Just when you thought the media hyperinflation of the North Korean threat couldn’t get any worse, along came yesterday’s attention-grabbing story on Pyongyang’s submarine that could attack the United States.
To their credit, most outlets haven’t covered the analysis of satellite imagery looking at Pyongyang’s construction of a ballistic missile submarine. But CNN, MSNBC and others couldn’t resist the bright shiny object dangled in front of them. Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” asserted that North Korea may be “making progress on an ominous weapon.” 38 North and others have been reporting on the North’s submarine building program for almost two years. This should not be a shocking new revelation.
Even more dramatic was the commentary. None of the talking heads seen providing analysis have the slightest idea about anything nautical. One intoned, “This is a game changer. A nuclear submarine for North Korea with ballistic missiles on it, would be stealthy, it’s not like the stuff they launched from the ground that’s easily targetable.”
Wrong on so many counts. The new submarine is based on 1960s Soviet technology. Yes, it’s six decades old. To say that it would be stealthy just because it is underwater is nonsense. Submarine experts have commented that it is so noisy that any decent modern anti-submarine warfare system could find that boat from hundreds of miles away. American attack boats, surface ships and aircraft will trail North Korean ballistic missile submarines the minute they leave port. In short, the crew would be on a suicide mission.
Second, in fact, North Korean missiles on the ground are not easily targetable and they are becoming less so with the North’s advancements in mobile missile systems. Pentagon studies during the last years of the Obama administration found that even with an all-out effort, North Korea’s mobile missile force probably could not be destroyed. That was almost five years ago. The newer weapons would be even less vulnerable.
One analyst featured on CNN claimed that in the next decade, North Korean missile-carrying submarines could travel across the Pacific Ocean and attack the United States. As one North Korea expert emailed me, “it would have to leave today to get that close to the United States 10 years from now.”
Moreover, the Pacific Ocean has been covered by American submarine detection systems since the 1960s to deal with the Soviet Union’s ballistic missile submarines. In fact, the systems were deemed so effective by the Russians that they developed longer-range missiles so their submarines could fire their weapons from safe sanctuaries just off their coasts protected by the Soviet surface fleet. (Another CNN claim that the United States would need to deploy a new surveillance system to deal with this threat was also, to say the least, uninformed.)
I get the need to make President Donald Trump look silly. He is, as the military says when assessing a battlefield, “a target-rich environment.” There is no doubt that Pyongyang is moving forward with building a number of weapons systems—witness the recent spate of short-range ballistic missile tests—as well as growing its nuclear arsenal. Evidence that the North is continuing to produce highly enriched uranium to feed its stockpile that appeared on 38 North earlier this week is disturbing. Certainly, that’s not as sexy as, in CNN’s words, an “enormous, nuclear-capable submarine,” which, in fact, is not enormous compared to other missile-carrying boats.
A North Korean ballistic missile submarine is definitely a step up for Pyongyang. But let’s keep it in perspective. First, this boat isn’t going to become operational for years, if at all, and whether its missiles will actually work without further testing is doubtful. Score one for the medium- and long-range missile test moratorium that has been in place for over a year. Second, when it does become operational, the North Korean submarine is not going to venture too far from home because of concerns about its survivability. And whether one submarine with three unreliable missiles will actually be able to threaten targets in South Korea and Japan is open to serious question. That will require a fleet.