The United States and its allies in the Western Pacific are attempting to ramp up the pressure on North Korea following the Kim regime’s recent intercontinental ballistic missile test.
As part of that effort, the United States Air Force flew a pair of B-1B Lancer strategic bombers over the Korean peninsula. Four South Korean Boeing F-15K Slam Eagles joined the American bombers alongside a pair of Japanese F-2 strike fighters. The Air Force says that the mission was a direct response to the North Korean missile test.
"North Korea remains the most urgent threat to regional stability," Gen. Terrence J. O'Shaughnessy, the Pacific Air Forces commander said.
"Diplomacy remains the lead; however, we have a responsibility to our allies and our nation to showcase our unwavering commitment while planning for the worst-case scenario. If called upon, we are ready to respond with rapid, lethal, and overwhelming force at a time and place of our choosing."
The 10-hour sortie by the B-1B crew, while impressive, was mostly an effort at reassuring jumpy allies. The United States has very few good military options which would prompt North Korea to give up its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programs. Indeed, in the event of a war, South Korea and large parts of Japan would likely be devastated by North Korean missile and artillery strikes.
“I do not believe there are direct military actions that could dissuade or prevent the regime from pursuing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons without risking a response that could devastate Seoul,” Mark Gunzinger, a former Air Force B-52 bomber pilot and current senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments told The National Interest.
The best and most realistic option is to build up allied air defenses in the region.
“Building up the capacity of air and missile defenses in Japan and the ROK would certainly help ‘harden’ our allies against the growing threat of DPRK strikes,” Gunzinger said.
“Significant additional long-range sensors and batteries for missile defense in South Korea and Japan could also increase pressure on China to take more concrete actions against its proxy troublemaker... I think this option is worth consideration.”
Indeed, hardening U.S. allies while building up American defenses of the homeland might be the only rational course of action. As was the case in 1949 with a newly nuclear-armed Soviet Union, the United States will have to likely live with a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @Davemajumdar.