Category Archives: North Korea

War With North Korea

SCROTUS Donald Trump is rushing pell mell into a confrontation with North Korea. I spent a little time reading on their capabilities in an effort to understand precisely how foolish this really is. First, a little geography: The capital of the north, Pyongyang, is the little burg at the upper left, while the south’s capital, Seoul, is a massive metropolis. The distance from the DMZ to the large highway ringing the city is about twenty miles.

Korean DMZ

Korean DMZ

North Korea has a massive military, but much of their equipment is very dated. Their best tanks are derivatives of the middle Cold War era Soviet T-72, while South Korea has a derivative of the U.S. M1 Abrams which is being replaced by a brand new indigenous design, the K2 Black Panther.

The north can strike Seoul from behind the DMZ using the Koksan self propelled gun, but this open top vehicle is an up-gunned World War II design. Contrast that with the Samsung K9 Thunder, today’s top global choice for the standard 155mm NATO artillery round. This mobile howitzer is notable for its companion reloading vehicle, the K10. They can dock and reload without opening up, an advantage that no other system offers.

The K-21 IFV is South Korea’s latest light armor platform. Most vehicles in this class are armed with 25mm or 30mm guns, but the K-21 packs a domestic 40mm design that apparently evolved from the venerable Bofors 40mm. A trend across the industry, it’s also got rubber tracks rather than steel, which are lighter, quieter, and easier on the crew. An up-gunned version carrying a 105mm NATO standard caliber weapon can defeat all but the newest of the North Korean tanks.


I follow military acquisitions and could go on about this stuff all day, but we’ll stop here, noting that South Korea is arguable the top global armored vehicle builder, maintaining qualitative superiority in any type they construct and numerical parity with the front line systems of the DPRK.

U.S. Forces Korea have also been continuously present since the fighting ended in 1953, with on average 28,500 troops present at any given time. Some times we post tripwire forces, which this command clearly is, but it also packs a serious punch of its own.


What Trump is focused on is the upcoming nuclear test, which may happen on April 15th. The test location is in the far northeast of the country, far away from nosy southerners, and close to Japan, another country on the DPRK’s list of enemies. Assuming that there is a U.S. or Chinese strike that fully eliminates DPRK’s nuclear weapons, we’re still going to have a conventional mess on the DMZ, just like things were in the early 1950s. I already covered some of the regional implications in And Yet There Are Faster Ways To Die.

If the Chinese decide to strike North Korea’s nuclear weapons they can also basically shut the country down, as they are the source of 90% of the DPRK’s oil imports. If the U.S. acts unilaterally and offends the Chinese, that oil keeps flowing and things could drag on for a while.

We really don’t to trigger this. North Korea is a Hermit Kingdom with a third generation leader who is just thirty three years old. We can’t predict what they will do but even with a technically inferior army they are close enough to Seoul to make an incursion that will leave a lot of casualties, both civilian and military.


Part of the reason the Cold War ended was Desert Storm. Iraq’s army had much experience from the eight year Iran-Iraq War and modern Soviet equipment. Our forces rolled right over them in five short weeks. Korea would be harder due to proximity to population areas and good terrain for defense.

But a battle with North Korea today isn’t going to have the same impact in terms of demonstrating superiority of western weapons systems to the point it reorders the world order. China is rising economically and militarily, a battle in their back yard will just encourage faster production.


I see no news about any test in North Korea today. Hopefully we’ve navigated around this particular quagmire and the rumors of imminent arrests for some of Trump’s entourage prove to be true, which should put a damper on his adventurous nature.

And Yet There Are Faster Ways To Die

Yesterday’s Twitter hissy fit over our use of a GBU-43/B MOAB in Afghanistan combined with the friction with North Korea, as reported in the amazingly well connected @KGSNightWatch, set me to thinking about quicker means for us to end ourselves than the slow roast we’ve already set in motion.

We had already detonated 2,053 nuclear weapons by 1998 but since the 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty all tests have been underground, including the five North Korean tests that happened after this video ends.

We got plain scared by the results of the 1954 Castle Bravo test, a six megaton test that yielded fifteen, because we didn’t understand there was a fusion path for lithium 7, and only nine short years later the world decided air/space testing was a Really Bad Idea™.


Since then, we’ve shifted to constraining ourselves to developing stuff that inhibits others delivering weapons. Basically we have about three dozen Ground Based Interceptors on the west coast and the trend seems to be counting on Aegis Combat Systems and the RIM-161 Standard Missile 3 to knock down uninvited ballistic missiles.

Missile Defense Systems

Missile Defense Systems

This missile defense stuff is all still really theoretical. Tests are few, expensive, and results have been mixed. We don’t really have a plan for submarine launched cruise missiles but the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty eliminated whole classes of weapons.

But North Korea is not a signatory to any of these treaties and they are slowly standing up a nuclear capability. This happened while we were naming them part of the Axis of Evil and blundering into Bush’s adventure in Iraq. Like a Cape buffalo surrounded by lions, we focused on one and the others got up to things we didn’t see coming.


North Korea can’t nuke San Francisco. They can’t nuke Honolulu. They can maybe hit 7th Fleet HQ at the mouth of Tokyo Bay. Their current best has a yield equal to the weapons the U.S. produced in 1945.

Yokosuka 20 Kiloton Strike

Yokosuka 20 Kiloton Strike (NUKEMAP)

I have zero confidence that Little Fingers has the right moves given that the DPRK is surely going to test another nuclear weapon tomorrow. China has moved six divisions of troops to its border with North Korea with the announced intent of ensuring that there are not a flood of refugees crossing their border. They also have a credible plan to put an end to North Korea’s test facilities, which is something the U.S. and South Korea lack.

Another grandstanding effort, like the theatrical strike against a forewarned Syrian airfield, or the drop of a MOAB in Afghanistan, seems likely. The most foolish step would be treating this as a chance to employ a B-61 Dial-A-Yield nuke, specifically the B-61 Mod 11 bunker buster.


The assessment of the premier geopolitical threat monitor is simple and clear:

NightWatch concurs with the judgment that the North Koreans are not bluffing about retaliating for any kind of attack against them.

The scariest part of all of this? America’s recto-cranial inversion, which predates Little Fingers, keeps us strutting like the only superpower, but ignoring stuff where we don’t have a direct interface. The relationship between India (110 nukes) and Pakistan (130 nukes) is always some flavor of tense, but in recent months there have been reports in Night Watch that indicate they went right up to the red line of a rapidly evolving ground war and strong potential for an exchange.

Now take a look at this China-centric population cartogram.They have four neighbors with nuclear weapons, two are at each other’s throats, the U.S. is showing strong signs of moving against North Korea, and doing so because we have a leader as isolated and strange as Kim thanks to meddling from nuclear armed neighbor number four.

China-centric Population Cartogram

China-centric Population Cartogram


There is no such thing as a limited nuclear exchange where India and Pakistan are concerned. If they each show some restraint and only use half of their arsenals we lose half of our ozone layer, a couple years of Canadian and Russia wheat production, and the initial ten million killed directly would be joined by another billion famine victims.

These projections stop where the effects of smoke in the atmosphere end. A billion dead of starvation are the unlucky one seventh when all of us are facing that possibility. We are already precariously balanced when it comes to food, we lose all of the Mideast and North Africa in this scenario, those places teeter on the edge of ungovernability now when there are relatively minor disturbances in wheat supplies.


The area south of Africa’s Great Green Wall would be the best place to ride out such a catastrophe, far away from fallout of all sorts, from economic to political to radioactive.

Sobering, isn’t it? We already have the means to create an extinction level event for our species and we are stumbling that direction, led by a man with a psychopath’s regard for cause and effect.

Australia’s Submarine Fleet

Australia has a population of 23 million, just a bit smaller than Texas, three million square miles of land, or a third of the territory of the whole U.S., and their coastline is 16,000 miles, compared to the U.S. which has just 12,400 miles to defend.

Australia has no unified coast guard, the duties are shared by the Royal Australian Navy and a couple of volunteer search and rescue operations, as well as state police. Their four largest ships are based on the U.S. Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates and there are ten newer Anzac Class Frigates with similar capabilities.

The seas around Australia are just as challenging as their coastal defense issues. There are thousands of islands, numerous choke points, and the distances are long.

Southeast Asia Seas

Southeast Asia Seas

Australia’s current submarine fleet are just six Collins class boats, which are half the displacement of U.S. Los Angeles class attack boats, and limited to less than 9,000 miles per cruise if they must submerge. The U.S. subs are nuclear powered and can circumnavigate the globe three times without surfacing.

Yesterday I noticed two posts from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute entitled How many submarines(1)? and How many submarines(2)? The article’s conclusions are very significant for Australia’s defense budget and manpower issues:

Summing up, twelve submarines is the minimum force size to enable Australia to sustain one deployed at long range in a demanding but practical cycle, provide one operational submarine available for other tasking and have some capacity for ASW training or other contingencies. The deployment mix is one for the strategic judgment of the Government of the day and will depend on the circumstances they face. As a minimum, for a sustainable manpower base we should have at least nine submarines.

The Australian Navy has already resorted to hiring American and European sailors with submarine experience to keep the current fleet of six boats operational. The cost for doubling the number of crews to twelve, a figure also found in the Collins class replacement Wikipedia article is not insignificant, and the $36 billion project cost will be the largest ever for Australia.

Those familiar with the U.S. fleet might wonder about a refurb and sale of some of the twenty one Los Angeles class boats that we have retired. The first thirty nine boats in the class have their forward planes on the sail, which is less than optimal for Arctic operations, but not an issue in the tropical seas the Australian navy patrols. The Australian government ruled out using nuclear powered ships, but I am unclear as to the motivation, and I am not sure if our military surplus policy permits the transfer of nuclear powered vessels.

Keep in mind this is a plan based on current conditions, specifically the current state of the global economy and liquid fuel availability. We have managed to dodge the peak oil bullet for the moment, at the cost of ruining our groundwater in many places, and the production plateau before the inevitable downward slope has been extended until perhaps 2020. The Collins class is meant to be retired by 2025, while the envisioned replacement isn’t due to come online until 2030. Australia has had many false starts and canceled projects in this area.

The purchase of foreign built diesel/electric boats with AIP (air independent propulsion) seems possible, but only Japan’s Sōryū class has the displacement and implicit range for the vast Pacific theater. Export models sub such as the German Type 214 and French/Spanish Scorpène are half the displacement of the Collins class.

A hundred years ago the dreadnought ruled the seas. A single 410mm battleship shell refitted as a bomb and dropped from a four ton Nakajima ‘Kate’ sank the 30,000 ton U.S.S. Arizona in about seven seconds. When industrialized nations such as those that share the East China Sea or squabble over the South China Sea Islands finally come to blows, the aircraft carrier may very well go the way of the battleship, and it will be a submarine that deals the fatal blow to the whole concept.