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Generals: North Korean nuclear menace is 'hiccup' compared to Cold War

September 10, 2017 Updated: September 15, 2017 at 6:31 am
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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrives for the official opening of the Ryomyong residential area, a collection of more than a dozen apartment buildings, on Thursday, April 13, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

The North Korean nuclear bomb test last weekend raised tensions across the globe, but retired generals in Colorado Springs aren't overly worried about the menace presented by Kim Jong Un.

Yes, North Korea presents a serious threat to its neighbors and a diplomatic headache for the United States.

But the Pyongyang government's might is easily outmatched. Bristling with intercontinental ballistic missiles, a well-equipped Army and an impressive Air Force, Colorado alone could probably prevail over North Korea in a war.

And, the Cold War veterans said, North Korean nukes will never prompt the fear of nuclear holocaust that accompanied the darker chapters of the standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

"Think about Nikita Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the table," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Wes Clark. "This is a hiccup in comparison."

It's not that former military bosses are dismissing Kim Jong Un. Last Sunday, North Korea completed the underground test of a nuclear weapon estimated at between 40 and 100 kilotons - the equivalent of up to 100,000 tons of TNT.

Inside the Command Center at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2001, ...by Kevin Kreck 

But at the height of the Cold War, a single target in Colorado Springs, the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center, had an estimated 40 megatons worth of Soviet warheads aimed at it. That's the equivalent of 40 million tons of TNT - enough explosive force to give every person on the planet a couple of hand grenades.

"I think they need to go back and understand how we got to where we are today at least in terms of nuclear weapons," said retired Air Force Gen. Lance Lord, who oversaw that service's intercontinental ballistic missiles and satellites when he led Space Command in Colorado Springs.

America's strategy with its nuclear rivals around the globe has been based on a policy that's simple and devilishly complex at the same time - deterrence.

The simple part of the idea is to have enough nuclear weapons on hand to keep your enemy from using theirs.

"The balance of the U.S. holding substantial nuclear capability and Russia holding that capability and China holding that capability is a sobering fact but it is a moderating fact," said retired Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, who headed U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs. "It makes leaders stop and think."

But to make the simple part work requires mastering the complex world of nuclear weapons and keeping your stockpile of atomic weapons ready to fire at a moment's notice. At the same time, leaders have to understand that the war is lost the moment the first missile is launched.

"Once that lid comes off the can, the whole calculus changes," Lord said. "You never use it in anger. You use it every day in deterrence."

"No side that possesses weapons wins if you engage in an all-out nuclear conflict," Renuart said.

If deterrence works, the U.S. should have nothing to fear from North Korea. The Pyongyang government now is working to perfect a nuclear warhead and a long-range missile - one working example.

The U.S. Air Force has 400 Minuteman ICBMs in underground silos in the Rockies and the Dakotas.

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. last month. America has 400 of the missiles tipped with nuclear warheads in the Rockies and Dakotas. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Ian Dudley) 

That means a successful nuclear attack launched by North Korea would be repaid in a massive way.

"If he uses it, he will assuredly be destroyed," Lord said.

First to know

If North Korea launches a nuclear-tipped missile, the first people in America to know about it will be in Colorado Springs.

Home to Air Force Space Command, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, Army Space and Missile Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, troops in Colorado Springs have been on the lookout for incoming missiles since the 1950s.

Space Command's infrared sensors in orbit spot the heat from a rocket launch. Radars, including massive ones run by the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, follow the missile in flight.

"You do get a picture very quickly after a launch," Clark said.

American and Canadian forces at NORAD use that information to track the missile's path, determining who fired it and where it is headed.

All that information is used to alert the president who can decide to retaliate. But the commander in chief now has another Colorado Springs option at his disposal.

The city is home to the 100th Missile Defense Brigade, which has interceptors in Alaska and California designed to hit incoming missiles in flight.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency, in cooperation with the U.S. Air Force 30th Space Wing, the Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense and U.S. Northern Command, successfully intercepted an intercontinental ballistic missile target during a test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) element of the nation's ballistic missile defense system. During the test, an ICBM-class target was launched from the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. This was the first live-fire test event against an ICBM-class target for GMD and the U.S. ballistic missile defense system. Visit https://www.mda.mil for more info. 

The interceptors, which went through a full flight test this year, destroying an inbound ballistic missile in space, are so accurate that Americans don't need to repeat the "duck and cover" drills that had students hiding under their desks through much of the Cold War, the generals said.

"We have enough defensive capability that people in Chicago and Denver don't need to go through the same drills I went through in elementary schools in the 1960s," Renuart said.

That missile defense system, commanded from Schriever Air Force Base, is joined by other anti-missile assets aboard American destroyers at sea and in deployable batteries, including the truck mounted Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system recently sent to South Korea.

Clark said the system allows leaders to address the North Korean threat without the specter of a full nuclear exchange that kept generals awake at night through the 1980s. In that scenario, a single Soviet launch could trigger America and its allies to fire everything in their nuclear arsenals.

"When you got beyond the single shot, you were in a massive exchange," Clark said. "And nobody wanted a massive exchange - it was just unthinkable."

Confronting the irrational

But the actions of Kim Jong Un have a lot of people thinking about the unthinkable.

The dictator has issued a stream of threats against the U.S. In 2016, the state propaganda arm of the North Korean government issued a video that showed Washington, D.C., in flames after a nuclear strike.

The Soviets issued threats and boasts during the Cold War, but those threats were tempered by their knowledge of America's ability to strike back.

It was called "mutually assured destruction, and it was the cornerstone of America's strategy of deterrence," Lord said. "With mutually assured destruction, you assumed a rational actor on the other side. I'm not sure Kim Jong Un is a rational actor."

Clark, too, is worried that leaders in Pyongyang don't really understand the peril that accompanies the use of nuclear arms.

"If Kim were crazy enough to start something it would be the end of his regime," Clark said. "Unless he has suicidal thoughts, I can't imagine him doing it."

And with atomic arms, one mistake could harm millions, Renuart said.

"Don't ever minimize the horrible damage that a nuclear weapon can cause," he warned.

Lord worries that Kim Jong Un would target the South Korean capitol with his newly acquired nuclear weapon.

The city of more than 10 million is just 30 miles south of the demilitarized zone that marks the border between the Koreas - its northern neighborhoods could be hit by North Korean artillery shells and a missile shot would be relatively easy.

"He can't destroy the U.S.," Lord said. "What I'm worried most about is Seoul."

Renuart agreed.

"They could cause the loss of hundreds of thousands or millions of people," he said.

While the U.S. could literally vaporize much of North Korea if Kim Jong Un attacks, what to do in the meantime is a tougher question.

Renuart said American leaders need to work with other nuclear-armed states, including Russia and China, to pressure North Korea to behave.

"It is important to keep partners engaged," he said, noting that China and Russia may have more leverage with Pyongyang than America.

Lord said America must avoid engaging in a war of words with the bombastic Kim Jong Un.

"I think you don't want to poke him in the eye," he said. "You do want to control the rhetoric."

An uneasy peace, he said, beats a risky war.

"I think waiting him out and negotiating is probably the best strategy," Lord said.

America also needs to remember its Cold War history, Clark said. We've been through worse.

"I don't know how to gauge this little dance," Clark said. "It looks pretty unstable from the outside, but nowhere near as scary as it was during the Cuban missile crisis."

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

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