By Samson Yuchi Mai
On June 3,2013, at UCSD’s International Center, I had the privilege of having a conversation with Henry Sokolski, Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Education Center after his guest lecture on “Strategic Bombing, Nuclear Weapons, and City Busting.” This was the pilot version of what will be the country’s first free and online course on the United States’ nuclear policy.
Sokolski is currently the adjunct professor at the Institute for World Politics in Washington, D.C. His other scholarly positions include being a resident fellow at the National Institute for Public Policy, the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institution. Beforehand, he was the Deputy for Nonproliferation Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary’s Office of Net Assessment. For his contributions while working at the Department of Defense, he was awarded the Secretary of Defense’s Medal for Outstanding Public Service. Before working for the Department of Defense, he was Senior Military Legislative Aide to Senator Dan Quayle, and Special Assistant on Nuclear Energy Matters to Senator Gordon J. Humphrey. Sokolski was appointed by Congress to the Deutch Proliferation Commission, which completed its report in July 1999. From 1995-1996, he served as a member of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Senior Advisory Panel.
Our conversation covered some of the topics from his talk on the history of the United States’ nuclear policy, Iran, North Korea and China. Here is a synopsis of the lecture and excerpts from our conversation. This is not a transcript. Footnotes have been provided for further explanation as well as citations.
On Sokolski’s Lecture
Sokolski chronicles the development of the strategy of city busting  from its origins in the Civil War to city-busting policy under President Obama. Our military strategy of deliberately targeting civilians arose from General Sherman’s March to the Sea during the Civil War. However,targeting civilians did not become standard practice in warfare until World War II, when the United States Air Force targeted cities like Dresden and Tokyo. With the advent of nuclear weapons, targeting civilians took on an entirely different dimension. The sole purpose of a nuclear arsenal was not to actually be used, but rather to serve as deterrence. Targeting cities was meant as a last measure to deter the other side from targeting their cities. Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) was the name of the game. This principle is still the bedrock of American nuclear strategy today.
Although the principle remained unchanged during the Cold War, technology did not stay constant. In the last forty years, the military has undergone a revolution in improving the accuracy of weapons, reducing the need for a bigger boom. This applies to nuclear weapons as well. Instead of developing larger warheads, the aim after the Vietnam War was to develop more accurate ones. As a consequence, warheads became smaller, allowing multiple warheads to be attached to one missile via a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV). A much greater consequence was the reduction of the size of the Soviet and American nuclear arsenal.
With the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the United States as the sole superpower, is there a need for city busting to remain a relevant strategy? Actually, with shifts in military strategy and overall perspective on nuclear weapons, city busting is becoming a mainstay for smaller nuclear powers. For example, the United Kingdom has deemed it necessary to not target a single military target, but rather to target civilian centers as a deterrent . This poses a problem for reaching global zero, a world without nuclear weapons. The Obama administration debated the idea of reducing the American nuclear arsenal to just 500 warheads . This was to be a deterrence-only approach in which the U.S. military would target an enemy’s economic base instead of the military and command and control centers.
After the lecture, I asked Sokolski his opinions on America’s response or deterrence against a North Korean military attack against South Korea, which would most likely involve a massive artillery attack on Seoul. In addition to the largest artillery force in the world, the North Koreans have a sizeable rocket force and several nukes.
The North Koreans should have a strategy to counter a possible American reaction. They know the Americans would be relying on overwhelming air power and strikes from the U.S. Navy coming in several different forms, including Tomahawk missile strikes. The North Koreans have learned from their experience during the Korean War, and so have built an enormous network of subterranean tunnels to hide troop movement, defend against attack and to conduct weapons tests away from unwanted eyes.
The posturing on the Korean peninsula has serious consequences. The United States is more than a regular ally of the Republic of Korea. South Korea has been one of America’s strongest allies in Asia since the Korean War. There is an expectation that the United States will back the ROK in any conflict with North Korea. So when North Korea conducted a nuclear test earlier this year, the United States responded by reinforcing its military presence in the Japan/South Korea sector, including sending a B-2 squadron. The United States needed to credibly show both sides that it will back South Korea . Sokolski characterized the American response as an overreaction. The United States realized that its maneuvers were not de-escalating the situation so it toned down its rhetoric and its actions. That’s why North Korea disappeared from the news in late spring.
The conversation flowed to the topic of Iran and its nuclear ambitions. I asked him about the state of Iran’s missile capacity.
Sokolski said that Iran’s capacity is pretty advanced. The Iranians are making great strides in obtaining an intercontinental missile with the capability to deliver a nuclear payload. Although the priority of the regime has been to develop a nuclear weapons capability, the government has not overlooked its missile program. Although he could not give me an exact time in which he thought they would develop intercontinental ballistic capability, he estimates it may be some time in the near future.
In order to obtain intercontinental ballistic capability, it is necessary to perfect terminal guidance . The Iranians are rapidly becoming more proficient in this area. In fact, the 1980s version of the Scud missile has a terminal guidance system with good precision and they have long since moved past this technical point. Over the years, the Iranians have improved upon their missile systems by learning from their errors, such as failed missile tests. The Iranian military now has more than proficient integrated systems to support advanced weapons systems like intercontinental ballistic missiles. They have the ability to pretty much manufacture long range missiles. In short, the Iranians are making progress toward a three stage missile which has the capability to deliver a nuclear warhead thousands of kilometers from its launch site . This is a major concern for the United States and the international community.
Our conversation shifted to the topic of Iran’s defensive capability. I mentioned “ultra high performance concrete” (UHPC). The Iranians have developed very high quality defensive engineering tools as result of the threat of an attack from the United States and being in an earthquake-prone region. I asked Sokolski his assessment of Iran’s defensive capabilities.
The Iranians took notice of American air power and began their own tunneling program. The government specifically supported programs that would enhance its defensive capabilities, including creating UHPC. The tunneling program and other concealment mechanisms are designed to hide weapons and a possible nuclear program. This makes it very difficult to track, identify and destroy military installations and infrastructure. Naturally, the United States has developed weapon systems to counter this.
My last question concerned a contemporary article on China’s nuclear arsenal. Al Jazeera ran a piece alleging that China’s nuclear arsenal is 3000 warheads instead of the 400 warheads that was previously estimated. A group of students from Georgetown conducted a long term study using both open source data and leaked classified documents from the Chinese military to find out how many nukes China really has . They found that the Second Artillery Corp of the PLA, the unit in charge of China’s nuclear arsenal, was constructing thousands of miles of tunnels. These tunnels are meant to conceal military hardware including nukes. I asked him what he thought of the study.
Sokolski said that study’s conclusions match the general principles of Chinese military thought. Chinese stratagem stresses secrecy as a vital principle. This applies to not being transparent on its nuclear arsenal. China is another country that learned from its experiences during the Korean War. China suffered much from American direct air support. Like its North Korean counterparts, the PLA has dug miles upon miles of tunnels, with some estimates reaching the thousands. This begs the question what these tunnels are for. One logical explanation is the production, movement and hiding of mobile nuclear warheads. This study by Georgetown students has valid points, but it would be difficult to verify their claims with open sources.
I would like to first thank Henry Sokolski for taking the time to talk to me especially in such an informal setting. I have gained greater insight on global security issues and geopolitics in general. Both the interview and the lecture were enlightening and entertaining. I would also like to thank Alexsandra McMahan, Annemarie Catanzaro, and Professor Randy Willoughby for orchestrating both the lecture and the subsequent interview. Lastly, I like to thank Sebastian Brady for editing for this piece over the summer holidays.
1. City busting is a term to describe the military strategy to deliberately target as many civilians as possible in order to terrorize the population and to force the population and its government to give up. Cities have the greatest densities of population so it is logical to target cities. The basic military aim in war is to compel the other side to give up.
2. Harold Smith and Raymond Jeanloz, “Britain Leads the Way to Global Zero,” Arms Control Today, December 2010.
3. R. Jeffrey Smith, “Obama Administration Embraces Major New Nuclear Weapons Cut,” Center for Public Integrity, February 8, 2013.
4. B-2 bombers are one of America’s strategic bombers. It has both stealth capability and the ability to deliver nuclear payload. The fact that the United States sent these bombers over showed how serious it was about the North Korean provocation.
5. Terminal guidance is a guidance system used during the terminal phase, just before the weapon impacts its target. ICBMs require multiple guidance systems to steer the missile and warheads through different stages from launch to final impact.
6. “Design Characteristics of Iran’s Ballistic and Cruise Missiles.” Nuclear Threat Initiative. January 2013.
7. Wan, William. “Georgetown students shed light on China’s tunnel system for nuclear weapons.” The Washington Post.
Photo by cvrcak1