The North Koreans and Nuclear Weapons: Launching the Second Nuclear Age

2017-08-09 By Danny Lam

The rapid development of North Korean ICBM capability exposed an apparent inconsistency with similar developments in other nuclear weapons powers.

Land based ICBMs, by their nature, are physically large missiles.Liquid fueled, they are difficult to transport whether empty or fueled. Solid fueled ICBMs are less problematic, but still require extensive maintenance if actively and routinely transported by road.

These problems have tended to restrict most ICBMs to either stationary land bases, or at sea where transportation by SSBNs is less stressful.

Mobile land based ICBMs, moved about on wheeled or tracked road transporter erector launchers or rail, expose missiles to many risks plus wear and tear.

To date, North Korea have demonstrated a variety of road mobile ICBM platforms that are mostly stored in bunkers. While it is well known that DPRK have extensive underground facilities, particularly for artillery, munitions, short or medium range missiles, none is known via open source intelligence to be dedicated ICBM missile silos like the US Minuteman silos. The PRC historically made extensive use of large underground bunkers with underground missile launch pads that are reloadable.

It is not known if North Korea is following this model.

Most of North Korea’s ICBM tests, to date, are either conducted on fixed above ground launch pads, or a mobile transporter erector launcher (TEL) / pad.

But how are they going to base them in the near future when their ICBM arsenal reaches initial operational capability?

The most plausible explanation is that DPRK is moving toward solely relying on mobile TELs for their liquid fueled ICBMs.   Liquid fueled ICBMs that are fueled on the launch pad require a large convoy of supporting trucks and many hours of preparation for launch.

This long lag time in the “open” enabled advanced detection of launch and at least in theory the possibility of pre-emptive strikes as a missile is fueled.

North Korea can, alternatively, master the delicate task of pre-fueling the missile horizontally prior to transport out of the storage bunker. That would shorten the time for launch to perhaps 30 minutes to an hour.

But that is still a significant window of vulnerability compared to the time required to launch a pre-fueled silo based missile, which can be launched in minutes or as quickly as the hatch can be opened.

If the choice is for a US style ICBM silo, it will likely to be large not only to accommodate the liquid fueled rocket, but potentially, large enough for “strap on” solid fueled boosters that may be required to lift an early generation thermonuclear warhead and missile packed with penetration aids and decoys from DPRK to anywhere in USA.

Construction of large ICBM silos can in theory be detected through several “national technical” means. While it cannot be ruled out that DPRK ICBM silo construction have escaped public notice, it is an open question whether they built them at all.

The PRC, who until the 21st century, had an “assured means of retaliation” posture that presumed their ICBMs in hardened silos will survive a first strike, and can be launched afterwards.

Though this may have changed to an offensive first strike posture at least for S/MRBMs aimed at near-abroad targets.

If the North Koreans have not invested in building hardened silos for their liquid fueled ICBMs, it can be a sign that they are expecting to field a mobile solid fueled ICBM shortly — and thus, sidestep the complexity of liquid fueled missiles.

Another explanation is that DPRK do not need or anticipate the requirement for survivability provided by basing liquid based ICBMs in hardened bunkers.

Or they feel that hardened silos (of the latest design) are not survivable anyways.

Not providing for survivability of an nuclear ICBM force is inconsistent with its use as a deterrent force.  

Basing missiles in the “open” was an expedient measure used by the Soviets in the 1960s which was abandoned as soon as they found something better. It is preferable to enhance readiness and survivability by storing missiles in bunkers, silos, or place them on submarines.

Deterrent forces, by their nature, are systems that sit unused for extended periods: decades until they are obsolete without ever being used.

Occasional samples are tested to ensure the stock is reliable if ever needed.   Thus, ICBMs on the US, Russian, Chinese, and Israeli models tend to be built to be long lasting, rugged, maintainable, and can be held at readiness for long periods with modest maintenance.

No expense is spared in making nuclear deterrent systems reliable and safe during their long periods of storage while ready to launch.

But are NORK ICBMs built this way?

Another line of reasoning is that DPRK intend to strike the first blow with their ICBMs — particularly using the liquid fueled versions that are most vulnerable once conflict broke out.   If this is the case, the ICBMs will have to be able to penetrate known defensive systems like the US ground based missile defense (GMD) systems.

That suggests that NORK may not be concerned by giving advance warning of the launches as the US and allies have not historically been willing to cross the line to pre-emptively destroy a “missile test” launch.

But what if the “test” involved volley firing of (e.g.) 10 ICBMs?

The US have not responded proactively to the PRC and DPRK volley launching multiple missiles in “tests”.   Thus, precedent favors no response if DPRK volley fired ICBMs in a “test”.

What if it is not a test?

The US will find out only when they see the trajectory heading across the Pacific.

What then?

Simultaneous firing of many ICBMs, mixed with IRBMs, will allow some of them to be used for blinding of sensors and destruction of key missile defense installations.   (e.g. Japanese and other Pacific radar sites). Before PACOM can determine if the launch is “hostile”, their sensors and communications will likely be blinded and / or disabled.

Decoys, dummy missiles and warheads can overwhelm the small number of ABM interceptors leading to a high probability that at least one thermonuclear warhead will detonate over CONUS.

US posture biased against “provocations”, rather than contribute to stability and preventing nuclear war, encourage DPRK to adopt a surprise massive first strike strategy aimed at a Pearl Harbor like knockout blow.

Do the ICBM basing plans of DPRK reveal an offensive nuclear first strike strategy being put into place?

If so, it leads to very different calculations as to DPRK intent and longer term goals.

DPRK may not be deterred.

Editor’s Note: If you wish to comment on this article, please see the following:

Where are the NORK ICBM Silos?

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year we published an article by Paul Bracken which focused on the emergence of the Second Nuclear Age as a key challenge facing the United States and the allies as the New Administration came to power.

2017-01-05 By Paul Bracken, Yale University

The most interesting thing about the second nuclear age is that it actually came about.

It wasn’t supposed to happen, at least according to most political science theory. What was supposed to happen after the cold war was a reinvigorated global nuclear nonproliferation regime, which along with U.S. leadership and muscular counter-proliferation policies, that would prevent a second nuclear age from developing.

Anti-nuclear norms — authoritative rules and principles — were expected to enforce this regime.

Nuclear weapons were thought by many to have little value even if you did get them.

What could you do with a nuclear weapon, after all? You could sit on it, in which case it would be a monstrously expensive symbol of folly.

Or, you could fire it, and become a glass parking lot from the certain retaliation.

But the second nuclear age did come about.

What significance does this have, and what can be said about the fact — in comparison to widely held expectation that a second nuclear age wouldn’t arise?

Here I highlight some answers to these questions.

Some definitions are in order. By the “second nuclear age” I mean the spread of nuclear arms for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the cold war (Bracken, The Second Nuclear Age, New York Times Books, 2012). In the 1990s there was a widely held belief that nuclear arms would join the cold war in the graveyard of history.   Nuclear weapons were analyzed in terms of nonproliferation theory, or if not that in terms of disarmament.

The argument was that there was a “twilight of the bomb,” to use a phrase widely embraced at the time. The bomb might last a few years, but its irrelevance to the security challenges of a post cold-war world would make it useful only in largely unimaginable situations. Say, a Russian surprise nuclear attack on U.S. cities. Possible, yes, but hardly conceivable.

This was a core belief in intellectual and academic circles, and in 2009 with President Barrack Obama’s Prague speech, it was brought into official U.S. policy and strategy.

But after the cold war the bomb spread, to India, Pakistan, then and North Korea. Israel’s nuclear arsenal virtually came out into the open, and Iran made a serious push to go nuclear. Others are trying to do so now, or at least hedging their bets with options to do it quickly should the need arise.

The international system is now composed of a constellation of major powers, most of which have nuclear weapons. The United States, Russia, China, India, Britain, and France qualify here. Indeed Japan is the only major power, which doesn’t have it. But Japan is linked into U.S. missile defense and protected by a U.S. security guarantee. In addition, there are three smaller powers, North Korea, Pakistan, and Israel, who also have the bomb.

What do these facts tell us about our initial proposition that a second nuclear age wasn’t supposed to happen?

Obviously, that a second nuclear age wasn’t averted.

More, it says that nuclear weapons have become a foundation for being a major power.

When was the last time anyone even argued that India should give up nuclear weapons and sign the NPT as a non-nuclear state?

This not only isn’t going to happen, it’s an argument that isn’t even made any longer. India couldn’t be an ally to the United States as an offset to China if it also wasn’t a nuclear power.


The program for avoiding a second nuclear age — an intensive nonproliferation regime, U.S. leadership, widely embraced anti-nuclear norms by most countries, was not unreasonable. As goals they made perfect sense, for the United States if not for others. I think most strategic analysts would support them as highly desirable, although this can get complicated.

The fact that we are in a second nuclear age shows important features of the emerging international order. Let me underscore that I am talking about international order here, and not winning wars.

So the first big insight is that this order is in fact a nuclear order.

It’s security is based, at bottom, on a threat to blow up large parts of the world, even if one chooses not to acknowledge this, either by talking platitudes or simply not thinking about it. Nuclear war may be unthinkable.

But it isn’t impossible. Because for all of the talk about how no one wants a nuclear war and how inconceivable it is, these weapons are always there.

No one is getting rid of them, not India, Britain, Israel, China, or the United States.

The international system is made up of sovereign states and within the country boundaries most can do pretty much what they please. Most countries have decided not to go nuclear. But some have, and they have found ways to do so in the face of daunting opposition and powerful allies who didn’t want them to do so.

China, Israel, and Pakistan — all have different strategic situations, but share a common feature, that powerful allies opposed their getting the bomb. The biggest determinant of whether a country gets the bomb isn’t major power opposition, norms against it, arms control, or international law like the NPT. It’s whether they want to get it or not.

If they do, they can probably find a way. Short of all out military strikes to destroy their nuclear capacity, or ground invasion and occupation, it’s hard to stop them. None of this is an argument against the NPT, efforts to institutionalize norms, or arms control.

They are simply unlikely to prove effective against a determined state seeking to get the bomb.

Another feature about the second nuclear age is that international order depends to a considerable degree on the structure of the system, rather than academic blueprints for how history should evolve in the future.

We are moving toward a multipolar order.

I don’t mean to invoke any academic theory here, but only to make the point that there are multiple decision-making centers in this system. Not one, and not two, but several.

So, the second nuclear age is a multipolar nuclear order, meaning that most major powers in it have nuclear weapons. This is, obviously, a unique development, since in the cold war only two major powers with the bomb really mattered.

That this is a nuclear order means that escalation and even the willingness to use conventional force is necessarily made in a nuclear context.

A third aspect that the realization of a second nuclear age has come about has to do with military technology. Major powers have lost their monopoly over advanced military technologies. It was in the late 1990s that this happened, as second and third-rate powers (Pakistan, North Korea) could get nuclear weapons.

Now, these countries not only have atomic weapons, they have other tools like drones, cyber arsenals, and mobile missiles. Nuclear weapons were once restricted to big wealthy states with an advanced technology base, major powers. They were the only ones with wealth, and the missiles and long-range bombers to deliver it. Technology was a force that worked against multi-polarity here.

No more. Today Pakistan flies drones, and North Korea is building a nuclear ICBM. Now, technology works toward accelerating multi-polarity, further weakening the monopoly major powers once held.

Finally, the second nuclear age isn’t only a structure.

Like all big structures it has processes and dynamics.

Given the overwhelming policy focus devoted to an alternative structure — of a nuclear-nonproliferation regime and its norms — the strategic dynamics of a second nuclear age have received little attention.

Consider that India is building a triad of nuclear forces, many with MIRV warheads. India will be able to destroy from ten to twenty Chinese cities. China and Russia are expanding their own strategic forces.   Japan is buying into U.S. missile defense, big time. Japan, as well has a U.S. nuclear guarantee. Taken together, with a now certain modernization of U.S. strategic forces, a new “pentapolar war system” is forming in Asia. This has to profoundly shape how China sees the world.

The dynamics of a second nuclear age will determine world order.

They are most unlikely to simply be a replay of cold war dynamics. It’s actually quite fantastic when you think about it.

New nuclear interactions played out on the vast geography of Asia, are most unlike the cold war dynamics of Europe.

The second nuclear age calls for a fresh look at the structures, dynamics, and processes of a world order that many did not want to see come about.

But there’s an old saying that applies here. “You have to play the hand you’re dealt, not the one you wish you were dealt.”

For our earlier Forum on the Second Nuclear Age, see the following:

How to prevail in the Second Nuclear Age?

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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