In discussing the world’s top nuclear threats, Jeffrey Lewis is as disarming as he is knowledgeable.
Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, is regularly quoted by the top international media outlets and viewed by many experts as their expert for more-detailed nuclear questions.
In Lewis’s interview with The Jerusalem Post
he shot down a range of views of North Korea that governments and the media usually present as standard.
And when he pops and debunks assumptions, he does not mince words.
Take the question of when will North Korea finally be able to fire a nuclear-tipped Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that can hit the mainland US? Most experts and US government officials say this is a year or a few years away.
Asked the same question, Lewis responded with typical flare, “Assume that it has already happened. Once North Korea had already successfully flight-tested a missile [which it has], all further testing will do will tell us about reliability.
“But even an unreliable missile has deterrence value,” he said, meaning that Pyongyang can already hit the mainland US and the only question is what would its chances be of hitting it successfully.
Some observers say that the US will only be more concerned once North Korea has an arsenal of nuclear weapons.
But explaining the way nuclear missile testing works in a way that only the most knowledgeable of experts can, Lewis said that the way the US tests missiles is from a batch of missiles. The ability to perform a number of tests implies a sizable batch of missiles already exists.
He said the fact that there appear to have been some issues with North Korea’s tests only means their missiles “may not be super reliable,” but he notes that it only takes one hit to cause disaster, and that any level of nuclear risk changes the whole game.
Then he burst another key conventional notion about North Korea.
Lewis said that the common premise that the US is not at risk because North Korea has not perfected “miniaturization,” the process of fitting a nuclear warhead on an ICBM, and/or “reentry,” the process of a nuclear missile reentering Earth’s atmosphere to strike a target after returning from space, is just plain denial.
At a conference two weeks ago, CIA Director Mike Pompeo implied that North Korea had not yet mastered reentry and that, along with that, Pyongyang had not yet reached the point where it could threaten the US mainland.
Lewis opined that CIA director is a political appointment and that Pompeo was not an intelligence analyst by training. He said that Pompeo and others in the administration would likely take a stance underplaying the risk from North Korea because it would be politically inconvenient to do anything else.
Despite President Donald Trump’s fiery statements against North Korea, Lewis said he thought there have been many leaks from the US intelligence community regarding North Korea because its analysts are concerned that the president is not taking the threat seriously enough.
Elaborating on the substance of the miniaturization and reentry issues, Lewis said the questions were: “Can North Korea make a bomb small enough to fit on a missile? Is the missile rugged enough to survive the journey? Can they make a reentry vehicle which can handle the heat of reentry and protect the bomb inside?” Answering these questions, he said: “There is no doubt that their bomb is small enough to fit on an ICBM. If you just look at how far every other country was after five-six tests,” which the North has done, then it is obvious they have achieved miniaturization.
“It is harder to know if it is rugged enough. There is some shock when an ICBM is launched. There is a lot of vibration during the flight and when it goes up in space, it is very cold. They have a reentry vehicle which would protect the missile from burning up, but maybe it would malfunction.”
But he said the US and every other nuclear power has these same questions and are treated as nuclear powers. “We do not really know the answers to this in the US. The US only did it [tested a live nuclear missile] once. The Chinese did it once. Russia only did it a few times. Most issues are viewed as solved by simulations. Do you hold North Korea to the same standards to prove their capabilities, or to higher standards?” Regarding reentry, Lewis again broke with conventional understandings. Conventionally, it would make sense that it would be easier for North Korea to test a missile staying close to home in terms of reentry rather than firing across the world at the US.
He explained that the opposite was true and that firing at the US is easier than North Korea’s nearby testing. “North Korea is firing straight up. In some ways that means its tests are a different reentry environment than if fired at the US. Reportedly the last two warheads it fired eventually broke up during reentry.”
He said North Korea is doing something abnormal by “shooting straight up... reaching the height of the international space station... to avoid hitting Japan, but that US intelligence reportedly has concluded that if fired at the US, which is a normal trajectory,” Pyongyang could succeed.
Importantly, Lewis said that “no country which has built an ICBM has been unable to do the other things like figure out a reentry vehicle and a warhead small enough for a missile – I do not expect North Korea to fail.”
Moreover, he said, “I do not want them to prove it. This creates a natural incentive” for them to keep testing their missiles, to get better at it and to eventually test an ICBM with an actual nuclear warhead.
He noted that “the US did it in 1962, the Chinese did it in 1966 – they each put a live nuclear warhead on an ICBM and fired it. Let’s take their word for it on the basis of the experience of other nuclear powers,” so they will lose the incentive to actually test-fire a nuclear armed ICBM.
The CIA spokesman’s office said it had nothing to add to Pompeo’s comments at the conference.
This paints a grim picture of the future nuclear threat from North Korea.
How can the threat be addressed? Lewis said that a preemptive strike is off the table.
A preemptive strike would be “madness. Leaked estimates are that North Korea has 60 nuclear bombs. They also have Scuds – No Dongs and others. At the least, they could use nuclear weapons on Japan or South Korea” and US forces stationed there, he said, adding that “even with conventional weapons, their artillery puts Seoul in range.”
He implied that, even with reliability issues, the risk of Pyongyang trying to retaliate with nuclear weapons against the US was also real, adding, “any kind of military action risks escalation that would be a nightmare.”
The next option many experts throw out is missile defense.
But Lewis said that the US’s best missile defense shield in Alaska has a test record success rate of only about 50% – “and that is shading it on the positive side.” He added that sometimes the government says a test failed or was delayed by inclement weather – “well, what if North Korea shoots at the US during inclement weather?” Criticizing the economics of missile defense, he said that too many super expensive missile interceptors were needed to have a chance of striking a missile. The US might spend obscene amounts of money to jump from a 50% success rate to a 90% success rate, he said.
“But what if you have a 90% chance and they shoot 12 missiles at you. It is likely that one will get through. There is no leak-proof defense... We are going to be vulnerable to them. That stinks. But all kinds of things stink with nuclear weapons,” Lewis said, implying some combination of deterrence and reaching understandings to avoid war were the only real option.
“It is a terrible thing for North Korea or Iran to get a nuclear weapon. They gain a certain amount of leverage from getting nuclear weapons. But we can try to reduce tensions and resolve security issues. And do not let Iran get a nuclear weapon. Do not get into this position in the first place,” he advised.
Switching to what to do about Iran’s nuclear program, he said that he has qualms about aspects of the 2015 nuclear deal, but that it is currently serving a purpose and should be kept. Lewis is not opposed to using military force to take out an adversary’s nuclear program – “attacking Syria’s made lots of sense. They had a very limited capability and Syria was not able to reconstruct it.”
But he said if you put politics aside, you will realize that “Iran is already a harder case, because if they are determined, you would have to hit them again, and over and over until you get to a diplomatic solution.”
When is crunch-time with Iran? Most have said when the nuclear deal’s eight-10 year nuclear limits expire, with 2.5 years already having passed since the agreement was signed.
Lewis said that there is more time and that nuclear inspections regarding monitoring Iran’s centrifuge development workshops last much longer and provide effective early warning about Iran’s intentions.
Even if Iran can try to establish covert facilities, it currently must buy most tools for making more centrifuges (which it would need to do to make a nuclear weapon faster) overseas, and these would pass through inspections. Further, Lewis said that absent the deal it would be harder to monitor such centrifuge developments.
Focusing on the Islamic Republic’s centrifuge workshops, he said that Iran could be cornered into extending inspections beyond the deal’s longer deadlines if the world’s nuclear powers all accepted such monitoring.
Overall, Lewis said, “it is not wrong to say there are risks and things could go badly. But they could also go well.”
Without underplaying Iran’s current behavior in the Middle East and opining that “there is no perfect solution,” he argued that “the US was very worried about the Chinese in 1964. Key Chinese nuclear advocates later became doves and convinced Chinese leader Mao Zedong to cut a deal with the US. If you had predicted that to US president Lyndon Johnson in 1964 he would have thought you were crazy.”
Coming back to North Korea and its nuclear crossover with Iran, Lewis again took aim at the conventional debate. Usually there are two sides. One side denies that there is any nuclear cooperation and accuses the other side of trying to manufacture cooperation to create false alarms. The other side says there is clear evidence of dangerous, high-level cooperation and accuses the first side of naiveté. Some, like former US ambassador John Bolton even assert that Iran could likely buy a fully functional nuclear bomb from North Korea at any time.
Lewis said that both sides are missing the point. He did not deny that North Korea “provided enormous assistance” to Iran regarding its nuclear program in the past.
But he said that now the relationship has reversed. “Increasingly, the Iranians are better on the missile side than North Korea. Things show up in Iran and then show up in North Korea later. It used to be the other way.”
He also said that Iranian and North Korean missiles use different kinds of fuel, and that Iran’s goal are more short-medium range missiles with Pyongyang focused on longer-range ICBMs.
Would Iran buy a fully made nuclear missile from North Korea? Lewis did not deny the possibility, but said the question misunderstands the scope of Iran’s ambitions and “sells them short.”
Lewis said that “the people in Iran who want a bomb, don’t want one physical bomb, they want an entire infrastructure. They don’t want three bombs in a warehouse. They want an arsenal.”
Interestingly, he noted that many experts made this analytical mistake with China decades ago. “We imagine decision-makers are worried about what we are worried about. We imagined the Chinese might get a nuclear bomb from the USSR. But the Chinese were never like that. They wanted their own,” implying that Iran was the same.
Ultimately, he said each nuclear issue must be thought through carefully, with the recognition that “we might be damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”
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