Preventive Action & Weapons of Mass Destruction Part I


Preventive action is a term often confused with preemptive action. Admittedly, the terms are similar in appearance. The two are also linked by the fundamental principle of ‘strike your opponent before your opponent can strike you.’ This is where the similarities end. Preemptive action is an attempt to stave off or defeat an imminent invasion or establish a strategic advantage in the opening minutes of such a conflict. A preventive action is a measure launched to neutralize a potentially imminent offensive capability from being obtained by an unfriendly or rogue nation-state. A threat which the initiating nation-state has determined it cannot live with. In contemporary times, the acquirement of Nuclear, Biological and/or Chemical (NBC) weapons by a rogue nation-state qualifies as such a threat.

At the moment, North Korea is a nation meets the criteria of a rogue nation-state possessing NBC weapons and a ballistic missile capability to deliver them. Pyongyang’s journey to obtaining nuclear weapons began in the early 1990s. The United States attempted to persuade North Korea from halting its nuclear weapons program without success. Tensions rose and nearly came to a head in June of 1994. The 1994 Korea crisis led to a brief, yet palpable war scare. Neither side wanted a conflict, and preventive action at that point potentially could have led to a major conflict. US plans to launch airstrikes against the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, to prevent North Korea from acquiring the raw material needed for nuclear weapons, were shelved. The US shifted gears and adopted diplomacy, and economic persuasion as its primary policy tools for halting North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The effort led to the Agreed Framework, signed in October of 1994. The purpose of the agreement was to replace North Korea’s then-current reactor with light water nuclear reactors that could not produce weapons grade plutonium, and the eventual normalization of relations between the US and North Korea.

Here we are some twenty-three years later. The North has nuclear weapons and its relations with the US are anything but normal. Even more alarming is the progress North Korea is currently making in its ballistic missile program. There is growing concern that it could have a missile capable of reaching Hawaii, Alaska, or perhaps even the West Coast within the next few years.

Is preventive action an effective policy option for dealing with NBC threats? Back in 1994 it might have halted North Korea’s nuclear ambitions once and for all. Or, it would’ve led to a major war in the region. For better or worse, we’ll never know.

Preventive action is a controversial policy tool available to governments to minimize or end the threats from NBC weapons in the hands of unstable regimes. Its detractors claim preventive action goes beyond what is acceptable in international law. Should a threat come to light that requires preventive action, the matter should be referred to the UN Security Council, which has the jurisdiction to authorize military action.

Diplomacy, deterrence, economic sanctions, and economic persuasion have also been used in many instances over the last half of the 20th and first part of the 21st Centuries with varying degrees of success and failure. The majority of modern nation-states prefer non-aggressive, internationally accepted counterproliferation methods. Comparative assessments, and selective case studies suggest that nonaggressive policies are more effective in stopping rogue nations from acquiring and using NBC weapons.

Supporters of preventive action in the 21st Century argue that in the Post-Sept.11th world preventive action, as well as preventive war ( Note: there is a distinct difference between the two) is necessary in some instances. Operation Iraqi Freedom was a preventive war regardless of how it is viewed in contemporary times. Iraq harbored Islamic terror groups that were decidedly anti-US and anti-West, and Saddam Hussein’s regime was believed to possess and be developing chemical and biological weapons. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the US government was not inclined to simply accept the Iraq situation as status quo. After all, on September 11th, 2001 Al Qaeda launched an attack that killed thousands of Americans and the terror group did so with a fraction of the resources that are available to a nation-state. It is difficult to imagine how President Bush could have allowed what was a clear and present danger in the Post-Sept.11th world to go unchecked.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20 now. By the time the first US aircraft were over Iraq in March of 2003, whatever biological and chemical weapons Iraq had were long gone. Very little evidence of an NBC weapons programs was ever found. For what it’s worth, my guess is that most of what Saddam could not destroy was transported clandestinely to Syria and beyond. Iraq had the benefit of a head start. It was apparent by September of 2012 that the US and its coalition was coming in at some point unless Saddam Hussein allowed UN weapons inspectors unobstructed access to sites across Iraq. Frankly, by that point nothing short of removing himself from power would’ve satisfied President Bush. So, while the US prepared for war and built a coalition, it is not outside of the realm of possibility to believe that the Iraqi regime was destroying as much evidence as possible and simultaneously sending whatever it could to Syria and beyond. Preventive action/war in Iraq failed miserably to achieve its objectives.

The civil war in Syria, however, offers a case study of how non-aggressive policy tools failed to bring an end to Bashir al-Assad’s chemical weapons program and use of nerve gas against opposition forces. This instance will be examined in Part II of this article, along with how preventive action fared in a handful of other instances. It will be published on Monday night. Later next week, Part III will look at how preventive action can be used by the US to successfully neutralize North Korea’s goal of building a ballistic missile capable of reaching North America.


US Military Options Against North Korea- Part One

F-22 Raptors Arrive on Andersen

Deep inside of the Pentagon there exists a collection of Operation Plans (OPLAN) covering nearly every possible scenario the US military could potentially face one day, from a possible war against Russia in Europe to an invasion from another world. The US military is an institution that places immense value in contingency planning. There’s a need for plans to be available and ready to go at a moment’s notice. They don’t have to be perfect operational blueprints, but they need to exist.

There are regularly updated plans that cover conceivable events in Korea. OPLAN 5027 is the general US war plan for contending with North Korean invasion of the South, and a resulting general war in Korea. OPLAN 5029 covers a possible collapse of the North Korean government and the chaos it could unleash. Though it is reassuring to know that plans are available in theory, the OPLANs focused on North Korea do not automatically translate to a concrete US military option for North Korea in the real world.

There will certainly never be an Operation North Korean Freedom where US forces surge north across the DMZ to liberate North Korea from its despotic government. The US went down a similar road in the Middle East and it ended up being an enormous strategic miscue. The ghost of the first Korean War and Vietnam, the classic blunder of becoming involved in a land war in Asia, is alive and well in the minds of many American policymakers. Bearing this in mind, it is safe to assume that the shape of a military option against North Korea will be limited in scope and predominantly involve air and naval forces, with the exception of North Korea moving across the DMZ. In the case of a North Korean invasion all bets are off. US Army and Marine forces would be introduced into the fighting as quickly as possible. Given the geopolitical, economic, and military realities of East Asia any US military action will probably be defensive in nature. Conceivably, there are very few scenarios where the United States would strike preemptively or unilaterally.

One concept gaining traction at the moment is what might happen if North Korea does successfully build a long-range missile capable of reaching US territory. I touched on this in Friday’s post. As the North devotes more time and energy to its missile development, and makes boastful claims of being able striking the US mainland, the Pentagon is taking a hard look at what a pre-emptive strike against North Korea would entail. Initially, work has to be undertaken on a host of issues to ensure that the foundation for pre-emptive action will exist if and when the time comes.

Basing is a significant concern. With the exception of those on Guam, every US military base in the region is located on foreign soil. A pre-emptive operation can only be undertaken with at least the tacit approval of the host nation’s government. Since any future effort will involve a large amount of airpower, open access to US airbases in Japan and South Korea is essential. Of course, missions can be flown from the decks of US aircraft carriers, and TLAMs launched by US warships operating in international waters. However, sea-based airpower and cruise missiles do not give PACOM the wide array of flexibility and options that land-based airpower does.

To ensure that US bases are not restricted by their host nations in some way, Washington needs to think about how it can enlist the diplomatic support of America’s Pacific allies before any future military operation. South Korea is on the cusp of a political shift that may see the next administration in Seoul seeking political and diplomatic rapprochement with the North. The desire for better relations with North Korea could dissuade Seoul from supporting an American effort. Another important factor will be the reason for the United States to take action against North Korea. If the US objective is to neutralize North Korea’s missile program it could find a lukewarm reception to the idea in Tokyo and Seoul. After all, the South Koreans and Japanese have been living with the threat posed by North Korea’s missiles for almost twenty years now.

Part Two of this article will be posted on Wednesday. It will cover the other potential roadblocks facing potential US military action against North Korea in the near future, as well as offer a descriptive summary of how pre-emptive action might play out.

First Strike: The American Nightmare- Introduction


The concept of the first strike has been ingrained in warfare for centuries. In the broad sense, every war or conflict commences with a first strike. After all, there must be an instigator for a war to begin. One nation-state or coalition’s forces must cross the border of another in order to officially open hostilities. Wars rarely, if ever, start by mutual consent and armies clashing on the border of disputed territory. The factor that normally dictates the parameters for initiating a first strike are political in nature. The justifying reasons for a first strike can be economic, political, or military, however, the decision to initiate is made by a nation-state’s political leadership. This is the most important cog in the first strike mechanism. Since the introduction of nuclear weapons as a viable warfighting tool, even more so.

A first strike is essentially a pre-emptive attack undertaken to gain a definitive strategic advantage over an opponent. In the past 100 years there have been some visible examples of pre-emptive action. The Israeli air strikes in June 1967, Israel’s strike on Osirak are of them. What it boils down to is a ‘get them before they get you’ mindset for the initiator.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, a first strike is a more complex and deadly instrument.  The consequences of launching a nuclear first strike are considerably higher, but so are the potential rewards. Nuclear weapons are, after all, weapons, only with a far greater explosive power. When they are designed and built, it is assumed that these weapons could be used one day.  In the years before the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic weapon, there were some influential voices calling for the use of nuclear weapons against Russia to curb its aggressive appetite. One of the supporters of such action was, surprisingly, Bertrand Russell, the famous philosopher and renowned pacifist. Military planning has also included first strike options, mainly because contingency planning, as a rule, covers every conceivable scenario. The public perception that a nuclear war would result in no winners does not carry over to the military mindset. Wars are not suicidal ventures. They are initiated to achieve objectives.

The prime objective of a nuclear first strike is to neutralize the enemy’s nuclear forces before they can be used in a retaliatory strike, and force it to either accept terms of surrender or endure a follow on strike against its population centers. The moment a nation loses its nuclear weapons, it is at the mercy of the first strike initiator. The initiator has to be willing to absorb an acceptable amount of casualties and destruction in exchange for achieving nuclear primacy. Once that primacy is established though, the game is over.

Despite the addition of new members to the nuclear club, the United States and Russia are the only nations currently capable of launching a successful nuclear first strike. The number of available warheads, and delivery systems, command structure and communications systems are the elements that determine this. China is expanding its own nuclear forces as well. However, for the foreseeable future will not be in a position to launch a successful first strike against either nation without bringing down massive retaliation upon itself.

At this point in the 21st Century, the tenets of Mutually Assured Destruction no longer apply. The balance of terror as it was in the Cold War no longer exists as the standoff between the United States and Soviet Union has ended. The number of warheads and missiles each nation has aimed at one another has diminished significantly. The power to destroy the world four times over still remains, but the ability to do that in the blink of an eye does not. Global destruction is not necessary to neutralize the other side’s strategic forces. It can be accomplished with a smaller number of weapons and the element of surprise.

At the moment, Russian Federation is crashing the global stage in an attempt to recapture the influence and power once yielded by its predecessor, the USSR. Vladimir Putin is undertaking a modified version of security through expansion and with mixed results. In the eastern Ukraine, Russian backed separatists continue to fight for the right to create their own independent nation-states, but their efforts have bogged down. Russia’s newest expedition is in Syria and while Moscow does not want to include Syria in a territorial expansion, it does want to expand its power and influence in the region and globally. It is too early to say with confidence how this venture will play out. Concurrently, Russia is facing economic issues at home that have the potential of causing issues down the line. If pressed, there’s no telling how Russia’s leaders will respond.

The United States is currently trudging through a period of vulnerability to a nuclear first strike. The argument can be made that all nations are vulnerable to surprise attack regardless of their vigilance. This is true, yet at the present time, the US is especially vulnerable. The national mood is similar to the ‘Malaise’ days of the Carter Years. The economy is not entirely back on track. America’s societal priorities are in disorder. On the foreign policy front, the current administration has been unable to construct and execute a consistent doctrine. The US continues to have commitments around the world in spite of efforts to disengage in some regions and shift focus to areas more vital to national interests. Military budgets continue to be slashed even as the number of flashpoints multiply across the globe. The cumulative erosion of military and economic resources is diminishing American security. This reality is most evident in US strategic forces. There have been a number of high profile cheating and drinking scandals in recent years involving personnel from the US Air Force’s missile wings. Senior officers at Strategic Command have not been immune either. More than one have been dismissed because of inappropriate behavior. Readiness is down across the boards. For a command entrusted with two arms of the nation’s nuclear triad this is not a good combination.

The situation will be remedied eventually but until it is, the United States is vulnerable at a time when Russia is hungry and aggressively expanding its influence and power.