The stunning revelation that a segment of the intelligence community believes that North Korea already has a nuclear weapon compact enough to be placed upon a ballistic missile shows anew the limits of what intelligence agencies can determine as to what goes on in closed societies. What matters from a standpoint of intelligence acuity is less whether Pyongyang can put a nuclear bomb atop a missile-though in the substantive sense of military and terror threats it hugely matters-than whether we can ascertain for sure if they can.
In fact, we rarely can ascertain such, if history is a guide. Our agencies have been serially surprised over the years. Days before the August 1949 detonation of the former Soviet Union's first atomic bomb our intelligence asserted that the first test was several years away. We were caught flatfooted by China's 1964 atomic and 1966 hydrogen bomb tests. We were blindsided by India's 1974 test of what it called a "peaceful" explosion. And after India tested a military nuclear bomb in May 1998, we were surprised by Pakistan's conducting five tests within a fortnight, a sequence that had to have been planned long in advance. When UN inspectors came to Baghdad after the Gulf War, they were surprised to see that Saddam Hussein was within a year or two of testing a nuclear bomb; we made the converse error as to possession of WMD stockpiles by Iraq in 2003, when they had been moved or destroyed prior to the March 2003 launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom. And when North Korea told us in October 2002 that it had "the bomb," we considered the issue unresolved. It took the North's first test, four Octobers later, to convince us that for once Pyongyang had told the truth-when it was already too late for us to prevent their joining the nuclear club.
And now we see a split among our intelligence agencies, as to what, if anything nuclear, Pyongyang can fit inside a warhead and, if so, how far the missile can carry it. In apparent response to Japan's stated intent to shoot down any missile headed for Japanese soil, the North threatened that "nuclear war is unavoidable" and that Tokyo would be "consumed in nuclear flames."
The Defense Intelligence Agency, which handles military intelligence for the Pentagon, concluded in a classified report excerpt mistakenly aired at a congressional hearing last week: "DIA assess with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles, however, the reliability will be low [sic]." James Clapper, director of national intelligence, opined: "North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile." And the Pentagon issued a separate statement: "[It] would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed, or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced in the passage." A South Korean defense ministry spokesman said: "we have doubt that North Korea has reached the stage of miniaturization."
As I wrote last week in North Korean Nuclear Missile Game-Changer:
Testifying on May 21 before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Woolsey added another, frightening dimension arising out of Pyongyang's successful December 12, 2012 ballistic missile test: the ability to bypass all existing U.S. land-based missile defense systems, which point westward. The North has been given technology assistance by Russia, via Iran, concerning what the former Soviet Union developed in the 1960s, the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS).
FOBS could launch a weapon from North Korea into a satellite orbit passing over the south polar region, suddenly descending into the U.S. on a track outside the cone of coverage of our current land-based missile defense radars. Our radars were deployed to deflect an ICBM attack passing over the north polar region.
The North's December 12 test looks like a game-changer. Woolsey told the House committee that the test of the North's "Space Launch Vehicle" showed an ability to put a 100-kilogram (240-pound) payload into polar orbit 500 kilometers (312 miles) high. Such a test is a proxy for an ICBM, as achieving Earth orbit requires a five mile-per-second velocity, faster than the sub-orbital velocity needed for a traditional ICBM. A super-EMP neutron weapon, another Soviet-era design, can be assembled with a warhead lighter than 50 kilograms-less than 110 pounds.
Woolsey further notes that all three North Korean atomic bomb tests have been low-yield. Instead of interpreting the tests as dud city-busters, they could have been tests of an EMP weapon, where blast yield is irrelevant to the designer's EMP emission objective.
Complicating intelligence uncertainly as to the North's capabilities is the result of a recent U.S. Army war game, "Unified Quest," publicly disclosed in March. The game scenario featured a U.S. effort in 2020 to secure nuclear material after the collapse of the North Korean regime. It took 56 days to get two divisions into place, and 90,000 personnel to secure nuclear sites. One key factor hindering the effective use of American forces was lack of human intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, for want of human assets inside the target country (officially not named during the actual game, but analysts point to North Korea).
Surveillance technology simply cannot answer all necessary intelligence issues. During the U.S. - Soviet strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) in the 1970s, verification of the agreement was to be by "national technical means"-orbiting spy satellites. Yet these systems could not tell how many warheads fit into the nose one of a ballistic missile. So arms negotiators settled instead on "launchers"-counting silos on land and missile tubes on submarines. Complex counting rules were adopted, to settle on the number of warheads carried by each Soviet missile; the U.S. numbers already were publicly disclosed. In effect, counting-rules were a substitute for actual data. Moscow never confirmed our estimates; they simply accepted negotiated treaty numbers.
Yet estimates of the number of Soviet missiles proved highly fallible. From the early 1960s to the mid-1970s American intelligence estimated the pace of Soviet deployment. A "B" Team assessment of the CIA's performance, ordered by then-chief George H. W. Bush, concluded that the agencies consistently undershot actual Soviet deployments, which many times lay outside the upper bound of the CIA's estimated range. We may be repeating this error as to the count of nuclear warheads deployed by China. In 2009 China revealed a 3,000-mile network of huge tunnels dubbed China's "Underground Great Wall." Official footage shows massive mobile missiles being moved through the tunnels. Several former Chinese officials have suggested that China's nuclear arsenal is several times greater than the published estimates of a few hundred. A new "B" Team intelligence assessment as to China's deployments seems amply warranted.
The recent third North Korean nuclear device test may have been of a uranium bomb, instead of the plutonium devices tested the first two times. The latter are more compact but harder to detonate; they are superior for putting bombs inside missile warheads. Uranium devices are easier to detonate and harder for security sensors to detect, making uranium the bomb fuel of preference for terrorists. Yet our intelligence agencies have been unable to verify which fuel was used in the latest North test. A terror bomb can be put on a boat, and destroy a harbor; or smuggled over a point on America's thousands of miles of coastline in a van, it can destroy the heart of a great city.
The latest flap over the state of North Korea's program shows anew the limits of intelligence as to closed societies. We are similarly unable to verify exactly where Iran stands in its nuclear quest. Intelligence, simply put, cannot reveal enough to enable us to decide what to do with complete confidence-often, with even moderate confidence-that we are in fact right as to what we believe we know.
This puts paid to the notion that we can delay a decision to launch a preventive strike, and that we can ascertain imminence as to crossing the nuclear threshold (Iran), or mating a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile (North Korea) or even how many nuclear-tipped missiles a country has (China). The sober reality is that our intelligence cannot reliably detect nuclear breakout capability as to the world's most dangerous regimes.
So, can North Korea fire a nuclear-armed missile at American territory or that of an American ally? You'll have to ask them.