|The North Korean nuclear test on May 25, 2009, was “heard” loud and clear around the world despite its apparent limited size. Detection of small, clandestine nuclear tests seems to work.
By Hans M. Kristensen
The Korean Central News Agency reportedly has announced that North Korea “successfully conducted one more underground nuclear test on May 25 as part of measures to bolster its nuclear deterrent for self-defense.” Several news media reported that the Russian Ministry of Defense estimating the test had a yield of approximately 10 to 20 kilotons.
Yet the preliminary seismic data published by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) shows that the test had a seismic magnitude of 4.7, only slightly more powerful than the 4.3 of the 2006 test.
Was it another fizzle? We’ll have to wait for more analysis of the seismic data, but so far the early news media reports about a “Hiroshima-size” nuclear explosion seem to be overblown.
Update: CTBTO’s initial findings.
Despite a world of advice to the contrary, the North Koreans launched their Taepodong-2 or Unha rocket yesterday morning. Recent reports are that the first two stages operated correctly but the third stage failed. Reading between the lines a bit, it might have failed to ignite rather than exploding. This seems to be a replay of the Taepodong-1 test satellite launch attempt: In that case, both stages one and two seemed to operate properly but the third stage apparently exploded and the satellite never entered orbit. (That failure did not discourage the North Koreans, who announced that the whole thing was a great success and the satellite was up there. My bet is they will do the same thing this time.)
So was the test a failure? Not at all. The reason the world is worried about this test is not because we are worried about competition in the satellite launch business. (Good luck to them!) The world worries because the launcher the North Koreans used is a Taepodong-2, which most everyone believes is their next step up toward a long-range ballistic missile. By taking a warhead off and putting a small third stage and a satellite on top, they might call it a space launcher but the first two stages are exactly the same. The last time the configuration was tested, it exploded 40 seconds into its flight and that flight was a clear failure. No doubt, the North Koreans would have been happier this time with a little satellite up there broadcasting patriotic songs but everything they needed to test for a military missile appears to have worked in yesterday’s test. From the military perspective, the test at this point seems to have been largely successful, in that it demonstrated what needed to be demonstrated and the North Koreans got the information they needed to get.
Does this mean they have a missile that can reach the United States? Well, not really. This test is a big step forward for them but one test does not make a ballistic missile program. There is much more for them to do. We have no idea what they judge the accuracy of the missile and they have not tested an appropriate reentry vehicle. This missile test is an very unfortunate development. I wish the North Koreans had more finese. But it does not give them a ballistic missile capability yet.
Addendum: More information is coming it. Apparently, not only did the satellite fail to enter orbit, but the second stage fell short of the predicted impact area. That suggests that the second stage failed. It could even be that the third stage operated successfully–separated, ignited, guidance worked, and so forth–but without the proper speed and altitude provided by the second stage, it would have no chance of making orbit. If this turns out to be the case, then the conclusions above have to be modified and this is a more limited step forward for the North Korean Taepodong-2 program.
Indications are that North Korea is moving ahead with its planned launch of a missile with the intent of placing a satellite into orbit. The North Koreans are portraying the launch in purely innocuous, civilian terms even naming the rocket “Unha,” which means “Milky Way” in Korean, to emphasize its space-oriented function. In the West, the rocket is called the Taepodong-2 and is thought to be a long-range (but not truly intercontinental range) ballistic missile.
Even if the rocket launches a satellite, and recent news reports say the payload sections seems to be shaped and sized for a satellite, it would be an important step in their military ballistic missile program. In the early days of the Soviet and American space programs, there was little distinction between military and civilian rocket development and the same would be true of North Korea’s upcoming launch. What I want to discuss in this essay is the question of how much can the outside world learn if the North Korean test goes through, what does it tell us about their ballistic missile capability?
By Ivan Oelrich and Hans M. Kristensen
Only one week before Barack Obama is expected to win the presidential election, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made one last pitch for the Bush administration’s nuclear policy during a speech Tuesday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
What is the opposite of visionary? Whatever, that’s the word that best describes Mr. Gates’s speech. Had it been delivered in the mid-1990s it would not have sounded out of place. The theme was that the world is the way the world is and, not only is there little to be done about changing the world, our response pretty much has to be more of the same.
Granted, Gates’s job is to implement nuclear policy not change it but, at a time when Russia is rattling its nuclear sabers, China is modernizing its forces, some regional states either have already acquired or are pursuing nuclear weapons, and yet inspired visions of a world free of nuclear weapons are entering the political mainstream, we had hoped for some new ideas. Rather than articulating ways to turn things around, Gates’ core message seemed to be to “hedge” and hunker down for the long haul. And, while his arguments are clearer than most, this speech is yet another example of faulty logic and sloppy definitions justifying unjustifiable nuclear weapons. Continue reading
The U.S. nuclear war plan that entered into effect in March 2003 included new executable strike options against regional states seeking weapons of mass destruction.
(click on image to download PDF-version)
By Hans M. Kristensen
The 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and White House guidance issued in response to the terrorist attacks against the United States in September 2001 led to the creation of new nuclear strike options against regional states seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction, according to a military planning document obtained by the Federation of American Scientists.
Rumors about such options have existed for years, but the document is the first authoritative evidence that fear of weapons of mass destruction attacks from outside Russia and China caused the Bush administration to broaden U.S. nuclear targeting policy by ordering the military to prepare a series of new options for nuclear strikes against regional proliferators.
Responding to nuclear weapons planning guidance issued by the White House shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, U.S. Strategic Command created a series of scenario driven nuclear strike options against regional states. Illustrations in the document identify the states as North Korea and Libya as well as SCUD-equipped countries that appear to include Iran, Iraq (at the time), and Syria – the very countries mentioned in the NPR. The new strike options were incorporated into the strategic nuclear war plan that entered into effect on March 1, 2003.
The creation of the new strike options contradict statements by government officials who have insisted that the NPR did not change U.S. nuclear policy but decreased the role of nuclear weapons.
In condemning the North Korean nuclear test and repeating its call for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, one of the Bush administration’s first acts ironically has been to reaffirm the importance of nuclear weapons in the region.
“The United States will meet the full range of our deterrent and security commitments,” President Bush told Japan and South Korea after last week’s test. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice strongly hinted that the commitments potentially include nuclear strikes against North Korea.
But is it helpful or counterproductive at this stage to threaten North Korea with nuclear weapons?
In an extraordinarily brief statement, the Director of the National Intelligence Office announced that the United States has confirmed that North Korea’s large explosion last week was nuclear. How do they know and why did it take them so long to confirm?
Last Sunday, North Korea apparently tested a nuclear explosive. The “apparently” is needed because the explosion was so small—by nuclear standards—that some have speculated that it may have been a large conventional explosion. What is the technical significance of the test, what does it mean, and what should we do now?
There is no question that the political and security implications of the test are huge and almost entirely negative. The technical implications are more mixed; the technical significance of the test is somewhat less than meets the eye.
A decision to trim a tree in the Korean demilitarized zone in 1976 escalated into a threat to use nuclear weapons. After a fatal skirmish between U.S. and North Korean border guards, U.S. forces in the region were placed on heightened alert (DEFCON 3) and nuclear forces were deployed to signal preparations for an attack on North Korea. The North Koreans did not interfere with the tree trimming again, so the threat must have worked, the Pentagon concluded.
Thirty years later, North Korea has probably developed nuclear weapons and is trying to develop long-range ballistic missiles to threaten you-know-who, and the United States has ventured into a multi-billion dollar effort to build a missile defense system and a “New Triad” to better dissuade, deter, and defeat North Korea and other “rogue” states.
So, did the threat work?
The “tree-trimming incident,” as the U.S.-North Korean scuffle has come to be known, and other examples of using nuclear threats are described in the article “Nuclear Threats Then And Now” in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
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