Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Nuclear deterrence is limited by geography (armscontrolwonk.com)
47 points by robszumski on Sept 25, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments

Jeffrey Lewis often has smart things to say, but sometimes his articles make no sense, at least from a technical, on their face, perspective. If nukes really do fly, whether they fly over Russia or not is totally irrelevant. At a minimum, given only a heading, Russia would see that only the far east could be conceivably attacked, which is not a threat to the Russian nation, or its nuclear deterrent, and would not be the action of a power trying to attack Russia. In reality, satellites and radars would also be able to measure velocity, and this, even only with satellite and without radar, would make it clear that the target was NK. Russia might lodge a protest about its airspace being violated, but this would be comically minor compared to the rest of the diplomatic issues to be resolved after an actual nuclear attack.

Would the missile be in the atmosphere at the time it passes over Russia, or would it still be in space? I hit up Google and it wasn't helpful in answering this question.

If it is still in space, I'm not sure that Russia really has much ground to stand in, with regards to complaining.

This really has nothing to do with the altitude of the missile. Any ICBM that the US sends over Russia without talking with them first would be an extreme provocation, and would give Russia justification to do whatever they wanted (hopefully WWIII wouldn't result, but lots of other bad things could happen). This is not the same scale as North Korea test firing a missile over Japan (and look how nervous Japan got). Pre-coordinating a strike with Russia removes the time advantage that ICBMs have over bombers, and it would be a rare situation where Russia would give permission to let an American nuke overfly its territory.

Similarly, if Russia shot an ICBM over US territory at any altitude, the US would freak out and be justified in sanctioning the crap out of Russia. Unfortunately, the US is not in the way of any of Russia's targets (unless the target is the US), so it's mostly a one-way consideration.

I'm sure they'd be upset, but the USSR was the first country to overfly other nations with a man made object in space. I doubt they'd do anything other than yell about it? It's not like they could effectively sanction the US.

I am not an expert in these matters but, if I understand correctly, they can tell velocity and direction to see that it's not going to hit then. I'm not sure that it enters their airspace, however.

Are there any treaties or international laws regarding this? Again, Google is not being helpful.

Recent NK tests have been in Space (eg, much higher than the ISS) when they pass over Japan. But that's been sufficient to make Japan quite nervous.


It seems obvious that we shouldn't be too worried about things in space passing high, high above us - but the key difference is that ICBMs aren't designed to orbit. They are designed to fall out space, from a great height, and go bang. So while orbital whatever "just passing through" is relatively benign, a nuke doing the same thing is an active threat.

(Even more-so for American systems, which I believe can make course corrections at their apogee; so the current trajectory is not a guarantee)

Right, it made them nervous but, in the end, there was no major activity taken. I didn't know it there are any international regulations about it, or treaties around it. This is one subject Google is not very helpful with, though I may not know the correct terminology to search effectively with.

In the NK missile tests, Japan (rightfully) was pretty pissy but the end result has been largely nothing. My guess, and it is only a guess, is that it'd be much the same if, for some reason, we sent a missile through space and over Russian territory.

Though, I guess, Russia really wouldn't have much ability to sanction the US or enforce said sanctions. We don't really require anything from Russia and they are not close allies with anyone we do depend on.

Right, so you haven't heard any of the noise over NK sending up rockets then? Nukes are not spy sattelites, they are extremely destructive and symbolic weapons and you say the russians will be fine with an overflight based on their faith in the current administration... because that is really the argument to be had in this scenario: is instrument error more or less likely than a trumpian sneak attack?

A big part of the problem with flying over Russia (or any other nation) is that nuclear missiles are fallible mechanical systems. If it fails and drops out of the sky then you've fired a nuclear weapon at the wrong country. They might decide that's fine if it doesn't detonate, but that's by no means guaranteed. Would you be willing to take that risk?

Incidentally, there’s actually a map projection where all “great circle” routes (shortest paths on a sphere, ie missile paths) are straight lines. It’s called the gnomonic projection, and it could have been used to illustrate the Russian-overflight issue more clearly.

Although it’s limited to only showing half of a sphere at a time, so it doesn’t solve the problem of illustrating a southern around-the-world route. An azimuthal equidistant projection centered at the launch site or target would work for that.

The existence of the gnomonic projection isn't very surprising, as it's just the perspective projection used by all artists to go from a spherical field of view to a flat plane. That way it's also easy to understand why it can't handle more than half of the sphere.

To the grandparent poster: A gnomonic projection is not the most useful for these particular maps, because the distances are so long that distortion starts getting out of control.

Better would be some kind of azimuthal projection centered on North Korea (azimuthal equidistant perhaps), with other segments (those not including NK as an endpoint) drawn as the appropriate great circle arcs.

The big unmentioned thing here is that what would Russia do to respond to an ICBM flying over them from the South? If they have an engage-on-detection doctrine, is that only pointed north towards the US or would it still apply from something originating from NK?

In essence, does Russia become a similar defensive blanket for the US?

No, one of the first things that is considered when deciding if an unknown missile is hostile is to look at its point of origin (comically abbreviated POO). If a missile originates from NK, then Russia would first assume it is headed for the US. They would need to gather trajectory information indicating that the missile was heading for a Russian target before they did anything. They would be pissed at North Korea for starting WWIII, but would probably just let the missile fly overhead and try to take advantage of the political situation later.

Can someone explain in simple language why we still think nuclear deterrence is a good idea? Is any nation on Earth myopic enough to think that responding to a nuclear attack with a nuclear escalation is a viable strategy?

Making North Korea easier to hit by US nukes won't make them step down. North Korea is scared senseless and backed into a corner (they've been at war with the US for the better part of a century and preparing for an invasion by an enemy that is several times their size), trying to scare them further won't prevent them from doing anything stupid.

Maybe I'm missing something but this sounds like it's only concerned with maintaining American military dominance rather than guaranteeing peaceful coexistence or at least the continued existence of the human race. Nuclear weapons are neither necessary nor sufficient to win a war against North Korea. If the conflict were to ever go nuclear, nuking North Korea won't make the country back down -- it will only alienate China, South Korea (or what's left of it) and Japan. Not to mention the entire International Community.

Nuclear deterrence has been a controversial topic for 50 years. There have always been arguments for nuclear disarmament instead.

I took the point of this article to be that the ICBM portion of the US triad does not work on NK since a missile must overfly China or Russia.

I personally don't think there is much risk of war with NK. NK has everything to lose and nothing to gain by starting any sort of war.

Since we have Trump on board, the post might be even more interesting with a slide 10: let South Korea/Japan go nuclear, in face of the political issues.

The US doctrine on nuclear stuff is (paraphrasing here) "if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself." There are very few countries that we trust enough to hand over a job as important as nuclear deterrent. Australia would be a much better choice from an allied perspective but their military is much too small to be a real deterrent against China. Combining Australia, Japan, and South Korea might be an effective deterrent, but we still don't trust Japan and China will never let a nuclear South Korea happen.

Letting Japan have nuclear weapons is many decades in the future. The US monitors/controls the development of the JSDF very closely. They were only recently [1] allowed to have an "aircraft carrier." (edit 2: This presupposes that Japan even wants nuclear weapons. They, of all countries, would think twice about something that has destroyed two of their cities- also the "peaceful" application of nuclear power has devastated the area around Fukushima. New Zealand has a strong anti-nuke sentiment and they were only used as a test site.)

South Korea is so close to China that their defensive reaction time is effectively zero. The same goes for China's reaction time from a South Korean missile. China would be extremely upset (to the point of sabotaging missile installations) if we were to allow South Korea to develop nuclear weapons. Imagine if China allied with Mexico and started helping them with a nuclear program. The US would go apeshit. (edit: Rather than make up a hypothetical, just look at the Cuban Missile Crisis to figure out how crazy it could be. Why did I not just use that example in the first place?)

The US wants to control its own nuclear weapons and would rather lease bases from allies than to let the allies have their own weapons. This increases the perceived security of the weapons (from being stolen), as most military commanders believe that their own base is a much more secure place to keep nukes than someone else's base. Whether or not this is true is up for debate. Manning your own defenses instead of an ally also increases your perceived defensive readiness. Most commanders also believe that their own troops are better prepared than someone else's troops. Whether or not this is true is also up for debate.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hy%C5%ABga-class_helicopter_de...

The US has a airtight strategy against external threat.

But the scenario we are living... an unhinged and/or ignorant POTUS undermines the effectiveness of the strategy. In Europe, you had an independent deterrent of sorts with the UK and France, but no such balance in the Pacific and Mideast.

I don’t think the RAND corporation in the 60s thought up of a scenario where a President taunted a foreign nuclear power and professional sports figures in his spare time. Eventually the novelty of the mercurial nature of the guy will wane, and scary shit can result.

> I don’t think the RAND corporation in the 60s thought up of a scenario where a President taunted a foreign nuclear power and professional sports figures in his spare time.

Actually, that's literally what Henry Kissinger and Nixon collaborated closely on. Kissinger diplomatically told his Soviet counterparts that Nixon's rhetoric wasn't simply posturing, but that Nixon was making him nervous and was quite possibly unhinged and might casually order the use of nuclear weapons upon provocation.

In short, it worked. While it wasn't entirely a feign, Nixon wanted Kissinger to convey the sentiment that if the USSR were to grandstand or make possibly threatening overtures, that it may very realistically escalate the situation and that they indeed be may be facing a madman hellbent on finding an excuse to unleash the US nuclear arsenal on the USSR.

and China will never let a nuclear South Korea happen.

It’s possible, although highly unlikely that the RoK could go nuclear in a manner similar to Israel, and in essence, China wouldn’t have a say. Never say never, just based on the strength of opposition.

Israel can do that because it always has the US at its back and it doesn't really care what Iran or Egypt think.

South Korea, on the other hand, cannot hope to enjoy that kind of support (can you name one prominent Korean-American politician?), and China is its biggest trade partner.

That is, South Korea has little to gain and a lot to lose by developing nukes.

They have the same thing which any country has to gain from a nuclear arsenal; a near guarantee against outright invasion. As for Israel they did it, like Pakistan and India, because they could, and once they had no one could stop them. That’s pretty much why the DPRK wants them, although they’d probably sell the tech too.

North Korea wants nuke because (1) they're genuinely afraid of American invasion, and (2) they're already an international pariah so additional sanctions mean little. They have something to gain from nukes, and not much to lose.

As for South Korea, it can bulldoze over North Korea with conventional weapons. It doesn't need nukes to defend against North Korea. On the other hand, China has so much firepower that having a few nukes won't tip the balance much, so nukes are not much useful against China either.

Now consider that South Korea is practically an island country, heavily dependent on trade. Almost all its neighbors will vehemently protest a nuclear program, and its economy will suffer greatly. AND it will increase tension in East Asia. And probably provoke Japan into its own nuclear program. Just what we need.

Frankly, as a South Korean, I cannot think of a single desirable outcome that can follow a nuclear program. If we're serious about national defense, what we really need now is not nukes but a powerful navy that can secure our trade routes.

As for South Korea, it can bulldoze over North Korea with conventional weapons. It doesn't need nukes to defend against North Korea. On the other hand, China has so much firepower that having a few nukes won't tip the balance much, so nukes are not much useful against China either.

Sure, but they’d have turned Seoul into a series of shallow craters however, and you should assume that China would use the DPRK as a proxy in another shooting war. Meanwhile having the credible ability to destroy a few major Chinese metropolitan centers probably has more of a deterrent effect than you are admitting.

We don't need nukes to deter China (or any other country) from an all-out invasion. We already deter them by being a small, heavily populated and industrially developed, largely monocultural, and largely mountainous country, which has half a million soldiers and is only accessible via sea or through one of the world's most heavily fortified border. Invading South Korea will cost any country more than Invading Iraq cost America. It's simply not worth it.

That's not saying South Korea is invincible, or there aren't any ways China can apply military pressure.

A much more realistic scenario is like this: some Chinese patrol ships suddenly find a need to "protect" Chinese fishing boats from being "harassed" by South Korean coast guards patrolling its EEZ. In such a case, nukes won't help, because what are you going to do with them, bomb Beijing? Can you imagine what would happen to KOSPI index if a South Korean politician so much as made a joke about using nukes?

I still fail to see the utility of nukes. Any national leader has to be batshit insane to consider invading South Korea, and if they are already that insane, I don't see how having a few nukes will suddenly cause them to back down. (Don't be fooled by North Korea: they're carefully cultivating the image of a batshit insane trigger-happy country because it benefits them.)

Israel can afford to do it precisely because it doesn't border China.

Israel established itself as a nuclear capable state way before it had any US support.

Until 1967 the US was almost openly hostile towards Israel with very chilly relations, and even then it really changed until the mid 70's.

Israel established its nuclear capabilities despite and against the wishes of the US through their cooperation with France and the U.K.

People forget that in 1956 Israel and the U.K. nearly went directly against US peace keepers in their joint Sinai campaign after Nasser nationalized the cannal.

If Israel was developing their nuclear capabilities today the US would've stopped them in a heartbeat, if they bordered China then they wouldn't even be allowed to mention it in a conversation.

If the South Koreans wanted to go nuclear there isn't a damn thing the Chinese could do about it. It would serve them right, too, since they're mostly responsible for the mess that is North Korea.

A nuclear Japan would create instability and could easily lead to war in the region - possibly with Japan as the aggressor; at least that is what their neighbors see. There is still great hatred and distrust of Japan in SK and China, in part because Japan never adopted Germany's overall rejection of and contrition for their WWII actions. For example, there's not an annual question of Germany's Chancellor paying respects at the graves of Nazi war criminals. The U.S.'s defense treaty with Japan is a cornerstone in keeping the region stable and safe - it takes the Japanese offensive military force off the table.

Things are changing though: As nationalism is embraced and fanned by leaders, not just in the U.S. but in Japan, South Korea, and China; and as democracy is de-emphasized as a fundamental right and superior form of government and is treated more like just one alternative among many; the idea that peace and human rights are paramount is being pushed aside in favor of national power. We've seen that movie before, many times, and we know how it ends.

Also, the U.S.'s foreign policy capability and credibility has suffered great blows around the world and in East Asia, under Bush and now under Trump. Can Japan and SK trust the U.S. to protect them - if not, their instability greatly increases. They must trust that the U.S. both decides to fulfill its promises (as the U.S. threatens to or does fail to meet its promises under other treaties and promises, from NATO to Paris to Iran to Syria to NAFTA to multilateral institutions), and to capably, effectively execute a major war (Congress' sequester has badly reduced military capability, Congress is unable to act, the Commander-in-Chief doesn't inspire confidence in an essential role, and the military's failures in low-end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan makes it look limited)? Also, the role of the U.S. is to provide stability and to support democracy and liberty, but those don't appear to be priorities for Bush and especially for Trump.

Some stuxnet type hack that makes the next test missile travel west might be interesting.

The U.S. was conducting such attacks through the Obama administration and NK's missile tests were failing frequently. I haven't heard anyone even question what happened to that program.

I remember hearing about this program with respect to Trump earlier this year. Here are a couple of references.

* https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/04/world/asia/north-korea-mi...

* https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/18/world/asia/north-korea-mi...

I haven't heard or read anything more recently, but I haven't dug into it either.

This is actually a great way to defend against an enemy. You have plausible deniability in case they get suspicious it was your country all along and by the time they check it doesn't matter because it's a missile and missiles go boom.

Do you mean let South Korea/Japan build nuclear weapons or start a war that wipes them off the earth?

I'm certain Japan (the people and even the government) would be against this and you'd wonder if China would start thinking preemptively if they were to start.

Surely I am missing something. Nuclear subs and Space deployments make these slides moot.

Space deployments are banned by the Outer Space Treaty [1]. Slide 3 mentions Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) which was not banned by the Outer Space Treaty but subsequently by SALT II. Interestingly enough the US never ratified SALT II [2].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outer_Space_Treaty

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fractional_Orbital_Bombardment...

The post did mention Nuclear subs. It cautioned that relying on them will add stress and risk to them since they had to be position/deployed constantly in specific areas of the Pacific to fulfill their role.

Which was weird, as subs are used to going out for months on end. Does he think submarines hang out at port all the time?

The slides went into this in some detail and assumed the audience was familiar with the issues.


1. The Pacific nuclear deterrence is currently based in WA. This means that deployments that cross the pacific would be much longer and much farther from base. Even subs that go out for months on end need to be resupplied. The proposed solution to this would be moving those subs to Hawaii.

2. The majority of the US sub deterrence is based in the Atlantic, because that's closer to Moscow. If you have a limited amount of subs, you would need to move some from there to cover the Pacific, which means you have less deterrence in the US-Russia standoff even if it gives you more options for US-NK or US-China.

1. On paper the Trident D-5 can hit North Korea whilst the SSBNs are sitting in dock in Washington state.

That's probably an unrealistic range with a useful payload, but there's certainly no need to cross the Pacific.

2. "As of 2016, nine Trident-armed submarines are deployed in the Pacific and five in the Atlantic."

1. Yes, but they would still need to cross further into the Pacific if they wanted to reach NK without passing over Russia. The slides showed more or less the issue with the angles needed for that.

2. You may be right, I'm not an expert on deployment locations, of course a source would still be nice.

Ohio class subs have a reported quiet cruising speed of 20 knots (23mph), so it would only take about 8 days to travel across the Pacific.

Basing the sub in Hawaii might shave a couple days off of that.

Doesn't seem like it would make much of a difference in a 90 day SSBN deployment.

Each missle sub has two crews that man it in a 3 month rotation. When the sub returns there is a quick refit and resupply, everything that broke and couldn't be fixed at sea is repaired and it goes back out. The turn-around is very quick.

Submarines are covered on slide 4.

I also don't understand why the missiles couldn't fly over the pacific and over japan, never crossing Russian territory? What am I missing here?

I think they follow great circle routes. LGM-30 deployments all cross Russia & China to NK: http://www.gcmap.com/mapui?P=fnj-cys/mot/gtf

But seeing as NK is launching towards and over Japan, it looks like if they were to launch they would go "direct" over pacific, not over the arctic circle? Are they avoiding angering Russia too?

Presumably Russia would not be pleased if NK launched a missile over it. NK is aiming for the Pacific over Japan in the latest tests. So what do you mean "direct" over the Pacific? Direct to the continental US? NK can't hit the US other than Guam with their current range.


Brilliant slides and explanations. I really hope that President Trump understand the nuance here. Sigh.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact