North Korea And The U.S. Navy

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects what is said to be a hydrogen bomb. [EPA]

This past week has seen some extraordinary events in the stand-off between North Korea, and it seems the rest of the world. North Korea continues to test its nuclear weapons, causing a 6.3 magnitude earthquake. Evaluation of these events does indicate the strength of the weaponry used, however, some doubt exists as to the veracity claims of the technology used.

The force of the explosion, at 100-150 kilotons, could have been ten times bigger than North Korea’s previous test. But experts argue that is still not quite powerful enough to have been a genuine hydrogen bomb. Instead, they suggest it might have been an implosion device boosted by tritium and deuterium gas (hydrogen isotopes). If that was the case, making the device small enough to be turned into a warhead that could be carried on an ICBM would be technically difficult. On the other hand, if it turns out to have been a two-stage device, in which an initial blast is used to amplify the main detonation, then it probably was a small thermonuclear bomb, which could be miniaturised into a compact warhead. There is as yet no way of knowing which it was. Although experts are sceptical about the latter, they have been caught out often enough by North Korea’s nuclear programme advancing faster than most expected.

The United States has had several voices of response, including Defense Secretary James Matthis, who said “We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea. But as I said, we have many options to do so.” Diplomatically, both China and Russia claim they are united against the nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Meanwhile, the U.S. has called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, saying that North Korea is “begging for war.” China has apparently made the suggestion that the U.S. and South Korea cease military exercises in exchange for freezing missile and nuclear operations by North Korea. The U.S. demands the “strongest possible measures” be put into effect.

The previous post gives a link to a detailed chronology of North Korean ballistic missile developments. It has been a problem decades in the making, and not easily solved. Other posts have addressed the defenses that the U.S. and Japan have against a threatened strike on Guam, and also the different layers of defense that exist between a potential North Korean missile strike and his many potential targets.

One of these layers is of particular interest, the component provided by the U.S. Navy (USN), specifically the Arleigh Burke class destroyers, equipped with the AN/SPY-1D radar, and carrying the RIM-161 Standard Missile 3 (SM3), and this part of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (Aegis BMD). The name Aegis is taken from ancient Greece, a shield carried by Zeus and Athena, and said to “produce a sound as from a myriad roaring dragons.” (Iliad, 4.17) This is intended to invoke a strong defense, and has been effectively branded as such by Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer. Lockheed continues to sell Aegis technology to the USN under the Aegis BMD program, and also to Japan under the Aegis Ashore banner. The powerful Aegis radars were first fielded on Ticonderoga class cruisers, authorized in 1978, built from 1980, and commissioned from 1983. Their targets were Soviet anti-ship cruise missiles and bombers that would hunt USN carrier battle groups during the Cold War.

This technology has evolved since then to offer some defense from ballistic missiles; per the Congressional Research Service, Aegis BMD

enables warships to shoot down enemy ballistic missiles … Aegis BMD-equipped vessels can transmit their target detection information to the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system and, if needed, engage potential threats using the RIM-161 Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) mid-course interceptors and the RIM-156 Standard Missile 2 Extended Range Block IV (SM-2 Block IV) or RIM-174 Standard Extended Range Active Missile (SM-6) terminal-phase interceptors. Aegis BMD does not have the ability to intercept ICBMs, although future versions may allow limited intercept capability.  [Emphasis added]

As retired F-35 and F-22 pilot Lt. Col. Berke so accurately noted before, information is the most precious commodity. The capability to detect a missile launch from the Sea of Japan, and transmit that through a secure network at the speed of light to every other component of the BMD network is the first and crucial step in the kill chain that hopefully results in a shoot down of each and every North Korean missile fired in anger, or even off-target. I would argue that the U.S. use the United Nations as a forum to define the parameters for any possible North Korean missile launch that should be intercepted with allied BMD assets If, for example, a North Korean missile looks likely to hit close to Tokyo, based upon the trajectory identified by Aegis ships at sea, then BMD should shoot it down. By making our rules of engagement public, this would provide a clear signal to China and Russia that the U.S. and its allies intend to use their BMD capabilities (and potentially learn from any failures) against live enemy missiles, but also temper the risk of escalation into any further missile volleys between any parties.

The U.S.S. John S. McCain after collision with a commercial tanker. [EPA]

Recently, however, the credibility of U.S. BMD deterrence has taken a large step backward due to self-inflicted wounds.  It is related to the concept of friction, as reported in this blog.  We can see the effects of friction on the U.S. Navy’s safety and navigation incidents, which have unfortunately cost of the lives of seventeen seamen, more injured, and perhaps some loss of prestige.

  • U.S.S. John S. McCain (DDG-56) collides with Alnic MC, a Liberian-flagged oil tanker of 30,040 gross tons, on [2017-08-21 05:24] east of the Straight of Malacca. (wikipedia), NavyTimes.
  • U.S.S. Fitzgerald (DDG-62) of 9000 gross tons collides with MV ACX Crystal, a Phillipines-flagged container of 29,060 gross tons.

As noted here, an interesting comparison is with a Russian naval vessel and its collision with a commercial ship in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, on 27 April, close to the busy sea lanes of the Bosporus. Warships don’t transmit an Automatic Identification System (AIS) signal, so the ship is not visible for AIS-connected shipping; however, it would be visible on radar within a certain range, as an unidentified object. Also, warships, in accordance with wide-spread practices, are not predictable in their movements, including speed and course.

As The Economist reports, in a critique of the USN

Critics argue that the 277-ship naval fleet is already overstretched, particularly in the Western Pacific, where naval competition with an increasingly capable China requires a high tempo of operations. The John S.McCain was on its way to Singapore after a “freedom of navigation” mission during which it had sailed through international waters near a reef where China has created an artificial island. The Chinese media have been cock-a-hoop over pictures of American warships limping into port with apparently self-inflicted damage.

The spate of accidents has raised questions about whether they are in some way linked to a common cause. Inevitably, there has been speculation that hacking of the ships’ computers or navigation systems by the Chinese or North Koreans might be responsible. The navy says it has seen nothing that suggests this might have happened.

It is far more likely that unrelenting operational demands on forward-deployed vessels and several years of Pentagon spending distorted by budget caps and sequestration have taken their toll. A report by the Government Accountability Office in 2015 found that the Navy was working on the basis that its Japan-based cruisers and destroyers would spend 67% of their time deployed and 33% in maintenance. That meant there would be no time left for training. Without training drills to remind sailors of the “basic seamanship” referred to by Admiral Richardson, it would not be surprising if some bad habits and sloppiness have crept in. [emphasis added]

Also, here is a great video, showing replay data, based on the Automatic Identification System (AIS) data source:

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