Thursday, September 21, 2017

Elon Musk should worry about Kim Jong Un

The conventional wisdom is that, if North Korea detonates a nuclear missile near any US or allied territory, be it Guam or Seattle or Tokyo or Seoul, the US will massively retaliate: The NK air defense will be eliminated along with their offensive artillery, their naval assets sunk, their nuclear infrastructure destroyed, and most of the NK offensive capability against South Korea smashed.  Even if the missile was successfully intercepted, the act of firing it would make a certain war now better for the US than an uncertain but possibly more devastating attack in the future.

And, the conventional wisdom is that the North Korean government knows this, and so its nukes will not be fired as a first strike.  They are a deterrent: should the regime's existence be threatened, the additional risk of invasion will seem moot, US deterrence against North Korea vanishes, and the missiles get launched.  So a credible North Korean nuclear missile capability makes the stability of the North Korean regime in the interests of the US.

The missile that North Korea fired over Japan failed during reentry.  Packaging a nuclear weapon into a reentry vehicle is known to be difficult.  It will be some time before they demonstrate reentry capability.  There remains a limited amount of time, perhaps a year or two, during which North Korea will not have the capability to attack the US directly.  If the US wishes to snuff out the North Korean threat before it reaches full maturity it must do so before then, and the person who will ultimately decide the US strategy is Donald Trump.  Mr. Trump has convinced many international leaders that he is unpredictable.

The US has attempted to punish the North Korean regime for decades with economic sanctions.  These have cost the North Koreans terribly.  In particular, millions may have died of starvation when their crops failed and they were unable to import food to make up shortages.  Their leadership has remained undeterred and perhaps unaffected by the sanctions.  The US hope and North Korean fear is that mass starvation will cause the populace to rebel against the regime and replace it with one less interested in bullying other countries.

The sanctions play into the narrative that the Americans are still actively at war with North Koreans, in which they specifically target harm at ordinary people in the country.  North Koreans are frequently reminded that their privations are due to American evil and that their government is actively struggling against that evil.  Their bellicose actions towards South Korea and Japan are woven believably into this narrative.

The logic that prevents North Korea from using its nuclear weapons relies on the assumption that the thing that is threatened (the lives of many American or presumably South Korean or Japanese citizens) is so valuable to people in the US that they are willing to risk the lives of millions of their own and allied citizen to secure against that threat.  North Korea has repeatedly demonstrated, however, that the US will not respond massively to attacks which cause little or no loss of life.

In 2010, North Korea torpedoed and sank a South Korean military ship, killing 46 crew members.  Later that year, they shelled a South Korean island, killing four.  In 1987, North Korean agents blew up a South Korean airliner, killing 115 aboard.  None of these actions provoked a military response from the US or South Korea.

In 2014, North Korean hackers stole internal information from Sony Pictures Entertainment, and then used a combination of blackmail with that information and direct terrorist threats to cause Sony to stop the theatrical release of a movie critical of the North Korean regime.  Sony set aside $15m to cover associated direct damage and lost any money that might have been made on the film.  The next year, New Regency cancelled production of another movie critical of North Korea.

On July 9, 1962, the US detonated a 1.4 metatonne thermonuclear bomb 250 miles above Johnson island and 900 miles from Hawaii.  Because the bomb was above the atmosphere, there was no blast damage at ground level.  However, the electromagnet pulse from the bomb blew out 300 street lights in Honolulu and damaged the Kauai'i microwave link, several phone communication to the island.  The beta particles (high speed electrons) from the bomb, which would be converted into simple heat in an airburst, formed radiation belts around the Earth that disabled three satellites and lasted five years.

Many of the effects had been predicted, but still came as a shock to some in the military.  Long-lived degredation of the Low Earth Orbit environment was not in the interests of either of the superpowers at the time.  The US and USSR signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty the next year, ending exoatmospheric nuclear tests by the two.

North Korea is the first ICBM-armed nation that does NOT have orbital infrastructure.  That makes asymmetrical nuclear warfare possible.  During the next few years when their deterrent appears inevitable but is not yet mature, North Korea has the capability to detonate a nuclear weapon just above the atmosphere.

  • If the weapon can be detonated within 80 km of a satellite, that satellite can be directly killed.  Possible targets include the three US KH-12 optical spy satellites currently in orbit, which North Korea could excuse as being legitimate military targets, actively engaged against it, of a state it is currently at war with.  There is no production line for those satellites.  If they are lost, it will take years to replace them.
  • The Low Earth Orbit radiation environment can be made substantially more adverse.  It is possible to make satellites survive these conditions: the GPS satellites currently orbit partially within the Van Allen radiation belts and are specially hardened to tolerate those conditions.  Geosynchronous and Low Earth Orbit satellites have not generally been built that robust.  In particular, the $100 billion International Space Station is in Low Earth Orbit and unable to protect its occupants from increased radiation.  A North Korean detonation could cause the astronauts to evacuate and permanently abandon the ISS.
  • The weapon could be detonated over the Sea of Japan between Japan and South Korea, for instance, a bit north of Tsushima.  It would appear to be just another demonstration until the moment of detonation.  A single detonation could damage millions of vehicles in both countries without directly killing anyone and without causing similar damage in North Korea or significant fallout.  The resulting logistical problem would cost many billions of dollars to fix.
This is all so expensive that I think it sufficiently deters the US from initiating a strike on North Korea right now.  The window for snuffing out the North Korean nuclear threat has closed.

Once the North Koreans have a credible re-entry vehicle, however, a new window opens.  It's not clear that the US would be willing to go to war and risk an actual nuclear ground strike in response to an North Korean EMP strike.  So that means North Korea can demonstrate an EMP strike and use the threat of a larger EMP strike to extort the US and its allies for billions of dollars a year.

To bring all this around to the clickbait title of this post, I'm concerned that the consequence of those demonstrations is that Low Earth Orbit is going to become uninhabitable in the next few years.  That's going to put a serious crimp in Elon Musk's plans to launch people to the ISS and eventually elsewhere.  So maybe our real life Tony Stark can figure out some way to fix North Korea.