Israel’s Declassified Airstrike

In March of 2018, the Israeli government officially admitted that it conducted an air strike against Syria’s nascent nuclear program in 2007. Haaretz published an extremely detailed article with accounts from those involved. The admission is a rare step for a nation that often prefers ambiguity over transparency and gives us an interesting glimpse into the workings and status of both the Israeli military as a fighting force               and for U.S-Israel relations.

Below is a list of observations I made while reading the article.

 

2007 Syria reactor strike.
The reactor before and after the strike.

 

Israeli Denials Are Often About De-escalation

From the article is it clear that the mission was kept secret for 11 years for political reasons, not military security. After the bombs fell, Israeli military intelligence and Mossad were much more concerned that embarrassing Basher Al-Assad than revealing operational secrets. Face-saving Military retaliation was the overriding concern, not revealing Israeli operational methods.

Israel Is Still Using The Prussian Method

Although by far the most competent military in the region, the Israeli Defense Forces are not a hegemon. As a military of conscripts and reservists, the IDF cannot be constantly mobilized. A mobilization that gets the IDF up to fighting strength could also alert enemies to its intentions. If Israel massed troops in the Golan to defend against Syrian retaliation, they risked tipping off the Syrians and compromising the mission.

Israel then, is still operating on a Prussian-style doctrine where it focuses power where it is needed quickly, rather than an American-style doctrine where a professional military is kept ready to deploy at all times.

Israel Consulted With The United States Before The Strike

In American discourse, Israeli military actions are often framed as completely independent actions. that is, they are taken regardless of external influences, and often in spite of them. This article makes clear that the U.S government was consulted months before the operation and was kept in the loop almost until the decision to bomb the reactor was made.

If this holds true for more recent strikes the U.S government could still be privy to sensitive information. Israeli air strikes against regime and Iranian targets in Syria are a possible example.(although these are also mostly unconfirmed.)

The United States Benefits

In Syria, the U.S used Israel as both a source of intelligence and a means of achieving a strategic objective while minimizing political costs to itself. It is clear from the report that the United States saw an attack on Syria’s reactor as politically unviable given the failure of intelligence (in both senses) in Iraq. The U.S could not afford another blunder, so it fell on the State of Israel to play policeman.

George W. Bush’s statement “a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do” is indicative of his intentions. He (and by extension the U.S government) was clearly willing to give Israel a free hand to protect itself and police the region while shielding the United States and the Bush administration from the political consequences.

Israel Has Self-Imposed Restraints

In contrast to its hyper-aggressive public persona, the Israeli government was extremely concerned about the environmental and human damage that could have resulted from the destruction of an operational reactor. The Haaretz article makes clear that this was a serious bone of contention within Olmert’s government and that Israel may have thought twice about blowing up the reactor if it had gone hot.

Syria Does Not Want War With Israel

In 2007 Assad’s army was at full strength. Despite this, and the recent Israeli failure in Lebanon, Assad allowed his reactor to be destroyed without so much as firing a shot in return.

The reason for this quite becomes obvious one looks at the course of the Syrian Civil War. In 2007 The Syrian army was unprepared to do much more than terror bomb civilians and kill protesters. As is the case in many dictatorships, the military is a tool of domestic politics, rather than an all-purpose fighting force. Its raison d’être is to protect the regime. In a direct confrontation with Israel, Syria would have been crushed, and Assad knew it.

 

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We Don’t Need to Restart the Nuclear Arms Race

About a week ago retired Navy Vice Admiral named Robert Monroe penned possibly the worst opinion piece I have ever read. Entitled “Only Trump can restore America’s ability to win a nuclear war” the article was riddled with factual inaccuracies and terrible policy perceptions.

Here I’m going to take a few quotes from the article and demonstrate exactly why it’s such rubbish.

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Destroying the Focal Point

The non-use of nuclear weapons has been a phenomenon of the past 70 years. Since the atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no nuclear weapons have been fired in anger despite massive stockpiles, hair-trigger alerts, and the nuclearization of every weapon from ICBMs to 155mm artillery.  This peculiar behavior has been analyzed and rationalized over years, giving rise to theories concerning escalation spirals, limited nuclear war, mutually assured destruction and disarmament.
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North Korea Builds a Missile That Can Hit My House

Following a two and a half month hiatus the North Koreans are back to testing missiles.

Fired on a lofted trajectory North Korea’s new Hwasong 15 ICBM flew 4,475 km high and 950 km downrange on its maiden flight. If the missile were fired on a normal trajectory it would have a range of 13,000 km; long enough to strike my house in the D.C suburbs and the entirety of the continental United States.Read More »

The Consequences of Abandoning the Iran Deal

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is in danger of being scrapped. Widely known as the “Iran Deal” the agreement was designed to block Iran’s path toward a nuclear bomb by limited their ability to produce the necessary fissile material.

By all accounts, including by the Trump administrations own admission, the deal been complied with. However, Iran hawks and the President have been seeking to scrap the deal citing Iran’s belligerence, growing regional power and sponsorship of terrorism. Recently, Trump announced that he plans to decertify the deal, sending it back to the U.S Congress to work out.

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North Korea Tests an ICBM

As if attempting to troll the United States, the DPRK test fired it’s first ICBM on the Fourth of July. The test was a high altitude “lobbed” trajectory affair that hit 2800 km at its apogee and landed 930 km downrange of the test site. If fired for distance at a normal trajectory the missiles range is estimated at between 6700 km and 8000 km; enough to strike Anchorage and Seattle respectively.

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The INF Is On It’s Deathbed

Since Donald Trump took office nuclear hawks have been on a quest to redevelop America’s nuclear arsenal and dismantle non-proliferation efforts. Senators like Tom Cotton have called for scrapping roughly 30 years of nuclear treaties dating back to the Reagan administration in response the Russia’s violation, with possibly the most important treaty on the chopping block being the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

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The GMD Finally Intercepts an ICBM (kinda)

On May 30th the Ground Based Mid-Course Missile Defense system (GMD) successfully intercepted it’s first ICBM. Authorized in 1999 by the Missile Defense Act and offically deployed over a decade ago, the GMD has been plagued with problems. The test on May 30th was the first time the system was successfully tested against the threat it was designed to defeat.

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A Way Forward On North Korea

With North Korea on the precipice of an nuclear deterrent the United States will face some very tough choices in the coming years that will determine the course of the American policy in East Asia.

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THAAD systems rolling off of a Strategic lift aircraft in Osan Air Base South Korea. (source)

I’ll be frank; I have no confidence that we can stop the North Korean missile or nuclear program at this point with diplomacy or any other non-Kinetic means. Even with a whirlwind shift from both China and the Trump administration I don’t see a positive outcome given the time constraints and the political situation.

The window for denuclearization has passed. Even peace advocates agree that North Korea is unlikely to accept, or even consider such a proposal given the current state of their nuclear program and the investment in pro-nuclear propaganda both domestically and internationally.

The Perry doctrine then, where the end result of pressure and sanctions are negotiations to stall the DPRK’s missile and nuclear programs is becoming increasingly unrealistic given the advanced state of those programs. Freezing this program where it stands is simply not a politically viable option. The North already has the ability to mount a warhead onto a missile that could reach American bases in the region.

An agreement to freeze their program would also come at the cost unacceptable political and military cost to the United States. Kim has made his demands clear: the U.S would be asked to abandon or roll back it’s commitments to South Korea and release most of the sanctions on the North in exchange for a deal that would allow North Korea to keep it’s nuclear weapons.

With political options lacking viability we find ourselves on the losing end of a stalemate, where the North Korean’s are able to use our  risk aversion of it’s advantage.

With the United States is in willing to accept a De Jure nuclear armed North Korea or lose face to the Kim Regime in the domestic or international arenas, the crisis has festered. As time passes Kim will continue to build up it’s nuclear program.

Trump’s Approach

Donald Trump’s approach to the DPRK is essentially a more aggressive rebrand of the failed Bush and Obama policies. Trump (really Mattis and McMaster) are sending carriers to the region and continuing to hold exercises with South Korea. There is also engagement with China to stop accepting coal shipments from the DPRK and new sanctions are being discussed. It’s what you might call “strategic impatience.”

Trump’s strategy, much like the past two administrations, is less of a strategy and more of a tactic. There is no clear political end game in mind. The U.S continues to impose sanctions and shift military assets around the Pacific as a show of strength hoping that Kim Jong Un will either be deposed or the regime will ask seek terms.  This is also highly unrealistic given the goals and strategic position of the regime.

Goals of the Kim Regime

The primary goal of the North Korean regime is to sustain itself regardless of the cost. With the bomb they see themselves as safe from an American intervention A la Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Grenada, Panama. etc.

In this calculus the needs of the North Korean people, biological or otherwise are not given much weight. Their society is militarized to the extreme. Billions of dollars out of North Korea’s tiny economy are spent on it’s nuclear program and the military even as basic needs like subsistence go unmet. Even with the food shortages the regime still pushes large families to keep the population up. Any argument that the regime sees the populace as anything more than potential soldiers is hardly a strong one.

Because of this, sanctions that effect the ability of the people to live will not weigh heavily on the regime unless the situation becomes completely unbearable as in the 1990s where an estimated three million people died of starvation.

There is little chance the people would rise up against the regime in any case. The DPRK is a sealed society based around the cult worship of the Kim family. The denizens of the DPRK are virtual slaves; many of which know no other reality than the one presented to them by the regime. A coup would only possible from the higher echelons of regime where the power is concentrated and then, only if they believed catastrophe was imminent.

The threat of force also has little effect on the regime. Kim knows the bluff. He knows the United States is hesitant to attack him when he has over 1100 pieces of artillery aimed at the South Korean capital, along with dozens of submarines and an arsenal of ballistic missiles that could kill thousands of Americans, Japanese and South Koreans.

To Kim, both approaches, the sanctions and the threat of force become two sides of same regime change strategy. He does not trust the United States to keep a bargain and every day the United States fails to topple his regime is a day the North gets closer to a functional nuclear deterrent. Kim has every reason to keep going ahead with his nuclear weapons program and very little reason to negotiate.

The Strategic Dynamic

Clausewitz noted that war (and politics by extension) is like a duel where two opponents actively attempt to overpower each other. American views of North Korea however, describe them as a problem, rather than as an active and dynamic opponent that has it’s own goals and will resist attempts to disarm it.

There is also an element of hubris that is blinding America to the reality of the situation. There is a belief that because the United States is so powerful it can exercise unlimited control over another country if it is willing to try hard enough. We see this today with people who still contend that we lost in Vietnam because we were unwilling to use enough force.

The same basic issue applies today in the politics of North Korea. Even though America’s power dwarfs the DPRK in nearly every dimension, the advantages of the defense put Kim on the high ground. America has limited goals but is unwilling to employ even limited force (i.e “all measures short of war”). North Korea on the other hand has even more limited goal (survival) and is willing to use unlimited force (i.e begin a nuclear war) to achieve to it.

There is also a fundamental misunderstanding of the DPRK’s nuclear program. It is not some token they are willing to part with, it is an integral part of their defense complex and increasingly, their society. They view it as an existential necessity and unless the U.S and South Korea are willing to wage total war there will be no disarmament. The force needed to take away the bomb is likely equivalent to the amount of force needed to topple the regime.

These strategic imbalances and misunderstandings make it impossible for the U.S to stop the DPRK nuclear program through current measures and has created a path toward continued nuclear weapons development in North Korea.

Conclusion

It’s time to admit that North Korea’s program cannot be stopped through non-kinetic means. The United States has nothing to offer the regime and they do not trust The U.S to keep promises. Nor do they care if their people starve. All of the pressure in the world is not going to make Kim humble himself and put a gun to his head, especially when he’s so close to a functional deterrent.

In short; the Kim dynasty has played their hand extraordinarily well and will likely achieve it’s deterrent. But, as Clausewitz said, one of the things that keeps war from it’s extremes is the fact that there is almost always a round two. This is next stage is what the United States needs to be preparing for, not doubling down on a failed policy with an unachievable goal.