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March 3, 2016
Notes from the Pentagon

U.S. braced for North Korean provocations
The U.S. military is preparing for a new round of military provocations by North Korea in response to harsh U.N. sanctions issued Wednesday and the upcoming large-scale U.S.-South Korean war games.

North Korea on Feb. 23 issued a high-level military statement threatening attacks against the U.S. and South Korea in response to annual exercises that will involve some 15,000 U.S. troops and 290,000 South Korean troops.

U.S. analysts said that statement issued by the Korean People’s Army Supreme Command was an unusually authoritative pronouncement signaling that the regime of Kim Jong-un is preparing for a series of escalatory steps in response to the war games, code-named Key Resolve and Foal Eagle.

A defense official said the war games scenario this year will include operations simulating a response to the collapse of the North Korean regime, including the occupation of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. Large numbers of tanks, troops and aircraft will take part in the exercises, which will begin Monday and continue through April 30 and involve larger numbers of forces than previous exercises.

Among the signs of instability in North Korea was the disclosure last month that the chief of the North Korean military’s general staff, Gen. Ri Yong-gil, had been executed.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye said in a speech Tuesday that recent nuclear and missile tests show that the current policy toward North Korea is not working in curbing the regime’s nuclear ambitions.

“If we were to allow North Korea to keep on making such reckless provocations, fifth and sixth nuclear tests will ensue, and its nuclear program will pose a substantial threat not only to the survival of the Korean people, but also to the stability of Northeast Asia and peace around the globe,” Ms. Park said.

The North Korean military statement said the war games would involve rehearsing a “decapitation operation” that would produce the “collapse of the [North Korean] system.” Additionally, the military statement warned that North Korea would strike out if the regime detects the “slightest” effort to target what it called “the supreme nerve center,” a reference to Pyongyang and Mr. Kim. Bombastic rhetoric is common for North Korea, but analysts say the reference to decapitation operations was unusual for Pyongyang and appeared designed to stoke tensions on the peninsula.

The North Korean military command statement vowed to conduct strikes on the presidential compound in Seoul and South Korean ministries, along with an attack against U.S. “land.” Other steps could include more nuclear and missile tests, electronic jamming of Global Positioning System signals, nationwide war mobilization and military strikes on ships or artillery shelling of border regions.

The new U.N. sanctions approved unanimously Wednesday require mandatory inspections of all international shipments to and from North Korea and mark the harshest sanctions imposed so far by the world body. Past sanctions were largely ignored by China, North Korea’s main trading partner and energy supplier.

The sanctions ban all small arms and conventional weapons sales to North Korea, along with curbs on jet and rocket fuel supplies. North Korean aircraft and ships suspected of transporting illicit goods also will be denied access to airports and seaports.

The Pentagon is sending mixed signals on China. On the one hand, U.S. leaders have criticized Beijing for aggression in the South China Sea even as the Navy’s chief invited the Chinese navy to join a prestigious international naval exercise this year.

Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told Congress last week that China is engaged in destabilizing island building and militarization with missiles and jets in the South China Sea. He harshly criticized Beijing for seeking “hegemony” over the strategic waterway that he said threatens $5.3 trillion in trade annually passing through the area.

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, in a speech in San Francisco, also criticized China’s “aggressive behavior,” noting the South China Sea militarization, along with cyberspace and outer space activities.

By contrast, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson announced in San Diego last month that China has an open invitation to send PLA Navy warships to take part in the world’s largest international naval exercise known as Rim of the Pacific, or Rimpac.

The invitation is part of the Pentagon’s attempt to “build trust” with the Chinese military through military exchanges and other engagements, which critics say has produced few results. The Navy has been among the most supportive of the military-to-military program, which critics say has done little to reduce threatening Chinese military activities and weapons developments.

China has built up some 3,200 acres of islands in the South China Sea and last month began deploying advanced air defense missiles and J-11 jet fighters on Woody Island.

The missiles and jets could be used to threaten U.S. reconnaissance aircraft that routinely overfly the sea, which China claims is its maritime territory.

The United States and other Southeast Asian nations have rejected the Chinese sovereignty claims and insist that the South China Sea is an international commons.

Adm. Richardson, speaking at annual Naval Institute conference, said he favors continued dialogue with the Chinese despite the aggressive activities.

“Our relationship with a nation as complex as China is not one-dimensional,” the admiral said. “While we have tremendous concerns [and] there’s certainly some uncertainty there are a number of areas where China seems to advocate and behave very much in accordance with international norms.”

The last time China came to Rimpac, two years ago, it sent an intelligence-gathering ship to spy on the operations of the many nations’ warships that took part.

Some U.S. officials say Chinese participation in Rimpac produces valuable intelligence. But others say the intelligence learned from the exercise is minimal and that allowing the Chinese to take part undermines U.S. relations with allies like Japan that are directly threatened by the Chinese military buildup in Asia.

Rick Fisher, a China military affairs expert, said military exchanges will not alter Beijing’s goal of hegemony over the Western Pacific and the dismemberment of the U.S. alliance structure.

“We have had nearly 35 years experience of military engagement with the PLA and they are still not our friend,” said Mr. Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center. “As China gains strength, it going to pursue stratagems or direct action to push the U.S. out of the Western Pacific. Inviting China to RIMPAC is not going to change this trajectory.”

Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban defended Chinese participation in Rimpac and said it would be limited by restrictions on military exchanges in the 2000 defense authorization act.

Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, warned Congress last week that U.S. nuclear weapons and support infrastructure are “in dire need of modernization and life extension.”

Current nuclear weapons average 27 years of service, and some support structures date to the Manhattan Project of the 1940s.

Another key element of the nuclear arsenal in need of an upgrade is the system of nuclear command, control and communications — the network that allows the president and defense and military leaders to communicate prior to ordering nuclear strikes.

The command and control system includes early warning radar, aircraft and communications networks on the ground, in the air and in space that must be highly reliable and operate in a nuclear blast environment.

Adm. Haney told the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee that his command’s networks require more advanced, secure systems to support “the president’s national decision-making process across a spectrum of scenarios.”

The Pentagon is spending $20 billion for upgrading nuclear command and control through 2020, according to a December report by the Government Accountability Office.

The ground systems being modernized include the Minimum Essential Emergency Communications Network, the National Military Command System, and the Strategic Automated Command and Control System.

The aircraft being upgraded include the Air Force E-4B, a militarized Boeing 747, and the Navy’s E-6B, a Boeing 707 variant. Communications satellites include hardened and secure Milstar satellites that are being replaced by newer Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites.

Strategic Command is working with the White House, the national laboratories and the private sector on a Global C4 system that will allow fast and secure communications anyplace on Earth.

Adm. Haney said that in order to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent, the entire architecture of the nuclear command, control and communications, known as NC3, needs upgrading.

“The unpredictable challenges posed by today’s complex multidomain, multithreat security environment make it increasingly important to optimize our aging NC3 systems architecture while leveraging new technologies,” he said.

“Maintaining nuclear deterrence and strategic stability requires a command-and-control architecture comprised of interdependent fixed and mobile systems and nodes that deliver capability throughout the space, air and land domains.”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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