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U.S. should steer clear of daring N. Korea on nukes

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MONTEREY, Calif. – “DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles, however the reliability will be low.”

Well, it’s not quite 16 words, but this sure created a ruckus.

During an April 11 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., quoted this mistakenly unclassified passage from a March 2013 report by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) titled Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program.

The DIA generates these threat assessments to support the planning process. In theory, these assessments are coordinated through the intelligence community, but Defense Intelligence is the author. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has pointed out, others do not agree with what the DIA wrote.

Let me walk you through the language and explain what I think this argument is about.

Let’s start with the term “moderate confidence.” Moderate confidence, according to a handy chart published with the 2007 National Intelligence Assessment on Iran, “generally means that the information is credibly sourced and plausible but not of sufficient quality or corroborated to warrant a higher level of confidence.” In other words, if the North Koreans, and perhaps a defector or two, say so, and it is not impossible, that’s moderate confidence.

The two important phrases are “capable of delivery by ballistic missiles” and “reliability will be low.”

“Capable of delivery” refers to size – the mass and dimensions of the warhead. I presume this means the DIA believes North Korea’s warheads are small enough, which is not a surprise. In 1999, the DIA believed that North Korea could manufacture a warhead as light as 750 kilograms. That’s about the weight that a Nodong missile could carry, although it’s still pretty heavy for an ICBM.

The issue of reliability refers to whether the warhead will work, particularly after being subjected to the very bumpy ride of missile delivery. In other words, the warheads are small enough, but they may not be tough enough to survive the trip.

It seems that this is where the disagreement lies. General Clapper explained that difference in confidence concerns “the actual ability of the North Koreans to make a weapon that will work in a missile … either we nor the North Koreans know whether they have such capability.”

At issue seems to be a view that unless the North Koreans prove it to us, we aren’t buying it. Statements by both the Pentagon and DNI emphasize that North Korea has not “fully” demonstrated a nuclear-armed ICBM.

It is worth noting that at least one other country has never fully tested its ICBM capabilities: the United States.

Yep, that’s right, we’ve never put a nuclear warhead on an ICBM and fired it the full distance.

The United States did conduct a partial demonstration – something called Operation Frigate Bird. Frigate Bird was the only time the United States fired a live nuclear warhead on a ballistic trajectory.

This didn’t settle the issue. Barry Goldwater actually campaigned in 1964 warning that absent a full test “we are building a Maginot line of missiles.” He explained in “Where I Stand”: “The fact is that not one of our advanced ICBMs has ever been subjected to a full test (of all component systems, including warheads) under simulated battle conditions.”

At some point, everyone realized that this was an insane conversation to be having and it just sort of went away.

The Chinese had the same concern about their nuclear program in the 1960s. Initially they tried driving their warheads over bumpy roads in trucks, trying to simulate the shock and vibrations of flight on a missile.

Ultimately, the Chinese decided to conduct an operationally realistic test. They put a live nuclear weapon on a DF-2 ballistic missile and fired it across China. What could possibly have gone wrong?

Which brings me back to North Korea. Why are we demanding that they show us each and every little increment of progress? Do we really want them to put a live nuclear warhead on a Musudan and fire it over Japan just to shut us up? The North Koreans have preferred to test underground.

For what it is worth, I believe the takeaway ought to be not that the harmless North Koreans can never do these things, but that they can and will continue to build a larger, more sophisticated arsenal until we make it worth their while to do something else with their limited resources.

Double-dog daring them to prove it, on the other hand, is not helpful.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

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