Prudence and common sense appear to be absent in the Obama administration and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who during the current crisis with North Korea, falsely reassure the American people that Pyongyang cannot deliver on its threats to make a nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland.
North Korea could deliver a nuclear bomb in the hold of a freighter under a foreign flag to destroy a U.S. port city such as New York or Los Angeles. They could give a bomb to terrorist groups such as al Qaeda or Hezbollah to deliver by truck or plane across the porous U.S. border. They could use a false-flagged freighter to move a Scud or their medium-range Nodong missile close enough to make a nuclear strike on the U.S. mainland.
What about North Korea’s claim that it has long-range nuclear missiles that can strike the United States right now? If our current crop of leaders is as prudent as were President Dwight Eisenhower and Sen. Lyndon Johnson in 1957, they would warn the American people that North Korean nuclear threats to the U.S. heartland may be real. After all, North Korea has had at least three successful nuclear tests and successfully orbited a satellite the latter being the usual indicator that a nuclear power has achieved intercontinental reach.
A recently leaked Defense Intelligence Agency briefing concludes North Korea probably has miniaturized nuclear warheads for ballistic missiles. The Obama administration is desperately backpedaling from this assessment, trying to downplay and even deny the existence of a North Korean nuclear-missile threat in sad contrast to the example of strategic prudence, realism and honesty set by Eisenhower and Johnson.
After the Soviet Union successfully tested a nuclear weapon in 1949 and then launched into orbit its Sputnik satellite in 1957, a bipartisan national consensus quickly emerged that the USSR had achieved a technological breakthrough, and would soon possess intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of delivering nuclear annihilation against the American heartland. Consequently, the United States launched a crash program to develop ICBMs and other systems to deter this emerging Soviet missile threat.
Liberal historians often criticize those Republican and Democratic leaders of 1957 for “overreacting” to an allegedly exaggerated “missile gap” that spurred the United States to outrace the Soviet Union in ICBM production. President John F. Kennedy was glad, though, to have a 5-to-1 advantage over the Soviets in ICBMs during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
There is no such thing as an excess of caution when it comes to anticipating and preparing to deter or defeat the existential threat represented by nuclear weapons. Prudence, caution and preparedness are the watchwords that enabled the United States to avoid a thermonuclear holocaust and ultimately prevail in the Cold War.
Contrary to most press reporting, that North Korea has nuclear missiles is old news. Previously, the DIA (2011), European intelligence agencies (2009), and a CIA official (2008) have all stated publicly that North Korea has miniaturized nuclear warheads and deployed them on its Nodong medium-range missile. This is a conservative, sound assessment, since North Korea has been working on nuclear warheads for nearly 20 years, and has had three nuclear tests. Israel and South Africa developed nuclear warheads for their missiles without any nuclear tests.
North Korea’s long-range missile orbited a satellite that weighs only 220 pounds. Can a nuclear warhead weigh so little? North Korea’s so-called Space Launch Vehicle could deliver against the U.S. heartland any of the following nuclear weapons:
Using the technology of 56 years ago, the United States in 1957 deployed the MK-9, a nuclear weapon weighing 120 pounds with a yield of 15 kilotons, as powerful as the 9,000-pound Hiroshima bomb (10 to 15 kilotons), but with weight reduced to nearly 1 percent.
Using the technology of 51 years ago, the United States in 1962 deployed the W-45 missile warhead, which weighed 150 pounds with a yield of 15 kilotons.
Using the technology of 49 years ago, the United States in 1964 deployed the W-58 Polaris warhead, which weighed 257 pounds and had a yield of 200 kilotons some 20 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. The W-58 was deployed 19 years after Hiroshima.
North Korea has been working on nuclear weapons for 19 years, but using modern 21st-century technology, with access to copious declassified U.S. materials on nuclear-weapons design, and with help from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and others.
The W-58 was a thermonuclear warhead, while North Korea is assessed as having only plutonium- and uranium-fission atomic weapons. Might North Korea have the H-bomb? In 2010, North Korea may have conducted two clandestine tests of fusion nuclear devices, according to credible European analysis of radionuclides. The United States focuses on North Korea’s plutonium and uranium programs because that is all we can see. Hiding advancement to thermonuclear weapons is relatively easy. The U.S. did not know Israel developed thermonuclear weapons, and assessed Israel as having only atomic weapons until the defection of Israeli nuclear weapons expert Mordechai Vanunu exposed that Israel has thermonuclear weapons, too developed clandestinely without testing.
The worst case for the United States is if North Korea has super-electromagnetic pulse weapons. A single such nuclear warhead detonated over America would generate a powerful electromagnetic pulse that would assuredly collapse the national electric grid and other critical infrastructures necessary to sustain modern society and the lives of 310 million Americans. Such a super-warhead would likely be small enough for delivery against the U.S. mainland by North Korea’s long-range missiles. Russia, South Korea, China and the U.S. EMP Commission have all warned that North Korea has super-electromagnetic pulse nuclear weapons.
Prudence and caution dictate that North Korea’s threats to make nuclear attacks on the U.S. mainland should not be lightly dismissed as mere “bluster.” If we are prepared to be so misled by our leaders, then we should be ready to hear from the White House and Congress in the near future that Iran despite orbiting several satellites, and even if it conducts three successful nuclear tests is still not a real threat to the American heartland.
Peter Vincent Pry is executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, and served on the Congressional EMP Commission and the House Armed Services Committee and at the CIA.