How can the U.S. Navy destroy North Korea should Washington give the word? It can’t. Or at least it stands little chance of doing so by its lonesome barring improbable circumstances. What the navy can do is contribute to a joint or multinational campaign that destroys the Northern regime or its armed forces. But even that would involve perils, hardships and steep costs.
It bears noting at the outset that destroy is a loaded term, connoting wholesale slaughter of a foe. It need not be so. For martial sage Carl von Clausewitz , destroying an opposing force means incapacitating it as a fighting force . “The fighting forces must be destroyed,” insists Clausewitz; “that is, they must be put in such a condition that they can no longer carry on the fight .” Disabling a hostile regime so it cannot resist our demands would likewise qualify.
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So it’s possible to overcome an antagonist with minimal loss of life and treasure to both contenders. Indeed, it’s highly desirable, as China’s strategist Sun Tzu counsels. The “best policy,” advises Master Sun, “is to take a state intact,” and to do so without bankrupting your own treasury and wasting the flower of your military youth. Such forbearance is hard to pull off amid the clangor of combat, but it constitutes an ideal to strive toward. In 1940, for example, German legions destroyed the French Army as a fighting force along the Meuse while inflicting minimal destruction by physical measures. It can be done.
Onward. Let’s proceed down the scale of violence, beginning with strategic nuclear strikes and ending with interdiction of shipping and air traffic bound to or from the North. First, start with the trivial case , namely submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) disgorged from Ohio-class fleet ballistic-missile subs (SSBNs) or, someday, their Columbia-class successors . Full-scale atomic bombardment would end the North Korean military and government beyond question.
Trivial may seem like an odd word choice to describe firepower of end-of-times magnitude. Nevertheless, it’s a fitting choice as a matter of logic. We can discount this course of action altogether. Any president would order SLBMs unleashed to retaliate against an enemy first strike, but no sane president would order them used to execute a first strike. Such a rash course would vitiate nuclear deterrence, which has underwritten national security for seven decades.
After all, the keystone of strategic deterrence is an invulnerable second-strike force. That refers to an arsenal of nuclear weapons certain to survive an enemy first strike, thence to rain down fire and fury on the offender afterward. SSBNs represent the quintessential retaliatory force. Fleet boats rotate out on patrol all the time. Having ridden out the attack, U.S. SSBN skippers would fire their missiles—setting ablaze an inferno sure to consume the attacker. Any nonsuicidal foe would desist from aggression rather than roll the iron dice.
Using SLBMs or other strategic nuclear weapons for first strikes would gut the logic of deterrence—and set a grim precedent in future controversies involving major opponents like China or Russia. Therefore, no president would or should take that step. QED .
Second, there are tactical nuclear weapons, in the form of bombs dropped from aircraft and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles unleashed by surface ships or attack subs. With their lesser yields, tactical nukes could accomplish much the same as SLBMs if delivered in sufficient volume, and without such frightful risk of escalation.
But tactical strikes aren’t a near-term option for technical reasons. President George H. W. Bush ordered tactical nukes withdrawn from seagoing forces in 1991 (eliciting cheers from those of us who handled them). Now, the Trump administration may reverse Bush’s decision. Officialdom is putting the finishing touches on a new Nuclear Posture Review that may espouse new sea-launched tactical nukes. Leaked copies of the review indicate that a nuclear-tipped cruise missile may indeed be in the offing.
Still, decreeing that a weapon system should exist doesn’t bring that system into being overnight. Lawmakers have to debate and approve it—always a fractious process when it comes to doomsday weaponry. Contracts have to be negotiated with munitions makers. Hardware and software have to be developed. The system has to be built, tested under realistic conditions, refined afterward in keeping with the test results, and manufactured and deployed to the fleet.
That takes time. Back in 2009, for example, the U.S. Navy prevailed on industry to develop a new long-range antiship missile (LRASM). The new “bird” is a modified version of a working missile , yet only this year is it ready to be fitted aboard U.S. Air Force B-1 bombers ( give ‘em the gun! ). Only next year—ten years after the initial request—will it be deployed aboard navy warplanes. And that’s a sprightly pace by Pentagon standards . By the LRASM standard we might see nuclear-tipped cruise missiles in the fleet circa 2027–28 if the administration gets congressional assent and funding this election year. Kim Jong-un is not sweating at the prospect of tactical atomic strikes from the sea.