American overseers will certainly exploit the rudimentary state of North Korean reconnaissance technology. Oceans and seas are big places, the biggest carrier group tiny by contrast. It is no simple task to detect, target and engage maritime forces riding the high seas. China’s People’s Liberation Army found this out to its chagrin during the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait crisis , when President Bill Clinton dispatched two carrier groups to the island’s vicinity to deter military action disrupting that year’s presidential elections. Beijing could neither target nor even find U.S. naval forces cruising the Western Pacific, ostensibly a Chinese nautical preserve. There’s little reason to suppose Pyongyang would enjoy better prospects today—unless, say, the DPRK military is a beneficiary of information passed to it by the PLA under the table. China might seek paybacks by proxy for 1995–96.
But third, the strategic canon warns us to expect the perverse in martial competition or strife. Clausewitz counsels that chance and uncertainty help constitute the climate surrounding warfare, and that the wisest military sage can do little more than stack the deck in his favor. He may lose anyway. Edward Luttwak reminds us that while we may conduct our affairs according to rational cost/benefit logic in peacetime, combatants are susceptible to “ironic reversals” in wartime, meaning turnabouts of fortune on the battlefield. They tend to overextend themselves, whether out of ignorance or euphoria, and thereby expose themselves to setbacks or defeat.
Luttwak’s “paradoxical logic” of strategy exempts no one—including U.S. naval aviation. So let’s frame maritime strategy toward North Korea with confidence, while abjuring overconfidence like the plague.
James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and is coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific (second edition forthcoming 2018). The views voiced here are his alone.