|WATERS TO THE WEST OF THE KOREAN PENINSULA (March 17, 2013) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56), front, the Republic of Korea Navy Aegis-class destroyer ROKS Seoae-Yu-Seong-Ryong (DDG 993), middle, and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG 85) move into formation during exercise Foal Eagle 2013. McCampbell and McCain are members of Destroyer Squadron 15, forward deployed to Yokosuka, Japan, and are underway to conduct exercise Foal Eagle 2013 with allied nation Republic of Korea in support of regional security and stability of the Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Declan Barnes/Released)|
This annual training period in North Korea typically coincides with South Korea and the United States holding their annual Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises. For the past few years the pattern has been fairly consistent with North Korea being extra threatening (and feeling extra threatened) and usually a war of words breaks out for about a month or so. Once the US/South Korean military exercises end, North Korea will call for negotiations and take credit for resolving the crisis they manufactured in the first place. Last year when this chess game was over, many in the US had a bad taste in their mouth unhappy with the result, and as a result a lot of thought and planning by PACOM went into this years Foal Eagle 2013 exercises.
Everyone who follows me on Twitter might have noticed about mid-February that I was gearing up for this years annual chess match on the North Korean peninsula. I will never be an Asia expert, but I admit to being fascinated by the North Korean government that has somehow remained completely resilient to any type of external influence for over a half century. In particular North Korea, not China, is a subject I like to raise when talking about geopolitical issues in the Pacific with Admirals and Generals, because with North Korea the biggest threat is the lack of good intelligence.
Earlier this year I was following up with various Admirals and Generals I had met over 2012. As part of those calls I had a long conversation with someone I have gotten to know at PACOM on AirSea Battle and specifically the Pacific region; and more specifically we often discuss North Korea, not China. I was informed that the 2013 Foal Eagle exercise would be something I, in particular, would appreciate because it truly leverages public affairs within the context of both strategic communications and operations; a topic I have frequently written about. I was given no hints as to what this meant, except I was told Secretary Panetta had set aside extra funding for the Air Force for Foal Eagle 2013, and most of the details were already worked out. This conversation took place 2 months ago.
Adam Entous and Julian Barnes at the Wall Street Journal have revealed the US script that has played out over the month of March. Described as the 'Playbook', they detail events in their latest Wall Street Journal article.
The U.S. is putting a pause to what several officials described as a step-by-step plan the Obama administration approved earlier this year, dubbed "the playbook," that laid out the sequence and publicity plans for U.S. shows of force during annual war games with South Korea. The playbook included well-publicized flights in recent weeks near North Korea by nuclear-capable B-52 and stealth B-2 bombers, as well as advanced F-22 warplanes.The Wall Street Journal goes on to detail the Playbook, even describing Secretary Hagel as one of the playbook's chief backers, even though I know for fact the Playbook was actually written by PACOM on Secretary Panetta's watch and with his full support. The article then highlights the meat of the politics.
The U.S. stepped back from the plans this week, as U.S. officials began to worry that the North, which has a small nuclear arsenal and an unpredictable new leader, may be more provoked than the U.S. had intended, the officials said.
"The concern was that we were heightening the prospect of misperceptions on the part of the North Koreans, and that that could lead to miscalculations," a senior administration official said.
The public-relations effort was designed not only to send a message to North Korea, but also to assure a hawkish new government in South Korea that it had full U.S. backing and there was no need for it to respond militarily to the North's provocations.The First Quarter: March
U.S. intelligence agencies assessed the risks associated with the playbook and concluded there was a low probability of a North Korean military response because the regime's top priority has been self-preservation. U.S. officials believe the North understands that taking military action could prompt a devastating U.S. and South Korean counter-strike that could destabilize the regime.
"Everyone is concerned about miscalculation and the outbreak of war. But the sense across the U.S. government is that the North Koreans are not going to wage all-out war," a senior Obama administration official said. "They are interested first and foremost in regime survival."
The U.S. plan was discussed during several high-level White House meetings, according to participants. The effort was backed by Mr. Hagel in one of his first acts as defense secretary. John Kerry, the new secretary of State, supported the Pentagon, as did other top administration officials, according to meeting participants.
In the deliberations, supporters said it was better for the U.S. to control the escalating steps, to ensure the situation didn't spin out of control. In part, according to these officials, the plan was an effort to ensure that South Korea's new government wouldn't feel compelled to respond to North Korean threats, which often emerge at the time of the exercises, as the North conducts its own annual legislative meeting.
But within the administration, some officials voiced concern about unintended consequences of provoking North Korea. Some of these officials questioned the faith the White House and Pentagon placed in the intelligence agencies, which have a mixed record of predicting North Korean behavior.
The intelligence gaps are particularly acute when it comes to reading new North Korean leader Kim Jong Eun, who remains an obscure figure and someone who intelligence agencies themselves have described as potentially more unpredictable than his father.
However, few objections were raised at the highest levels during the meetings, according to participants—unlike in other Obama administration deliberations about using military force abroad, including Libya, Northwest Africa and Syria, that have been marked by protracted debates. President Barack Obama gave the green light to proceed with the playbook, these people said.
The Playbook was intended to function as escalation control by the Obama administration. As someone who jumps online every night at 8pm EST to read the morning news in North Korea, allow me to suggest the Playbook worked better than expected. When North Korea abandoned the Armistice back on March 10, it was clear to observers that North Korea was operating from a script. As I discussed at that time, escalation control was the key to managing the tensions, and I do think the US still maintains escalation control over the situation today, with or without the old Playbook.
As I have observed the US airpower show of force that has visited South Korea over the past month, I found myself in huge admiration for how well the US was playing the game with North Korea in 2013. What headlines that bluster the presence of US military power failed to mention is that every single aircraft that has been flown over South Korea over the past month had been planned many months ago as part of the planning process for the Foal Eagle 2013 exercise. This was never a secret btw, I exchanged emails with a public affairs officer who confirmed this for me right after B-52s made their appearance on March 19. The B-52s, the B-2s, the F-22s, etc... all those flights and activities were planned to appear in Foal Eagle long ago, and there was nothing new or reactionary by the United States taking place as events unfolded throughout March. While bombers and advanced fighters have been involved in previous Foal Eagle exercises, the key distinction this year was the announced use of those platforms.
Unlike previous years, this year the US publicized the presence of B-2s and F-22s through defense public affairs, because otherwise North Korea (or you and I) would never know they were involved in the exercises, even though the actual flights by those aircraft were planned and paid for months ago. So what is new this year? The public affairs piece that mentions their presence and activity, and the PA professionals who were able to mingle those activities into the context of the North Korean rhetoric - so reporters could go write plenty of news stories - is the only thing that is actually different from the US/SK perspective relative to previous years. Talk is cheap, which may explain why our defense public affairs folks are actually pretty good at it when given the green light.
Throughout the entire month of March as North Korea has stepped through their well orchestrated script for escalating tensions in the region, the US has been following a script of their own; a script written long ago for the Foal Eagle exercises and supported fully by the White House. In my opinion, everything North Korea is doing - even through today - is part of their script, and everything we have been doing has been part of our script. The intelligence officials in the WSJ report are right, there is no evidence that North Korea is off script. We do not know what their script is, but there does appear to be broad agreement that North Korea didn't write a script that ends with them being wiped out in a war. Neither script was written in a way that predicted the others actions, and public affairs and the use of media by both North Korea and the US is solely responsible for connecting the activities of the other side.
It would appear that in the end, the actions contained in the North Korean script forced us to abandon our script.
April Fools Day
If the US and North Korea have been playing a game of chicken as each side executed their scripted events in the public sphere, it is now clear that beginning on April Fools Day North Korea won that game of chicken, and the US was the first to flinch.
Every military activity related to the Korean peninsula discussed in the public was part of the script until on Tuesday - for the first time - the narrative being produced by US media was no longer fully incorporated into the Playbook. The retasking of USS Decatur (DDG 73) to head towards North Korea was a new event, and everyone who follows naval power closely knew it. The problem was, PACOM was one ballistic missile defense destroyer short of what was needed to meet demand signal coming from North Korean activities.
While most of the media made a big deal about the USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) being close to the Korean peninsula, the fact is the US Navy has a BMD capable destroyer on that patrol every single day of the year. Without going into too much detail, USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) is on a regular patrol that gives the United States an early warning detection capability should someone in Asia launch a ballistic missile at us. There is an AEGIS warship there 24/7/365 and on leap year day too. As soon as the media started talking about USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) and USS Decatur (DDG 73), neither of which has any attachment to Foal Eagle 2013 or the Playbook, apparently that is when the Obama administration got nervous and pulled back on the Playbook.
But here is the issue: PACOM needed USS Decatur (DDG 73) because there wasn't another BMD ship available. Attention Congress, there is a capacity issue in 7th Fleet for BMD capable destroyers in the Obama administrations 'pivot to Asia' plan, because the Navy fell short one forward deployed BMD capable warship when PACOM came calling in regards to a North Korean crisis.
The challenge PACOM faces is that PACOM believes North Korea is going to be launching a ballistic missile soon, but the difference between this ballistic missile and previous North Korean ballistic missile launches is that this missile has a mobile launching platform. That makes the launch time of the next ballistic missile an unknown, and just as important the launch point for the next ballistic missile an unknown. This combination of unknown time and unknown launch location requires PACOM to cover every threat axis from North Korea in this threat environment, just in case, to insure regional security.
What you have been reading in the press is only partially correct, because there are actually nine US Navy ballistic missile defense capable warships operating throughout the 7th Fleet today, not two or three as has been reported. As we navalists know, AEGIS Ballistic Missile Defense is an integrated network approach to developing a very large regional shield where each ship is both a radar and a shooter, and by integrating other assets in the region, the Navy can track a ballistic missile at launch and potentially develop a firing solution within only a handful of seconds. The more sensors and the better the quality of data, the faster a threat assessment can be made by AEGIS thereby enabling options for response quickly. This process is one that the Navy is well trained for, and in complicated exercises has practiced successfully in actual intercept events that last no longer than 20-30 seconds in practice windows that have spanned days.
While Foal Eagle and the "Playbook" was essentially a strategic communications exercise with North Korea in this environment of higher tension, when PACOM faced a situation where the potential for an actual missile launch in this environment became a legitimate possibility, PACOM has reacted by establishing a regional ballistic missile shield around our partners and bases. This regional ballistic missile defense shield layers around the Japanese ballistic missile defense capabilities, which can be integrated with the US Navy capability through AEGIS.
The US already has an X-Band radar in Japan that can track launches, additional radars in South Korea that can be utilized for launch detection, and nine BMD capable warships that can help track and develop firing solutions for intercepting any ballistic missile threat. Because the area that requires defense from the particular missile North Korea intends to launch is fairly vast, the US Navy ultimately was one ship short to meet the ballistic missile shield demand PACOM needed for full protection. When USS Decatur (DDG 73) was retasked, as a public asset outside the Playbook, political leaders got the impression they had lost escalation control with the Playbook and apparently gave it up. It is somewhat disappointing the Playbook was so rigid it couldn't adapt when inserting a new asset into it's strategic messaging.
Seapower as Strategic Deterrent
Throughout the duration of the cold war, mutually assured destruction is often credited for deterring nuclear war. While the debate over mutually assured destruction still exists today regarding the wisdom of the policy; the bottom line is MAD worked. Ballistic missile defense, in theory, adds a new strategic option for the United States in dealing with nuclear powers like North Korea that have limited capabilities. For the first time in human history, the United States is fielding a fully mature and developed ballistic missile defense shield to protect US allies and territories from an announced threat of nuclear attack.
One of the key strategic differences between ballistic missile defense as a deterrent and mutually assured destruction as a deterrent is that the United States is basically saying the enemy can shoot first, and if the attack is a nuclear attack but is also successfully defended against, then the United States reserves the option of responding without using nuclear weapons. This is a critical point critics of ballistic missile defense apparently don't believe is important, because a successful nuclear attack against US allies or territories requires a nuclear response. The option of not having to respond to a nuclear attack with nuclear weapons is the value of successful ballistic missile defense, and why smart investment and stewardship of ballistic missile defense is in the best interests of the United States.
It has been reported that the deployment of land based interceptors to Alaska is going to cost one billion dollars. That suggests the latest announcement that THAAD interceptors will be deployed to Guam will probably also cost one billion dollars. THAAD interceptors are expensive, and about half the time they even work. Those two land based ballistic missile defense deployments cost as much as a single new AEGIS ballistic missile defense destroyer, and while the AEGIS system is only capable of intercepting ballistic missiles in the very early and final stages of a ballistic missiles flight, the AEGIS BMD system has a much more reliable track record and has been tested under much more realistic conditions, including multiple targets and decoys, unlike the THAAD system. An AEGIS ballistic missile defense destroyer is also mobile, which is why the US Navy will be protecting Guam with an AEGIS ballistic missile defense warship for the next several weeks until the THAAD system can be deployed to Guam.
In theory THAAD is more capable than the AEGIS system because it can intercept at a higher altitude. The problem is THAAD is less reliable than AEGIS, less mature than AEGIS, and more expensive than AEGIS; but for now it is all the US has.
There is another reason why I believe Seapower is important right now as a strategic deterrent. I believe North Korea's creativity is interesting primarily because they are limited by means and are simplistic in method, and sometimes North Korean methods are so simple they appear absurd at first glance. North Korea publicized today that they have "smaller, lighter and diversified" nuclear weapons, which in theory makes some sense because they have only a limited supply of material to make nuclear weapons with. I know it has been something of a running joke for years, but if things go hot I would not be surprised if North Korea tried to deliver a nuclear weapon via a sea mine rather than by missile. North Korea is very skilled in developing sea mines, but not so much when it comes to rocket technologies. The ability to keep North Korea's naval forces from causing any problems is going to be important over the next month in preventing a war. An incident like the sinking of the Cheonan 3 years ago right now could spark a chain of events that leads to Korean War II, but an even worst case scenario is if North Korea was to find a way to sink a US or Japanese warship, because that puts South Korea in the middle of a crossfire.
While I can understand why PACOM called in the US Navy to build a regional ballistic missile defense shield when it became clear North Korea might launch a ballistic missile from a mobile launcher, I don't understand why the Obama administration threw out the Playbook and then ran off to tell the Wall Street Journal about it. Regardless, someone clearly needs to clue Hagel in on a little secret: Seapower is the winning playbook if the objective is to prevent war.
The ballistic missile defense shield PACOM is setting up is a defensive capability. It is also a very limited piece of the US Navy's capability - indeed it's only a small piece of the surface combatants being used for the ballistic missile defense shield. There are no carriers projecting power into the Yellow Sea, there are no submarines launching missiles, and there are no amphibious ships preparing to send Marines ashore in South Korea.
If North Korea does continue to escalate further, and I believe they will, the Stennis Carrier Strike Group is deployed and is currently in port in Singapore, and the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is deployed currently off the US west coast heading east. Those two carriers represent 100+ aircraft that can project power as needed in any contingency, and can do so right into downtown Pyonyang if necessary.
And if tensions result in a hot war, those submarines nobody in North Korea can detect will be the first strike that knocks out the Command and Control capabilities of North Korea in the first minutes of hot war.
And if for some reason the US needs to reinforce the South Korean Army, US Marines will be delivered into theater from amphibious ships.
And if, God forbid, a nuclear device goes off in South Korea, the nearby SSBN that no nation on the planet can find today will make sure Pyonyang is melted off the face of the planet.
American Seapower is inherently designed to be an escalation control mechanism for political leaders during a crisis. Seapower is a stabilizing presence capable of preserving peace through projecting strength or providing defensive, and an enabling capability when it is time to deliver the US Army to win a war.
No matter what the Playbook was last week, the winning Playbook for the US going forward dealing with North Korea is Seapower. Military strategists have spent most of the 21st century convincing political leaders in Washington that US military power is best exercised with land power - in Asia of all places, but hopefully with a splash of cold water called the threat of nuclear war, political leaders are waking up to the historical reality that Seapower is how Superpowers manage enduring peace without being intrusive on the sovereignty of partners. Seapower enables nations to enjoy enduring prosperity through maintenance of stability, lines of communication for trade, and security. Seapower is also going to be how PACOM will be managing peace in the Pacific crisis of the present and future, so I hope those involved with Hagel's strategic review are paying attention.
It's only April 4th, Foal Eagle still has 25+ more days. It is going to be a long month with plenty more threatening rhetoric and behavior ahead. Is a ballistic missile launch how this ends? Maybe, but I still believe North Korea desires a limited skirmish of some sort as part of their script, although it could be that the Playbook has actively deterred that potential outcome.
There is a lot of good analysis of the situation in North Korea out there. I highly recommend two sites in particular that may not be part of your regular web readings. The Interpreter Blog at the Australian Lowy Institute is always a great source for analysis of events in the Pacific, and in particular North Korea right now; and just about everything written by Jeffery Lewis these days covers every angle of North Korean nukes and missiles.