"n Korea" A Real And Imminent Threat

Written by Douglas Nickelson on . Posted in Guest Articles

Publisher’s Note:  This is not a work of fiction.  Rather it is the well developed opinion of a retired officer of the United States Army.  I have known Colonel Nickelson for a good number of years and have no problem vouching for his integrity.  I listed his credentials ahead of his synopsis so the reader can see that they are indeed reading from a qualified writer, and his list of citations and sources is at the end.  It is not short, but it is well worth the read.  I hope and pray he is mistaken.

"Lieutenant Colonel Nickelson retired from the United States Army after 23+ years of enlisted service rising to the senior non-commissioned officer ranks, and then completing another 18+ years as an officer with extensive experience in Northeast Asia. Among his assignments, he was a Plans and Policies Officer for a major Theater Command in Northeast Asia. He is a graduate of the United States Army's Command & General Staff Officer College."

n Korea’s Threatened Launch for January 8, 2017

Author: Douglas H. Nickelson, LTC, USA, RET

Date: January 7, 2017


This article uses the name “n Korea” as a long-held practice by this writer when referring to north Korea. This writer sees n Korea more as a rogue, dictatorial state than a civilized nation. This diversion in naming is not the view of anyone except the author. 

This article highlights facts and analyses considering a possible land based launch of an ICBM from n Korea on or about January 8, 2017, except where modest references to other possibilities are offered.

This article is prepared without the benefit of full and proper editorial review in anticipation of the 1-8-2017 possible launch. 

This article was prepared in its entirety in the early hours of January 7, 2017. 

The Threat as Reported By The Media-

Summarized, in a New Year’s Day pronouncement, North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un “warned” the world that nKorea “is on the verge of launching its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – a missile capable of both carrying a nuclear warhead and reaching the United States.” 

Another Reality-

Though nKorea has purported to the world that it has tested missiles, before, capable of reaching intercontinental status, none have thus far been fired. It would appear nKorea has launched more failures than successes, except in a few cases, and mostly rocket launches to place satellites into orbit.  Though there are independent sources which assert or document the assertion by others that nKorea has used the publicized launching of satellites as a disguise for testing or attempting to test its ballistic missile efforts going back to its tests of Nodong, and Taepo Dong missile tests.   

Seeing the Battlespace/Seeing The Threat-

We military planners talk about seeing the battlespace; we do so as an admonition to preparing to identify threats, whether in terms of the information, cyber or geographical worlds to name a few. Seeing is just part of what Noel Hendrickson, Ph.D, wrote of when his presentation of a paper in 2009 circulated among senior army officers, and then to field grade officers such as myself. In his paper, Dr. Hendrickson led us as readers to employ a unique method of thinking referred to as counterfactual reasoning. Among the teachings, and one of the deep seeded elements is our need to overcome the tendency to “jump to conclusions”. Thus, we need to first see ourselves and how we arrive at conclusions then we can proceed to “seeing” the battlespace or the world around us with far greater clarity. 

Assuming for the moment that n Korea did or does have an intercontinental threat, here are some facts known or deduced on sound information concerning intercontinental ballistic missiles of the type(s) n Korea is believed to have. To discuss intercontinental capability missiles is to ignore, for the time being, Nodong, Musudan, Hwasong 5 & 6, as these though having range, do not, by themselves have range enough to reach outside of nKorea’s closest territorial neightbors, i.e. S Korea, Japan and parts of China, and Taiwan, possibly.  Of interest to this writing then is or are those capable of supposedly reaching intercontinental status from a land-based firing from n Korea. This leaves the Taepo Dong 1 & 2, and it’s far more likely this is reduced to the Taepo Dong 2 because it has a range believed to be capable of achieving 5-6000 kilometers. That would get it, theoretically, to only Hawaii or Alaska. One writer, Phillip Maxon, writing on or for something akin to a blog named ‘38 North’ asserts in 2011 that the Taepo Dong 2 if its payload were lightened, it could reach anywhere in the U.S.. No other source found makes or reaches that same conclusion thus its offered in the main body here as alternative thoughts examined. 

Moving on to the time dimension for intercontinental flight, as an aspect of shaping the threat singularly focused here, I checked several sources and decided on one more reputable than all others. Using known U.S. ballistic missile details as a proxy, and then borrowing from the selected source, I offer that a speed of 550 mph or 880 kph (kilometers per hour) is a reasonable assumption to apply to n Korea’s current state of technological advancement.  This leads to a rather simple calculation, even when range to target times are adjusted for a missile being able to achieve higher speeds at higher altitudes, that a n Korean missile would or could reach Alaska, the far closer objective of Hawaii and Alaska, in about 5 hours and 22 minutes to use a conservative estimate.  It’s far more likely that gauging n Korea’s missile speed capability of late, at least for the few successful launches, the time to Alaska’s outer banks is nearer 6 hours and 22 minutes. So then I wondered, of our ability to defend and ability to defend within the time parameters. Which moves me to the next line of reasoning, and that is what are our defenses and how are they arrayed? 

The Defense(s)-

Allow me to lead off by saying, I don’t have superior knowledge in this matter. Everyone has the same access to the source or sources I will use, any and all are open sources, anyone can access it or them. The only edge I might have, and it’s a personal one, is that there are sources, and there are sources I trust.

In major ways, the U.S. ballistic missile defense system appears in line with the strategic planning concepts offered decades ago in a publicized, and online download readily accessible RAND study on planning ballistic missile defenses arrayed in depth. 

The U.S. National Missile Defense (NMD) System, which is a set of systems within a major system, though one shouldn’t confuse the systems within as sub-systems because they may be used in mutually exclusive actions. The overall system is planned and equipped in an array from strategic, theater, to tactical levels. For purposes of this piece, I am including sources reviewed but not necessarily specifically cited in Addendum 1 on some of the components of the NMD.

Currently, and GlobalSecurities provides much needed detail on these and each of the following but, the components of the NMD System include:

Ground-based interceptor missiles

•Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System

•Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense

•Airborne systems

•Shorter-range anti-ballistic missiles

•Multilateral and international participation

So, what then is a likely response scenario in the event of a successful n Korean launch, where NMD controllers assert the launch to be a ballistic missile and not a rocket intended to set in orbit a satellite? For the sake of brevity, I’ll jump immediately to a published interview between ABC News and RADM Timothy Keating, then Commander of the Pacific Command (2007-2010), and formerly Commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and United States Northern Command (2004-2007).

Quoting in part from that interview, RADM Keating said and his thoughts, which seem plausible as still highly likely since publicly we know of little change in NMD application, were presented as: 

Keating said that “the military is ready to respond with at least five different systems: destroyer, Aegis cruiser, radar, space-based system and ground-based interceptor. All of these components work in conjunction with one another to protect against any missile threat.” 

Will Defense Fail Or Succeed-

It’s a legitimate question. The truth, well it remains to be seen but, it’s highly unlikely that a land based launch from n Korea aimed at any part of the U.S. will succeed. As noted above [Shaping the Threat] the response time afforded by such a launch is the critical and valuable part for the U.S. in all of this. There is sufficient time to ascertain and respond by a variety of means, though there are sources which assert the contrary. In fact, there are far too many in support of and in opposition to my opinion to get too deeply into. What is key in each of the opposing sources comes down to a failure of a single component at a given time in history, and not the overall system of systems. What I read of failures or gaps, appears to be that in subsequent actions such failures were resolved to root cause, and those causes have been corrected over time. More importantly, in 2015, after some necessary budget cutting measures, the Obama Administration made needed cuts to the NMD program inherently citing the program exceeded the needs of NMD or component additions to the system of systems didn’t prove out for effectiveness or cost benefit, though some lawmakers argued to the contrary. I prefer to believe he [President Obama] acted on the best information and analyses available from his staff and, that the cuts made identified “overages” in our system of systems to meet and destroy any attempt at another actor, state or individual, attacking any part of the U.S. by means of a n Korean land launch from the peninsula. Point being, I just can’t believe the President would leave this country vulnerable. But only a live launch, fired in anger will give us all the answer we need. 

Other Actors-

Of consequence, two actors are all that pose cause for a pause. Russia and China. Of these two, it really comes down to China. Russia has long lacked the leverage over n Korea, compared to China. And given recent U.S. sanctions, it really doesn’t seem likely Russia would or will risk military involvement in the moments after a U.S. interception of a n Korean missile. Russia, by all appearances in the world scene, appears to be more interested in returning more to cold war days with emphasis on cyberwar. Most will quickly bring to mind the recent matters related to among other things, assertions as to the depth and breadth of Russia’s involvement in cyberwarfare in the American political arena. But what most may have forgotten, and what U.S. information experts and analysts appear more and still interested in is the quantity and quality of information and intelligence Russia gained from Eric Snowden. ABC reported U.S. Intel Heads take the position that Snowden did profound damage to the U.S. based on analyses and assessments that both China and Russia hacked into Snowden’s information files. In the ABC report, cited here, National Intelligence Director insisted before a Senate committee that not only were U.S. collection efforts compromised but also some of our closest allies. The point being, Russia is ruled by an otherwise career operative for the committee for state security, known worldwide as the KGB. He is and was trained and developed in covert matters. It is unlikely such a person would all the sudden prefer being thrust into publicly overt actions, short of instigating or reacting to a direct threat on Russia. He is more likely to watch, and wait on matters related to n Korea. 

China is a bit different. China is unlikely as well to risk too much for the sake of its ill-mannered nephew. But there’s something more at interest in their decision making in the matter of any sort of response to an American interception of a n Korean missile, armed or not. There are several reasons I believe China is less likely to initiate a response strike or military action in this matter. I believe there are two major factors, if the two can actually be separated, why there is likely to be a reasoned response, and far more likely a diplomatic disapproval of any U.S. action to intercept and destroy a n Korean missile, for any reason. These two are energy and economics, the Big E’s. Concerning energy, we’re both dependents in this matter for the most part although Russia does have some energy reserves that I’ve anecdotally heard that the cost of extraction is too high given the current prices in the energy markets. Again this is anecdotal, and for the purposes of this paper highly unlikely anyway to have a bearing on a Chinese response of interest to the U.S. considering n Korea for the known part does not have energy reserves to speak of such that China would rear up and come to n Korea’s aid. So that leaves economics. From n Korea to China the equation is all China giving and n Korea receiving. n Korea is a drain on Chinese wealth. Even China has shown in recent months to begin what is an obvious reduction in aid to n Korea. From June to July, 2016, alone China’s exports to n Korea dropped to approximately US$193 million. This is from a group called the North Korean Economy Watch, where in the same article on the July net value the report describes this as a nearly 28% drop in the month. Granted they cite they’re quoting from the Korea Herald.  Now to keep in mind the actor relationship in the matter is the U.S.-China or China-U.S. one depending on how you prefer to look at it.

Of importance to this matter is the entanglement of U.S. and Chinese interests. I limited my examination to the Big E’s, I guess I should admit that the economics piece has two sub factors, Chinese investment in U.S. economic markets, with our environment not being a distant second to stocks and bonds. Working backwards, the Chinese government has a large holding of U.S. treasuries. The one figure I found most consistently of late is that the U.S. Debt to the Chinese is approximately US$1.115 trillion as of the end of October, 2016.  And the environment matter, I’ll call it a Small-e, with Big E consequences. China, for whatever reasons of its own, has found it beneficial to collaborate with the U.S. in the matter of farming. Now that appears to be limited to the U.S. doing the farming and exporting of food to China. The best I can quantify this is to look at even broader measure of imports and exports between the U.S. and China, where food is a factor but not the largest. One has to dig into the details of the U.S. Census Report on the 2016 Trade Report on the U.S. and China. Here’s the bottomline: China stands to lose far more by losing us as a trade partner. The U.S. imports far more than we export to China. The trade imbalance for 2016, 2015 and 2014 were US$319.2 billion, US$367.2 billion and US$344.8 billion, respectively. Unless the U.S. made a direct strike on n Korea soil in response to a missile launch, I just don’t see China doing anything more than using their position at the U.N. to file a formal complaint on behalf of n Korea.

Wrap up-

A launch from n Korea over the Pacific Ocean, deemed threatening by U.S. and U.S. allies, will be met with sudden and destructive response before any such missile or rocket is afforded a chance to do harm to the U.S.. Certainly a launch with a trajectory to the south and remaining on the peninsula might have a different result if theater level strategic or tactical defenses are slow for whatever reason in engaging but, the premise all along for this paper has been an intercontinental launch, and it is unlikely to reach mainland United States or Hawaii before being intercepted by any of five possible defense systems. And for a single, saber-rattling incident that the U.S. and China have come to know and expect from China’s ill-mannered nephew, U.S. – China relations are so entangled economically that it is highly unlikely China would mount an immediate counter-fire or armed response of any sort where no real harm is done except to destroy a n Korean missile or rocket. A U.N. measure sanctioning the U.S. for unilateral action, now that’s a different story. The story being the world’s perception of the decaying value of the United Nations.  

Addendum 1- National Defense System “Components” List of Related Sources

1."Missile Defense: Next Steps for the USA's GMD". Defense Industry Daily. 1 June 2015.

2.United States Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Overviewaccessdate=2015-05-08

3.New missile defences in Europe:Shooting down a plan, Economist, 24 September 2009.

4.RIM-161 SM-3 (AEGIS Ballistic Missile Defense), spacewar.com.

5.NY Times article, 9/18/09.

6.Russia's Putin praises Obama's missile defense decision, LA Times, 9/19/09.

7.No missile defense in Eastern Europe, foreignpolicy.com, 9/17/09.

8.Obama sharply alters missile defense plans By William H. McMichael, 19 Sep 2009, navytimes.com.

9.Article on SM-3 missile system, strategypage.com, 10/4/09.

10."MDA announces next 6 BMD ships", Navy Times, 12 November 2009.

11."MDA - Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense". mda.mil.

12."Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense". Missile Defense Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense. 

13.BMD Strategies: Multilayered Ballistic Missile Defense Systems Part 2 and 3, by Daniel Goure, Arlington,         Va., spacewar.com, 21 April 2009.

In a January 1, 2017 New York Times article, Asia-Pacific writer Choe Sang-Hun describes nKorea’s latest threat announcement.

Wikipedia does what seems consistent with most sources in detailing a timeline of launches by type, and annotated for success or failure. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_North_Korean_missile_tests. Retrieved 1/4/2017 from the world wide web.

See BBC News Asia, February 7, 2016, “North Korea’s Missile Programme”. A detailed chronology of nKorea’s tactical and strategic weapons programs, and open source facts related to rocket and missile launches.

CNNs Euan McCurdy and Paula Hancocks write in an April 29, 2016 article, “North Korea Launches Two Mid-Range Missiles, Both Tests Fail”, ‘…north Korea insists launch is to put satellite in orbit’.

Personal copy of paper available from this writer; Dr. Hendrickson’s 2009 paper on “Counterfactual Reasoning A Basic Guide for Analysts, Strategists and Decision Makers” available upon request in portable document format (PDF).

See end note iii., BBC News, Key North Korea Missiles graphic.

In the June 1st, 2013 issue of the Economist, the article’s author or authors, venture the conclusion that US ballistic missile speeds are of the range shown. See “Speed Is The New Stealth”.

Personal calculations based on a range of 5100 kilometers at speeds of 800 and 990 kph.

RAND authors David Gompart and Jeffrey Isaacson layout, for the National Defense Institute, an adaptive approach to Planning A Ballistic Defense System of Systems.

ABC News (electronic), Interview of RADM Keating by ABC’s Martha Raddatz in a February 26, 2009 piece entitled “U.S. Ready To Respond To North Korean Missile”.

Congressional Record, July 18, 2015. Congressional arguments appear focused on the items to cut or reduce spending on to achieve a $1.7 billion cut in defense spending, of which certain aspects of missile defense were included.

ABC News authors James Meek, Luis Martinez, and Alexander Mallin, in a January 29, 2014 story “Edward Snowden did ‘Profound Damage’ to U.S. Security’”, reporting on National Intelligence Director Clapper’s testimony before a Senate hearing committee. Director Clapper implied that Russia and China either were voluntarily provided Snowden information, by Snowden, or that information collected and stolen by Snowden was hacked and retrieved by both Chinese and Russian intelligence agencies.

August 25, 2016, Korea Herald, “China-North Korea trade drops, on sanctions and lack of foreign currency”.

December 22, 2016, Kimberly Amadeo, thebalance.com, “U.S. Debt to China: How Much Does It Own?”. . Retrieved January 7, 2017 from the world wide web.