A new nuclear state, in a major crisis with a conventionally superior nuclear-armed adversary, contemplates and prepares to move nuclear assets in the event it has to use them. Who controls the nuclear forces? Who decides when they might be assembled, mated to delivery vehicles, moved, and launched? Who has nominal authority to order those decisions? Who has the physical ability to implement them even without proper authorization? How experienced are the relevant units in these operations? What could go wrong?
These were the questions that bedeviled Pakistan in the 1999 Kargil War and again in the 10-month standoff with India in 2001-2002. They are the same challenges and issues that confront North Korea today.
As the mountain of dust settles after North Korea’s purported thermonuclear bomb, intermediate-range ballistic missile, and intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) tests this summer and it becomes an increasingly operational nuclear state, one of the many deadly serious challenges it faces is how it manages its nuclear forces, or what command and control arrangement it erects. These arrangements are the transmission belt that makes a state’s nuclear strategy operational — how and when nuclear weapons are managed and might actually be employed. As a nuclear weapons power, North Korea now has to think about how precisely it wants to implement its “asymmetric escalation” strategy. And so does the United States, since these arrangements have very real implications for when nuclear weapons might be used intentionally — or unintentionally — in a conflict.
This article was originally published in War on the Rocks