear provocation, the “rules” change radically once there are even strong indicators of a North Korean nuclear attack.
U.S. preemption does not make sense in the face of massive nuclear retaliation by a major power. It becomes virtually mandatory if it means major limits to damage by the potential attacker—particularly for a U.S. that must not only consider the damage, but the message to other small nuclear powers if it showed restraint in the face of a credible set of indicators that a power like North Korea or Iran was preparing a nuclear attack.
Furthermore, the problem of showing restraint—rather than preempting — becomes steadily more complicated if the U.S. makes guarantees of extended deterrence to its Arab partners and Israel, Japan, or South Korea, if one considers Israel’s nuclear forces, or if key Arab states, Japan, or South Korea proliferate.
And, it becomes more complicated if powers like North Korea and Iran try to deter preemption or retaliation by steadily building up their nuclear forces and reducing their vulnerability. The mix of incentives and disincentive on each side grows and becomes more unpredictable with each step, and inevitably broadens to include other power like Russia and China. The “game” involving the actual use of nuclear weapons becomes one where there is no way to win, an unknown number of players, and no rules. The only certainty is that it has the potential to become steadily more dangerous and destructive.
Conventional Missiles: Linking “Weapons of Mass Destruction” to “Weapons of Mass Effectiveness
Finally, nuclear options are only part of the missile story and the changing balance of warfighting capabilities. The U.S.-led coalition against Iraq demonstrated in 1991 that precision conventionally-armed cruise missiles and air strikes could inflict critical (and repairable) damage on Iraq’s power grid and key elements of its transportation and military communications system. It was a carefully limited and experimental effort that took weeks to implement and whose major goal was to destroy and paralyze Iraq’s conventional forces and suppress or eliminate its air power and air defenses. The use of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets was equally experimental, as was the ability to manage the air offensive and its targeting in real time.
The Gulf War happened nearly twenty years ago—more than a “lifetime” in terms of generations of military technology. As the fighting against Iraq in 2003 showed, powers like the U.S. had already adopted radically more effective methods. Since then, the fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria has shown further major progress.
Air-launched precision guided conventional weapons, cruise missiles, and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) now offer near-surgical ways to destroy any high value civilian or military target—including electric power, key utility nodes, water/desalination/dams, pipelines, refineries, sewage, tunnels, bridges, and virtually all high-value economic/infrastructure facilities.
Depending on the willingness to escalate, and the target choice, relatively small numbers of conventionally-armed precision guided weapons can become “weapons of mass effectiveness.” They not only can have immense value against military targets, they can paralyze key aspects of a target nation’s war fighting infrastructure, and its civilian life, and economy.
They can also be used in ways where limited strikes—on targets like refineries or tankers in the Gulf—have a massive global economic impact and can use escalation from “repairable” to “permanent” damage, and from targeting physical to human effects as both tactical and strategic leverage. (The use of high capacity UCAVs also opens up the possibility of cheap and extremely effective delivery of another form of weapon of mass destruction: biological weapons).
This is not a theoretical possibility. The practical problem for the U.S. and its allies and strategic partners is that powers like Iran and North Korea are actively seeking to compensate by developing their own precision conventional strike capabilities. They already have some capability to use UCAVs. Iran has some precision-guided shorter range ballistic and cruise missiles, and North Korea seems to have some such systems as well — although experts disagree over many aspects of their design and performance, technical origins, and even their names.
It is also clear that both Iran and North Korea are actively seeking to develop and deploy far more accurate longer-range and higher payload systems, and give them the same kind of accuracy that the U.S. can achieve with its best conventionally-armed cruise missiles.
It does seem likely that both North Korea and Iran are half-a-decade away from creating major inventories of such precision guided, conventionally-armed systems. It also seems likely, however, that they will make major increases in accuracy of some systems over the next few years and that at least North Korea will develop the capability to use such systems as “weapons of mass effectiveness” at roughly the same rate that they deploy real-world nuclear-armed missiles.
A number of key Israeli experts like Uzi Rubin have already warned that Iran is acquiring these capabilities, and transferring far more accurate systems to the Hezbollah and possibly the Houthi and other forces in Yemen. Iran also seems to be making and deploying improvements in longer-range anti-ship missiles that will radically change its ability to strike large ships like tankers and “close the Gulf” with limited vulnerability.
Another key uncertainty in dealing with such “weapons of mass effectiveness” is the loss of the edge the U.S. has enjoyed in the use of air and cruise missile power since1991 due to the Russian transfer of the S-400 air and missile defense system to bases in Syria and sale of the S-300 level of air and missile defense technology to North Korea. They could be further degraded by the sale of more advanced air and missile defense systems and air defense fighters.
Since 1991, the U.S. has fought wars where it had or could establish air superiority and use its precision strike capabilities at will with little or no fear of a serious response. Much of this advantage will be lost if threats like Iran, Syria, and North Korea can make major improvement in their air and missile defenses, if they get access to Russia or China’s most advanced fighters, and if transfers take place of advanced cruise missiles or their technology. These same advances in the threat can lead the U.S. and its partners into having to make far more expensive investments in ballistic missile defenses, cruise missile defenses, surface-to air missiles, and air-to-air combat systems.
At the same time, powers like Iran and North Korea can potentially exploit the development of nuclear-armed missiles and precision-strike conventional missiles to use their nuclear forces—or any nuclear forces they create in the future—to deter or limit the level of U.S., Arab, Israeli, Japanese, and South Korean willingness to use their conventional precision strike capabilities.
It is one thing to use nuclear weapons. It is another to hold them in reserve and threaten to use them to deter both conventional strikes and the threat of escalation to nuclear weapons. There is no either/or to “weapons of mass destruction” versus “weapons of mass effectiveness.” Iran and North Korea clearly understand this, and they are scarcely likely to remain alone in acting accordingly.