The world increasingly looks like one of those avant garde movies or TV advertisements for car insurance where vehicles collide with one another or pedestrians in slow motion. It is absolutely clear what is unfolding, the death and destruction that is about to occur. Sometimes individuals and vehicles can even be seen trying to respond to the looming disaster, oh so slowly. But nothing can be done about it.
The world today looks increasingly like one of those films or advertisements. We can see the disaster looming, the participants perhaps slightly aware as they perceive from the corners of their eyes that something terrible is about to occur. But no one seems able to recognize what is occurring, assess the true magnitude of the danger and act with speed.
The world was caught by surprise yet again by North Korea’s fourth nuclear test. This one had the added element of drama because Pyongyang declared the test to be of a hydrogen bomb. Since we stopped thinking on, teaching about or researching the subject of nuclear weapons and warfare more than twenty years ago, some of you might not know the difference between a hydrogen weapon and an old fashioned atomic weapon. Simply, an H-bomb is smaller, lighter and more compact than an A-bomb but can produce a significantly larger explosion for the given amount of fissile material used. An H-bomb is the weapon you want for a ballistic or cruise payload. A ballistic missile carrying an H-bomb can fly farther than one carrying an A-bomb, if that were even possible.
North Korea has already deployed ballistic missiles with conventional and chemical warheads capable of reaching all of South Korea, Japan and even U.S. bases in the Western Pacific. It is developing a longer range weapon that could, with the proper lightweight payload, reach Hawaii, Alaska and portions of the continental United States. As if this were not enough, just before the announcement of the H-bomb test, North Korea successfully tested a submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBMs). The intersection of a North Korean SLBM and an H-bomb is the ability to hold most of the United States at risk and to do so stealthily. Oh by the way, the current U.S. National Missile Defense system could have problems even seeing, much less intercepting, a North Korean SLBM launched from waters near America’s shores.
Now we can add to this looming international wreck the Islamic Republic of Iran. This country was well on its way to developing atomic weapons before international sanctions slowed them down. How close Iran was to achieving its goal we really don’t know and the willingness of the IAEA to accept Iranian data on their program without proper validation means we may never know. The July 14, 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) will reduce some portions of the Iranian nuclear program and freeze others for a period of time. During this period, we have been assured we will have a year’s worth of warning should Iran try and breakout. The JCPOA permanently prohibits Iran from “activities which could contribute to the design and development of a nuclear explosive device.” What is not clear is whether this provision applies to Iran receiving assistance from North Korea. It should be noted that Iranian representatives were in attendance at several of the previous North Korean nuclear tests.
Iran already has an extensive arsenal of short and medium-range ballistic missiles, a number of which were bought from or based on a design provided by North Korea. Iran recently tested several long-range ballistic missiles in apparent violation of the UN prohibition. It has conducted tests of tactical anti-shipping missions within sight of the USS Truman in the Arabian Gulf. UN Security Council Resolution 2231 of July 20, 2015 provides for an eight-year restriction on Iranian (nuclear-capable) ballistic missile activities and a five-year ban on conventional arms transfers to that country. After that, Iran is free to acquire or build what it wants. Including a ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the United States.
Our choices are simple: stand around watching this slow motion global nuclear car wreck happen. Or stop acting like passive observers and take actions to prevent it. Since the world has, to date, failed to halt the North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs and has set up an agreement that codifies a schedule for Iran becoming a nuclear power, there seems little that can be done to stop the impending wreck. What can be done is to mitigate its consequences.
This means undertaking a serious and global program to deploy ballistic and cruise missile defenses. Reacting to the growing North Korean threat, last year the Obama Administration reversed its decision to reduce the number of ground-based interceptors to be deployed as part of the U.S. National Missile Defense. Both the numbers and deployment sites for the NMD system are insufficient for a reliable defense. We need as many as ten sites and hundreds of reliable interceptors. It would make sense to deploy the Aegis Ashore system, now planned only for Europe, to the homeland as a second layer of defense. The U.S. and its allies must fund an expanded theater missile defense capability in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. There needs to be a global missile warning and surveillance network and integrated regional interceptor architecture.
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