Why the F-22 Trumps the B-52 against North Korea

April 28, 2016

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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. 

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7 thoughts on “Why the F-22 Trumps the B-52 against North Korea

  1. I would respectfully disagree with the author on two points – the role of the B52 and concept of nuclear deterrence. First, very plainly, the B52 has a conventional role as well as a nuclear role. It seems arbitrary to rule out the value of strategic bombers as compared to tactical aircraft when it comes to prosecuting a military campaign in Northeast Asia. The small number of F22s, as valuable as that aircraft is for future operations, belays the potential firepower that it could bring to the fight. The B52s have no such limitation.

    Second, this argument against nuclear signaling is just odd. North Korea already has a nuclear weapons capability. The author seems to claim that pre-emptive strikes from a few tactical aircraft will eliminate that threat of nuclear strikes. I don’t think we should be so cavalier. We’d like to deter the threat of a nuclear attack, and deterrence relies on communications. B52 and B2 bombers send a strong, visual message. It’s more than odd that the author brushes away the need for assurance when there are numerous articles in the South Korean papers calling for either the return of US tactical nuclear weapons into that country or the development of an indigenous capability. Neither option is desired.

    In the event that North Korea uses a nuclear weapon against South Korea, that one option would be to respond with nuclear weapons in kind to restore nuclear deterrence. A conventional response to a nuclear attack will not be viewed as proportional or adequate. There is no guarantee that, in the opening days of a conflict, US and ROK forces will be able to take out all North Korean nuclear delivery systems. As a result, the need for nuclear deterrence – and nuclear signaling – will remain.

  2. Ok, I’ll play along for a moment that North Korea’s Nuclear program is something more than just a smokescreen to get us to expend resources on trying to figure out what they are doing………

    Let’s just say for a moment in this fantasy scenario that they do have a working warhead and a capable delivery system. We’ll go with a ICBM launch facility with the associated supporting infrastructure to include warhead storage, vehicle assembling area, launch platform, radar sites, etc.

    The F-22 isn’t the right tool for the job in either case for a pre-emptive strike or for deterrence.
    •First and foremost, the F-22’s primary mission is an air superiority fighter…..that means Air-To Air combat……
    •Limited payload, remember the internal bay can only carry 2000lbs, yes it does have external hard points, but then that increases it’s radar cross section, reducing the effectiveness of using a stealth aircraft to begin with.
    •The F-22 isn’t nuclear capable
    •The F-22 is not the F-117A, it was not designed to fly through IADs and conduct precision strike against ground targets, the ground attack mission for the F-22 is secondary.

    Let’s talk about deterrence and pre-emptive strike for a moment
    •If you want to deter someone from using nuclear weapons, you do so by demonstrating you can either pre-emptively destroy their capabilities, or can launch a equal counter-attack.
    •A fighter doesn’t fit into that equation, never has and it never win, not for the U.S. and not even during the Cold War when we had nukes on tactical aircraft
    •Forward deploying our B-52s and B-2s which ARE nuclear capable does, as we’re demonstrating the ability for a pre-emptive or counter strike
    •Having SSBNs deployed in the pacific does as we’re demonstrating the ability for a pre-emptive or counter strike
    •Demonstrating precision strikes with cruise missiles does the trick as well for a pre-emptive conventional strike

    Perhaps you’ve forgotten the concept of mutually assured destruction and maintain the nuclear triad, which is a form of deterrence. That’s why we maintain it, Russia maintains it and why China and India are both trying to develop a triad on their own. When you’re adversary’s nuclear capabilities are equal to use and you know both countries would be devastated even in a limited exchange, that gives both sides a reason not to start a conflict. This is why there hasn’t been any direct conflicts between nuclear powers and why the U.S. is still the only country to have used a nuclear weapon in a conflict.

    “Conflict with North Korea is more likely than with any other nuclear state.”

    You can’t be serious, are you writing a real article or trying to be the next Tom Clancy or Ralph Peters. The NK regime, wants what all regime wants to survive. You’ve got a better chance of the Swiss attacking Austria than you do of the North Koreans starting a conflict. The only reason for them to even pursue a nuclear program is to keep us from attacking them. They’re not stupid; they’ve seen what the U.S. has done the last 30 years invading other countries to topple dictators.

    “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”
    “It doesn’t require squadrons of escorts to fly around it to do its job, like the B-52 does.”

    Now, that’s funny, you should right marketing copy for Lockheed Martin with that kind of hype. I take it you’ve never been involved in any kind of air campaign planning before. As backwards as they are, North Korea still has the most complex IADs next to the former Soviet Union. If you think the F-22 is going to be able to fly in undetected without any kind of supporting assets, you’re living in a fantasy land. Why do you think we have waited so long to use the F-22 since they went operational? When they finally had their first combat sorties it was against a crippled/non-existent IADs in Syria. The F-22 has never faced an IADs like North Korea, not operationally and not even on the Nellis Range Complex during Red Flag/Green Flag/Weapons School exercises. The F-22 doesn’t fly alone, no aircraft does neither did the F-117 didn’t either back its heyday. Air Operations are complex and always require a number of aircraft, from tanker support, AWACs, ISR platforms, CAP escorts (yes even if the F-22 is flying ground attack, there would be other F-22s providing CAP or even F-15s). This solo flight of aircraft is Hollywood nonsense. Even our UAVs aren’t out there operating on their own.

    1. No, baghdad iraq had the world’s densest AA coverage next to the soviet union(specifically moscow), and that got demolished. Beijing, china probably has a far superior IAD system now prehaps second to only moscow, at any rate, certainly far more formitable than anything NK could put up. And that may be the primary problem, them f-22 would be flying close to china consistantly and that gives then plenty of chances to take a look at its signitures. Which may be more dangerous than anything NK could do

      1. You’re underestimating North Korea on this one.

        China is certainly buying more modern systems as they have been able to obtain and make their own versions of the S-300, but they are covering strategic targets.

        If you want to compare North Korea and Iraq, during Iraq’s hey day, which would have been prior to the first gulf war. Here’s a couple examples, 1 an old DIA report on North Korea and another Report After Action Report on the Gulf War on Iraq

        This is a quote from a DIA report on North Korea. “The North deploys over 8,000 antiaircraft guns; combined with SA-2, SA-3, and SA-5 and handheld SA-7 surface-to-air missiles, and hand-held SA-7 surface-to-air missiles, these guns provide one of the world’s most dense air defense networks. ”

        It’s from 91 so clearly the OB has changed

        it comparison to Iraq around the same time
        “Despite the numerous components of the IADS, its actual operating
        capabilities were quite limited. The system was designed to counter
        comparatively limited threats from Israel and Iran”

        “Some key Iraqi antiair weapons were either quite old, well understood
        by U.S. intelligence, or limited in range and capability. SAMs with
        the greatest range, SA-2s and SA-3s, had been deployed 30 years
        earlier, putting them at the end of their operational lifespan.
        Moreover, both the USAF and other coalition air forces had long
        established countermeasures to these systems. ”

        As far as the current state of Russia, China or North Korea, there’s a pretty good open source analysis over at the IMINT & Analysis blog to include OB and commercial imagery