By Sean Welsh, Department of Philosophy, University of Canterbury
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 11, 2017
If Trump regards hostile missiles flying over Japan to reach Guam as a casus belli, he may start war. To win such a war would require at least twelve missions to be achieved and the assumption of massive risk.
Mission #1 is cyber/comms/intelligence. Overall, this means penetrating North Korean command and control communications. There might be Stuxnet like viruses already present in North Korean telecommunications infrastructure that could disable facilities, provide intelligence and intercept monitor command and control communications. Additionally, there may be human intelligence coming from sources within the Kim regime.
Mission #2 could be a pre-emptive strike on North Korean ICBMs. However, North Korea’s solid state missiles take only 15 minutes to warm up and can be launched from mobile platforms. Depending on where in North Korea the missiles are launched from, it may not be possible for submarine launched Tomahawks to hit them prior to take off. However, if the NSA has penetrated North Korea’s command and control network, they may get intelligence of launch times and locations for the four threatened missiles. Alternatively, such intelligence may come from satellite imagery. With 30 to 60 minutes warning, it would be possible to hit such targets with Tomahawk missiles launched from submarines lying in international waters off the Korean peninsula before they took off. North Korea would undoubtedly take this as an act of war.
Mission #3 is the destruction of air defence systems. This would most likely happen on a similar timeline to the 2003 Iraq War. Enemy fighters and radar systems would be destroyed in the first few hours of the war.
Mission #4 is decapitation. This means killing the senior leadership of North Korea. Kim and his senior generals would be targeted by drones. However, Kim Jong-Un is surrounded by elite guards and is suspected to have body doubles. He will be difficult to find.
Mission #5 is destruction of command and control capabilities. Besides decapitation of the political and senior military leaderships, radio and TV will be jammed and telephone exchanges destroyed. What survives of the North Korean senior leadership will be isolated from their units and unable to give orders.
Mission #6 is to protect Seoul and other border cities from artillery fire from the North. Should war be resumed, North Korean artillery would open fire on Seoul and other targets within range. While the Raytheon Counter Rocket Artillery Mortar (C-RAM) system has the capability to intercept artillery shells, it does not offer 100% protection. North Korean artillery could be targeted by conventional drones and piloted aircraft (fighters and bombers). While some shells from the initial salvoes might get through, assuming US/South Korean air dominance, it is unlikely North Korean batteries could survive for very long once they opened fire.
Mission #7 is to defend Seoul, Tokyo and Guam and other targets from missile strikes. Systems such as Aegis, Patriot and THAAD have the capability to intercept many ballistic missiles. However, there is no guarantee they could intercept 100% of the missiles. The surest method would be the destruction of North Korean batteries by drone and air strikes as soon as possible after war started.
Mission #8 is conventional warfare to hold the line of the DMZ. There are existing autonomous weapons fielded along the border (sentry robots) that are static and defensive. There are also large conventional forces (tanks, artillery, infantry) that could hold this line. If the North did launch a ground invasion with tanks, artillery and infantry it would be subject to devastating attacks from the air. US and South Korean ground forces should be able to hold the line.
Mission #9 is neutralization of the North’s ground forces. North Korea has a huge conscript army but they have dated equipment and are not trusted by their political leaders. Pilots get few flying hours and everyone spies on everyone else. Korean speaking officers will make direct contact with Northern units and give them a chance to surrender or face prompt and utter destruction by superior Western weaponry.
Mission #10 is psychological operations on the general population. The Allies would likely hack or destroy North Korean broadcast media. They would start transmitting on normal frequencies to communicate directly to the North Korean people via radio and TV in Korean. Such messages might encourage them to flee for safety into the hills and forest and assure them that civilians would not be targeted. The massive civilian targeted bombing ordered by Curtis LeMay in the First Korean War will not be repeated. Current International Humanitarian Law (IHL) forbids it.
Mission #11 is diplomacy. China has already indicated that it will not support Pyongyang if they fire missiles on Guam. China has to be kept out of the war.
Mission #12 is to anticipate and counter the wild cards. Does the North have anything up its sleeve? A neutral flagged merchant ship with a nuclear bomb in San Diego? A kamikaze submarine with a nuke lying off Tokyo or in Sydney Harbour? A nuke sitting on the border that can be detonated without a missile launch? A nuclear bomb in a van or truck? There are many unknown unknowns.
Should war start, the end result is not 100% predictable. As von Moltke said over a century ago: “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” The risks are huge. Millions could die if nuclear warheads detonate. I don’t know to what extent the risks can be mitigated but I suspect that once hit, Kim’s regime will collapse much like Saddam’s Iraq.
Sean Welsh is researcher at the University of Canterbury. His doctoral dissertation Moral Code: Programming the Ethical Robot focuses on the relationship between autonomous weaponry and international law and decision making by robots and AIs in civilian contexts. His book Ethics and Security Automata is forthcoming from Routledge.
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