Activists of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) protest the conflict between North Korea and the USA. Britta Pedersen/PA Images. All rights reserved.It is October 2019 and Trump is in serious trouble as his domestic support crumbles. He has failed conspicuously in foreign affairs, the core issue for “making America great again”. The mess in Afghanistan continues despite the United States military's free rein to run the war its way, and troops are also bogged down in Iraq and Syria where Iranian influence continues to expand. His attempt to derail the Iran nuclear agreement is failing thanks to opposition from other participants, even Britain and France. All this is happening as the 2020 presidential election looms.
There is a complete and utter stalemate whose tensions are becoming unbearable.
What brings this all to a head is North Korea’s success in starting to deploy intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with thermonuclear warheads and able to target any part of the United States. Just as Kim Jong-un's regime views such a capability as the only means to ensure its survival, so Trump’s bottom line is that he will not, under any circumstances, allow the United States to be put at risk in this way (see "Trump in a fix: North Korea and Iran", 9 September 2017).
There is a complete and utter stalemate whose tensions are becoming unbearable. Under these circumstances, war could start by accident (see "North Korea: a catastrophe foretold", 29 September 2017). But an even greater danger lurks, reflecting two factors that have sharpened between 2017 and 2019.
The first is the mix of personality and politics. Trump is an out-and-out narcissist to a degree that is unusual even among political leaders. Personal status is everything to him, measured now both in his domestic prestige and, even more, in America’s (that is, his) standing in the world. He has constantly returned to the frame of American influence being in decline for at least two decades in the face of all other states which, by definition, are “lesser” and thus far weaker.
China is becoming a direct rival, and that is bad enough. But it is far worse that a jumped-up little state like North Korea simply will not do as it is told. After three years of tweets, bluster and pressure, Trump has virtually staked his presidency on not allowing Pyongyang's nuclear power to materialise. By late 2019, in this scenario, it has – and Trump faces a challenge which he cannot avoid.
The escaping genie
The second factor applies here. Many people have argued in recent years that any attack on North Korea would have to focus on its nuclear forces – both warheads and missiles. But so well protected are they, there is no guarantee a US attack will work, even with the new and hugely potent conventionally-armed earthquake-bombs, the GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator.
Major nuclear powers have long envisaged circumstances where limited nuclear wars might be fought and won.
In any war on the peninsula, it is clear that the North Korean regime will only be able to sustain its army and its firepower for two or three weeks. While it could do huge damage in that time, leading to hundreds of thousands of people killed, it would ultimately collapse – unless it had preserved some nuclear weapons. And that should be possible (see "Trump vs North Korea: a 1945 echo", 10 August 2017).
In 2017, the United States could destroy really well protected underground targets by using very large thermonuclear weapons, whose impact would stretch across much of east Asia, including China and Japan. But it looks increasingly likely that by 2019 the latest variant of the B61 tactical nuclear bomb will be available. This is the B61-12, which has proved in tests to be remarkably accurate and to have an earth-penetrating capability.
Hans M Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists produced one of the best briefings on this, in 2015. It began: “The capability of the new B61-12 nuclear bomb seems to continue to expand, from a simple life-extension of an existing bomb, to the first U.S. guided nuclear gravity bomb, to a nuclear earth-penetrator with increased accuracy.”
Kristensen draws out the significance:
“The evidence that the B61-12 can penetrate below the surface has significant implications for the types of targets that can be held at risk with the bomb. A nuclear weapon that detonates after penetrating the earth more efficiently transmits its explosive energy to the ground, thus is more effective at destroying deeply buried targets for a given nuclear yield. A detonation above ground, in contrast, results in a larger fraction of the explosive energy bouncing off the surface.”
This means that a much smaller tactical nuclear weapon can have an impact on a deeply buried target such as a nuclear bunker. Kristensen quotes a 2005 study from the US National Academies: “the yield required of a nuclear weapon to destroy a hard and deeply buried target is reduced by a factor of 15 to 25 by enhanced ground-shock coupling if the weapon is detonated a few meters below the surface.”
In another article, Kristensen had written about the “usability” of the B61-12, citing the observation of US airforce generals that low yield but very potent nuclear weapons could prove useful because they limited wider damage
All this causes concern even in some of the more thoughtful security circles. And to most people, after seventy-two years when the nuclear genie has been kept in the bottle, the very idea of using nuclear weapons in any circumstances is far too dangerous. But this attitude is also too comforting, in that – as a recent Oxford Research Briefing illustrates – major nuclear powers have long envisaged circumstances where limited nuclear wars might be fought and won.
The really nasty combination we now face is of an unbalanced leader in Washington fixated on status facing a paranoid regime in Pyongyang, with each partner determined to take all action it deems necessary. That is already perilous, but will grow more so in the next two years. By late 2019 the development and testing of the B61-12 could be accelerated to make it available before the currently planned deployment in the early 2020s. Trump is a danger now, he will be a greater danger in the coming years, and he will continue to be so the longer he holds office.