Things Nuclear III: US Control of Nuclear Weapons, Force Modernization, BMD Capabilities and the Japanese Role



Yesterday, I reviewed some recent academic writings on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Of course, the policy stance of the US and its allies is equally if not more important. There has been some disturbing speculation about command and control of the US nuclear force in recent weeks. At Foreign Policy, Susan Hennessey and Ben Wittes make the alarmist case. Although the command and control system has numerous checks between the president and an actual launch, the decision to launch does not have a two-person rule: the president has the legal authority to launch a nuclear strike. Peter Feaver (Duke) on NPR is at least somewhat more sanguine that other checks would in fact operate. As he puts it, “if the president is banging on the table in anger with no provocation, I don’t think the system would respond the way the critics worry about. If the president reaches the decision after conferring with his advisers and then makes the decision, then the system will carry out the order.” The checks in Feaver’s views are not the legal ones, which as Hennessey and Wittes note are thin, but the political judgment of those down the chain of command about whether the president’s order appears rational. That we are talking about this at all is unnerving.

Henry Sokolski at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center called my attention to a CBO report from February on nuclear force modernization. The report is a reminder that for all our interest in nonproliferation, the United States was already on a path under Obama to undertake an incredibly expensive modernization covering all elements of the program: submarines, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), long-range bomber aircraft, shorter-range tactical aircraft, and the nuclear weapons that those delivery systems carry (and thus the labs that design, produce and maintain them). The main purpose of the report is to note that the costs of this force modernization program have gone up—now estimated at $400 billion between now and 2026—and that is before we know what the Trump administration might add in. (The big ticket items: submarines, at $90 billion nearly double the costs of modernizing the bomber fleet and land-based systems; and nearly $90 billion to support the weapons labs). But that may underestimate long-run costs; see the estimates at the Arms Control Association that go out 30 years and produce estimates of between $1.25 trillion and $1.46 trillion.

Finally, two things came across my desk about BMD that raise interesting questions about Japan’s role. First, Ankit Panda has an incredibly useful and terse introduction to defensive capabilities in the region. The brief clarifies the capabilities of the different components of the layered defense with respect to Guam. One of the important points made by Panda concerns Japanese capabilities. Japan, signaling its intent to intercept North Korea's potential missile launch, deployed its Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) interceptors to Shimane, Hiroshima, and Kochi, along a Guam flight path. But as Panda notes, “while both the SM-3 and THAAD interceptors have proven capabilities against IRBM-class targets and would be able to engage a hypothetical North Korean launch toward Guam, the Japan-based PAC-3 systems would not be able to actually intercept North Korean IRBMs flying over Japan”; they are optimized for attacks on Japan and would be of use primarily in shooting down threatening debris were an attack on Guam to transpire.

The question, however, also hinges on Japanese willingness to enter the fight. On those broader political issues, John Nilsson-Wright has a useful piece at the The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Nilsson-Wright notes that Japan has in fact acquired more capabilities: these include the acquisition of cruise missiles and advanced satellite guidance technology that would allow Japan to intercept North Korean missiles either on the point of launch or potentially pre-emptively. He dismisses talk of a nuclear Japan and hedges on whether these capabilities would be used. However, he reports some public opinion polling showing a surprising level of support—31%—in favor of preventive or pre-emptive options vis-à-vis North Korea. This is hardly a majority, but nonetheless helps explain why Abe was able to expand Japan’s freedom of maneuver in the fall of 2015.

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