The Korean Peninsula is entering a new era. North Korea’s fast developing nuclear capability demands a change to how we communicate with, deter, and prepare for war against it. The U.S.-South Korea alliance now needs to be much more discerning about the types of weapons it wields and the signals it sends, intentionally and otherwise. It should start with swapping out America’s occasional B-52 deployments for the F-22.
Alliance policymakers and military commanders have long been able to engage in muscle flexing toward North Korea with little regard for whether it induced fear in Pyongyang’s ruling regime. Indeed, the hope among most alliance leaders has historically been that military “shows of force”—mostly in the form of exercises and temporary deployments—would induce fear or apprehension in North Korea. And as I capture in my new book on North Korea’s history of provocations, muscular signaling was always America’s principal means of saving face as it showed restraint in the face of North Korean violence.
This line of reasoning wasn’t entirely misplaced in decades past. Sure, it contributed to a pretty obvious moral hazard—doubling down on enmity toward an adversary while also repeatedly backing down when challenged only invites further adversary aggression. But in all fairness, deterrence doesn’t work unless threats are somehow involved. The United States did often need to refrain from retaliating against North Korea for larger geopolitical reasons. And military signaling was as much intended to assure South Korea as it was to deter the North.
But in generations past, North Korea didn’t possess nuclear weapons, or a highly diversified ballistic missile program with the potential to range the continental United States. And until recent years, there was at least some hope that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs could be negotiated away. The now emerging nuclear context renders the military habits of old more dangerous than they were in the past, and without commensurate upside.
The U.S.-South Korea alliance is thus facing down a dilemma that old habits — backing down when faced with violence yet wielding nuclear threats after the fact — only exacerbate. The hard-to-implement solution is to break this old pattern. That means being willing to retaliate when attacked and finding some solace in the alliance’s ability to dominate every step of the escalation ladder with North Korea.
But just as importantly, it means curbing nuclear threat postures toward North Korea. In this respect, the nuclear-capable B-52 bomber is one of the most symbolic forms of nuclear signaling the United States can employ, as evidenced by its much ballyhooed deployment to Korea after North Korea’s last nuclear test in January. The B-52’s reliability as a nuclear signal is precisely what makes it such a problem for the alliance. As I wrote at the time of the last deployment, the B-52 is more a signal of hostility toward North Korea than one of resolve because of how it’s been used in the past. Worse, it removes incentives for North Korea to leave nuclear weapons out of a future fight.
Conflict with North Korea is more likely than with any other nuclear state. If the alliance takes that prospect seriously, then it must do everything it can to keep such a future conflict nuclear-free. That’s no easy feat, and might even be impossible; it’s a long-term process of shaping North Korean perceptions, which means it needs to start today, not when conflict is upon us.
B-52 deployments make it easier for North Korea to claim moral equivalency when it comes to nuclear use, and the way the B-52 has been bandied about in Korea inadvertently undermines U.S. credibility. Is North Korea (or even South Korea) to believe that we’re ready to drop nuclear bombs even though we routinely allow conventional provocations to go unpunished? And for those who wish to argue that the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons assures South Korea, please don’t: The United States had tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea during the 1960s in part to assure South Korea, yet its President Park Chung-hee embarked on a secret nuclear weapons program anyway (because perceptions of alliance reliability come from observations of word and deed, not the brandishing of nuclear weapons).
But this shouldn’t be read as a call for unilateral disarmament. As I said, the alliance needs to convince North Korea that future violence will not be worth whatever benefits it thinks it gains from them. This is why the F-22 fighter aircraft matters.
Bringing the F-22 to Korea is in keeping with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s promise to shift the weight of America’s most advanced weapons to Asia, and puts it where they can do the most good. F-22 can launch surgical strikes undetected against North Korean targets on extremely short notice if the alliance believes a North Korean attack is imminent. This is a capability South Korean officials have promised but lack the ability to do. Because of its advanced stealth capability, moreover, the F-22 can conduct strikes without first disabling North Korea’s integrated air defenses (IADs). This is a crucial advantage because destroying enemy IADs is a classical sign that you’re preparing for an invasion. So if you destroy North Korea’s IADs — even if only to conduct a limited strike against an imminent threat — how will North Korea know it’s not a prelude to invasion? The F-22 circumvents this dilemma.
Most crucially though, the F-22 is a conventional weapon, which means it’s not laden with the nuclear symbolism of the B-52. It doesn’t require squadrons of escorts to fly around it to do its job, like the B-52 does. This makes the F-22 an eminently usable weapon while, in the Korea context anyway, the B-52 is not. As a consequence, the F-22 helps do two things the B-52 does not: remedy alliance credibility to deter and defend South Korea (from invasion and lesser campaigns of violence) and try to make sure conventional conflicts don’t become nuclear ones. Conflict may be likely, but nuclear conflict need not be.
It’s not often that I come out for or against specific capabilities; rarely does an individual weapon system make a strategic difference beyond what common sense suggests. But the net benefits of nuclear signaling with the B-52 in Korea are outstripped by the costs and risks of doing so. The F-22, meanwhile, has operational and strategic value. Some weapons have worth, and risks, beyond the effects they can achieve in war.
Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks, as well an associate professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of the new book Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in US-North Korea Relations (Cambridge University Press). The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, DKI-APCSS, or the U.S. Government.