Vigilant Ace 18 is underway in South Korea, and the large US-ROK exercise has not gone unnoticed by North Korea. Vigilant Ace is an annual exercise held to increase interoperability between the US Air Force, and RoK Air Force, though aircraft from the US Navy and USMC will also participate. As is the case with every major military exercise that takes place in or around Korea, this one has drawn the ire of North Korea’s leadership. Pyongyang labeled the exercise as a ‘grave provocation’ that could escalate tensions to ‘the brink of nuclear war.’ In a statement released by state-controlled media, it was noted this exercise is happening at a time ‘when insane President Trump is running wild.’ This sort of commentary is standard fare when US and ROK forces stage military exercises. The current crisis in the region adds a dramatic flair to the Pyongyang’s recent statements, of course.
With the rising tensions caused by North Korea’s most recent ballistic missile test, the inclusion of F-22 Raptors and F-35 Lightning II aircraft in Vigilant Ace is quite possibly causing sleepless nights for many North Korean generals. Despite their propaganda boasts that suggest otherwise, North Korea deeply fears US airpower. A future US military action against the North will be heavily reliant on airpower, and include large numbers of the latest generation US fighters. The fact that a respectable number of these aircraft are now in theater gives Pyongyang food for thought.
In Washington over the weekend, remarks by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster seem to suggest the White House is resigning itself to the grim reality that the North Korean crisis will probably not be resolved favorably through peaceful means alone. The Trump administration has certainly allotted a respectable amount of time to pursue more stringent economic sanctions, and potential diplomatic resolutions. Sadly, there has been minimal progress on either front. The North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs continue ahead at full speed. Depending on how close Pyongyang is to reaching their goal of obtaining an operational ICBM, the United States could be forced to move militarily sooner rather than later.
The prospect of military action in the near future gives Vigilant Ace 18 added priority and deepens the sense of urgency which seems to be gathering around the crisis at the moment.
Not surprisingly, the media has been reluctant to grasp the message embedded between the lines of President Trump’s speeches, and remarks concerning North Korea on his Far East tour. It is apparent US patience is wearing thin when it comes to the future of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities. However, Washington’s diminished willingness to endure is not the result of a personal restlessness on the part of Trump. It exists in view of the fact that the North Koreans are fervently working to produce a functioning ballistic missile that can reach US shores, along with a hydrogen weapon that can be attached to it. In the early days of the Trump administration it was made clear to him that North Korea has been moving rapidly in that direction, emboldened by US reluctance to effectively address his nation’s WMD programs over the past twenty years. Trump is not handling North Korea in the same manner as his predecessors did. Kim Jong Un has taken some time to digest the new reality and figure out a way to contend with the increased American pressure. His new strategy is to engineer a workable missile and weapon before the United States can stop him. In essence, Kim has turned the twenty-three year old marathon between the US and North Korea into a sprint to the finish line. President Trump, his foreign policy, and military advisers recognize this even though the media refuses to.
Trump is now in China for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. North Korean tensions will undoubtedly dominate their discussions. The two presidents have been working to handle the North Korean situation together, however, it appears as if that approach has earned a limited return. Trump will likely inform Xi that time is running out and if China is resolved to decisively influence the situation now is the time. Xi’s position is understandable. He does not want to see a war erupt between North Korea and the US and her allies in such close proximity to China’s borders. Nor does he want North Korea to collapse beneath its own weight and be replaced by unified Korea that is pro-US.
To avoid either one of these possibilities from becoming reality, any Chinese move needs to be centered around changing the North Korean regime internally. Despite the image of Kim Jong Un controlling every facet of the North Korean government, factions do exist in Pyongyang. There is a pro-China faction that, if cultured and funded properly, could serve as the instrument to remove Kim from power and replace him with one that is more moderate in tone, and does not pose such a flagrant threat to the US. A Beijing-backed coup attempt carries a host of potential dangers as well as rewards. Yet at this point in the game, if the choices for Xi are to do nothing or do something akin to playing with fire, the Chinese President’s best option may be to choose the fire option and accept the risks of being burned.
This evening multiple media outlets, many being UK publications, are reporting that the United States Air Force is preparing to resume the 24 hour alert mission for a portion of the B-52 fleet. This mission would be very similar to the one carried out by US strategic bombers for much of the Cold War. Back then, a fraction of a bomb wing’s force of B-52s was loaded with nuclear weapons and prepared to take off within minutes if the klaxons went off and the subsequent message orders from SAC headquarters ordered them into the air. The bomber crews spent week long shifts in a nearby alert facility that included dorm rooms, showers, and recreational rooms. After a week the crews would come off of alert and be replaced by crews from another squadron in the wing. The purpose of the alert was to ensure that a portion of US strategic bombers could be launched quickly and survive a bolt-out-of-the-blue nuclear strike by the Soviets.
I will not delve into the accuracy of these news reports. However, if they are true, it represents a logical next step the preparations being made by the United States to respond to a potential nuclear attack against the US or US military installations in the Pacific. It also sheds light on how gravely the US is taking the probability of North Korea obtaining hydrogen weapons and ICBMs in the near future.
Make no mistake, there is much going on behind the scenes in military, and political circles from Washington to the Western Pacific. North Korea chose not to test a missile or weapon earlier in the month as many observers had expected. Rumors have been circulating that Pyongyang was warned by Beijing that Washington’s trigger finger is growing itchy and any further tests could assure a US military response. Given that a moratorium seems to have been placed on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile testing, there could be some truth to these rumors.
In any event, it is safe to say that the North Korean nuclear crisis has entered a new phase. The potential dangers and consequences are not apparent to the media and public right now. That could change at any given time though. If the USAF does place B-52s back on alert in the near future and publicly announces the move, it will serve as a message putting Kim Jong Un on notice that a US response to any attack will be swift and devastating.
As the weekend approaches, a North Korean missile test on 9 or 10 October is appearing more probable. Analysts inside and outside of the US government have been examining the data coming across their desks and drawing conclusions. Although the data available to DOD, US combatant commands, and intelligence agencies is superior to what is available to external think tanks and agencies, the outside estimates are on par with their government counterparts . In short, a missile test is expected on Monday or Tuesday. Monday, 9 October is a holiday here in the United States and the anniversary of North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. The following day, 10 October is the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Korean Workers Party, a day of celebration in the North. It’s apparent to the world now that Kim Jong Un has a penchant for raising tensions with missile, or nuclear tests on symbolic dates. This is one reason why many in the West suspect a test will be coming early next week. There are solid indications lately of a test in the near future. Earlier this week, missile components, and other types of equipment necessary for a test launch were transported from Pyongyang north to areas that have been launch sites in previous tests.
President Trump contributed to the restlessness concerning North Korea on Thursday with his ‘calm before the storm,’ comment to reporters. Quite frankly, his words were accurate. North Korea has been suspiciously quiet in the past two or three weeks. This could indicate a heightened amount of preparations underway behind the scenes for a missile test, or something more destabilizing. Trump’s words also hinted that the US is possibly prepared to respond militarily to whatever action North Korea may take in the coming days. Going down this road would be inherently risky. However, at this stage in the game the military option is becoming the only remaining course of action to deny North Korea from fielding missiles with inter-continental range that are able to reach the US mainland. It could very well be Kim Jong Un’s intention to stage a test that showcases North Korea’s ability to do just that. Should that be the case, Un may find out very quickly that he has overplayed his hand.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has offered her nation’s participation in future negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear program. She took her comments a step farther by suggesting that the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran would make an excellent model for negotiations. Merkel’s intervention come at a point when she is in the midst of a reelection campaign. Even though she is widely expected to win, campaign season is traditionally a time for incumbent leaders to take the opportunity to float ideas by their constituents, as well as their neighbors and allies to see how they might play in Stuttgart or Brussels.
President Trump’s handling of the North Korea crisis has unsettled some of Washington’s European allies. For a continent that became used to the less proactive foreign policy approach of Trump’s predecessor this is understandable. During the Obama years, US policy towards states like Iran, and North Korea were centered around multi-party negotiations, and the threat of economic sanctions. A stringent effort was made to avoid discussing potential military options if the terms of any future agreement was violated. Trump’s approach is different in many respects, most notably when it comes to discussing military options. He has made it clear that the United States will retaliate should North Korea launch a missile against US territory. Trump has also made it apparent that the military option is not off the table when it comes to ending North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Talk like this is horrifying to many Europeans, especially diplomats and leaders unaccustomed to such forward non-diplospeak on sensitive matters.
However, remarks by the leader of a US ally that champion the Iran nuclear deal as a success are equally as distressing to many Americans. Contrary to what the media spins on the subject of the Iran deal, the majority of Americans remain against it. Even if this were not the case, the North Korean situation has few parallels to Iran’s. Pyongyang already has nuclear weapons, and an ability to use them against targets located on US territory. The North has also directly threatened to use these weapons against the US should economic or political pressure damage its economy and nuclear program.
Merkel fails to recognize that future negotiations with North Korea will be destined to fail. Not because of what could be perceived as aggressive posturing by the United States, but because North Korea does not want them to succeed. Pyongyang’s main goal right now is to buy the time needed for its nuclear scientists, and ballistic missile engineers to produce a hydrogen device, and a missile that it can be fitted to respectively. Kim Jong Un is interested in nothing less.
Angela Merkel and Germany do not have a dog in this fight. For that matter, neither does Europe. North Korea is not levying threats on Western Europe, and likely will not be doing so in the near future. It is threatening the US on a daily basis and given the direction that the crisis is moving in, negotiations involving Germany or other European nations are not a viable avenue to explore at the moment.