Japan and South Korea want aircraft carriers? It makes no sense!

There is increasing speculation that Japan and South Korea might modify the 24,000-ton Izumi-Class helicopter carriers and 14,000-ton Dokdo-class amphibious assault ships respectively to deploy F-35B VSTOL aircraft.

Currently, Japan and South Korea have concluded agreements with Lockheed Martin to acquire 42 and 40 F-35A conventional take-off and landing aircraft respectively. Since then, both Japan and South Korea have reportedly been considering acquiring more F-35s, both apparently driven by their respective concerns regarding North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests. In particular, it appears that both countries are now keen on acquiring the B variant, precisely because of its VSTOL characteristics. Whether both countries will actually sign agreements to acquire the B variant remains to be seen, it should be added. Furthermore, even if both countries acquire the B variant, it does not necessarily mean that these aircraft would be subsequently deployed on naval platforms, since these aircraft provide a survivability and flexibility – in the event that existing runways are destroyed – that the A variant does not possess.

This is where the fact that Japan and South Korea have the Izumi-class helicopter carriers and Dokdo-class amphibious assault ships becomes interesting, precisely because it is hypothetically possible to convert their respective vessels into small aircraft carriers capable of deploying small numbers of F-35Bs. However, just because it is hypothetically possible does not mean such ideas make technical or strategic sense.

In 2015, Defence Aviation published a report that suggested that Singapore’s interest in building a new class of warship, a Joint Multi-Mission Ship (JMMS), when matched with Singapore’s interest in the F-35B aircraft, meant that the JMMS might eventually be converted into a small aircraft carrier for the Singapore Navy. Collin Koh and I co-wrote a piece that rubbished the Defence Aviation report. As we argued in the National Interest article, the proposed JMMS is not optimally designed to deploy F-35Bs: “There is really no pretense about what JMMS is designed for. It is a multi-role vessel configurable for several different missions—amphibious assault, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR), replenishment, hospital ship, command and control center, and so on. A full flight deck along the ship’s length merely means it can support a greater aviation capacity and flight operations.”

Right now, I am struggling to see how the technical challenges and limitations that Collin and I identified in converting a JMMS into a F-35B-carrying small aircraft carrier can be circumvented in either the Japanese or South Korean cases.

Furthermore, such small carriers do not make good strategic sense. What strategic purpose would such carriers provide to either Japan or South Korea? How would these carriers help either country to manage the security problems posed by North Korea’s ballistic missiles? How would the possession of small aircraft carriers in what will be very small numbers result in a greater capacity to deter North Korea, or China for that matter?

I can agree up to a point that deploying F-35Bs on aircraft carriers makes such aircraft less potentially vulnerable than if these aircraft were deployed in fixed land-based air bases. That being said, the VSTOL characteristic means that, if all existing air bases were destroyed in a pre-emptive strike, these aircraft can (some prior planning and positioning necessary) be deployed on virtually any piece of relatively flat land, I would imagine.

That being said, there is a long tradition of arguing that aircraft carriers are obsolete. Amongst other reasons, this is sometimes attributed to other countries deploying so-called aircraft carrier killers – China’s Dong Feng 21D anti-ship ballistic missile being one such example.  If this “carrier is dead” argument holds water, it therefore means that deploying F-35Bs on small carriers may not provide these aircraft with the survivability that Japan or South Korea might want.


MAD is not the solution to a nuclear North Korea

On 10 October 2017, Bilahari Kausikan, widely touted as Singapore’s top foreign policy guru, published a piece in The Washington Post in which he argued that the only way to deter a nuclear-capable North Korea was to encourage both Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons programmes.

What he got right

Let me start off by saying that Bilahari is correct on some things.

He is right on the absence of viable military solutions: “The time for preemptive kinetic action has passed. Since North Korea already has nuclear devices, if not yet fully operational nuclear weapons, all it has to do is detonate those devices close to its South Korean or Chinese borders to raise the stakes of preemptive action to unacceptable levels. The regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is ruthless enough to do so.”

He is also right that “China cannot stop North Korea.” I do disagree with him about the reasons thereof. Regime change in this instance means only replacing Kim Jong-Un with another leader from the North Korean government who is more amenable to China’s long-term geopolitical and geostrategic interests in the Korean Peninsula.

Finally, he is right about the strategic rationality of North Korea: “Pyongyang … can be deterred: the regime is bad but not mad. It is coldly rational, calculating exactly how far it can go in any set of circumstances.”

But, when he proposes that the best way to deter North Korea is to encourage Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons programmes? That’s where I draw the line.

Horizontal nuclear proliferation as the strategic answer?

Of course, there are caveats to the proposal.

As he writes, “I don’t think Japan and South Korea are eager to become nuclear-armed states, nor is Washington eager for that to happen.” But he also adds that as long as the two countries remain within the current strategic relationship with the US, this is for him “the least bad option.”

He recognises that there will be significant hurdles.

China, in particular, “will pull out all stops short of war to prevent Japan going nuclear, raising the shibboleth of Japan’s remilitarization to try and rally Americans, Japanese, Koreans and others in East Asia against Tokyo. But it will fail.” China cannot threaten Japan’s nuclear programmes with “preemptive military action” because that would bring the US into a war with China, a war which “cannot end well for China” as “it would jeopardize the CCP’s rule.”

Nevertheless, as he further argues, “However difficult the process of getting to a six-way balance of mutually assured destruction may be, once established, it will be stabilizing. All six countries are rational and are functioning polities.”

Furthermore, “A Northeast Asian balance of mutually assured destruction will freeze the status quo. It will be an absolute obstacle to the revanchist ambitions that are embedded in the narrative of the “great rejuvenation” of China by which the CCP now legitimates itself and which are manifest in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea cannot be reversed, nor will China give up its claims. But forcing China to at least suspend its ambitions at their current level will make for more stable Sino-American and Sino-Japanese relations and a more stable East Asia.”

Finally, he argues, “Freezing the status quo will put an end to the chimera of Korean reunification and make for healthier relations between the North and the South. Reunification is an aspiration that neither has really been in a hurry to achieve. For the North, unless entirely on its own terms, reunification means the end of the regime. For the South, the incorporation of 25 million North Koreans who have no experience of a modern market economy into a population of 51 million will irrevocably change South Korea and not for the better. Better to end all pretense.”

But horizontal nuclear proliferation is NOT the answer

I offer three reasons why his proposal is strategic lunacy.

One, MAD (mutually assured destruction) was a US doctrine, and there is no conclusive evidence that the Soviet Union ever bought into MAD. Once it became clear that the Soviet Union had achieved nuclear parity with the US, the US promulgated the doctrine of MAD. It structured its nuclear forces into a strategic triad, dividing its nuclear arsenal more or less equitably between land-based ICBMs, ballistic missile submarines, and strategic bombers capable of reaching Soviet air space with nuclear weapons. This was because MAD required the US to retain a retaliatory capability that could survive a massive Soviet nuclear first strike and deliver unacceptable levels of damage against the Soviet Union for its initial aggression. Land-based ICBMs, because of their higher accuracies, were principally first-strike counter-force weapons that were nevertheless potentially vulnerable to a Soviet disarming counter-force first strike. The strategic bombers and ballistic missile submarines were, presumably, more survivable, and packed sufficient destructive power to render any Soviet counter-force first strike to be strategically useless thereafter. Because of their lower accuracies, these retaliatory capabilities were targeted principally against the major Soviet urban centres.

However, the Soviet Union’s nuclear force structure, based principally on its land-based ballistic missiles and retaining only a small proportion of nuclear weapons in strategic bombers and ballistic missile submarines, suggested that it did not subscribe to MAD. Rather, this force structure suggested that the Soviet Union believed in a doctrine whereby in the event of a superpower war, it would launch a massive attack against the US designed to completely destroy the latter.

In other words, MAD might have plausibly persuaded the US that it did not need to initiate nuclear war; the same cannot be definitively said of the Soviet Union.

Secondly, for MAD to work, the Soviet Union and the US required sufficient early warning of a land-based nuclear launch, the principal arm of the strategic triad – given their relative accuracy – that would have been used to attack the nuclear forces of each other. The early warning systems that both superpowers maintained provided them with a reaction time of approximately 30 minutes. Presumably, this would have been sufficient time for sufficient numbers of strategic bombers to deploy for a retaliatory strike against the adversary. Further retaliatory capability was maintained in the ballistic missile submarines that were already deployed in the vicinity of their respective launch areas.

In other words, it is precisely the mechanics of MAD that preclude such a doctrine from being fruitfully applied to a scenario of a nuclear-armed Northeast Asia. To begin with, the likely nuclear forces of these countries will be so small as to preclude the existence of a retaliatory capability that can survive a nuclear pre-emptive first strike and still possess sufficient capacity to punish the aggressor for its pre-emptive nuclear attack. Furthermore, the region is simply too geostrategically compact, such that warning times of a pre-emptive first strike will be virtually non-existent. There were any number of close calls between the US and the Soviet Union as it was.

Thirdly, MAD will simply create a Mexican Standoff in Northeast Asia. Stemming from the preceding two observations, this will then generate significant pressures on policy makers in Pyongyang, Seoul and Tokyo to “use ’em or lose ’em”. Pre-emptive strikes will become an increasingly attractive, even necessary, policy option at the slightest hint of a political crisis that might result in nuclear devastation if one side hesitates. Even if nothing happens, this will create a situation where none of the states involved can afford to back down. Tension becomes a more or less permanent feature of the relationship. However, in such a Mexican Standoff, the actors involved have to have cool heads, they have to want to maintain the standoff without recourse to shooting. No coughing! No sudden movements!

Postscript: My colleague, Richard Bitzinger, wrote a piece that demonstrates the technical difficulties and steps that Japan would have to undergo to develop a nuclear weapons programme. His conclusion: it ain’t easy!

North Korea and the SAF’s Mavericks: Responding to a reader

I want to thank a reader who wanted to respond to two posts, but found some technical difficulties in doing so (my apologies, I am quite technology-illiterate, and don’t know how to fix this problem). His solution: find my email and direct his comments and questions to me in that manner. I reproduce his email to me below verbatim:
It appears to me that there are at least 2 impacts such a crisis might have for Singapore:
  • Uncertain geopolitical environment leading to slow-down in global trade
  • Dangerous precedent for other nuclear aspirants
However, these seem rather indirect/slow-burn. Therefore, what direct/immediate impact(s) do you think this crisis might have for Singapore?
My response to the first:

On North Korea and its ramifications for Singapore, I think your two observations are absolutely right – however, as you point out, these are indirect (I wouldn’t even say slow-burn). Even if Japan and South Korea went nuclear (and for both, the technical assessments by nuclear experts generally agree that both countries can go nuclear fairly quickly, and quickly acquire a small nuclear arsenal of up to 40 Hiroshima/Nagasaki-type atomic bombs. But again, Singapore will be indirectly affected.
There is one potential direct impact on Singapore. In the event of a large-scale conventional war in the Korean peninsula, US military operations will require extensive logistical support, and this logistical support will be quarterbacked by the PACOM logistical management facilities that Singapore currently hosts. If I were a military planner in Pyongyang, I would want to find some way to target this logistics “quarterback” in Singapore.
Secondly, I refer to Does the SAF need mavericks?
You commented that you were “deeply uncomfortable with the idea that military personnel should be deployed for counter-terrorist operations.”
Giving the blurring of the lines between conventional and non-conventional warfare, and how terrorism is at least painted by the authorities as an existential threat given its potential to tear apart our social fabric and whatnot, could you elaborate on
  1. What grounds your deep discomfort with the ADF?
  2. What reasons/constraints do you think potentially support such full-spectrum ops by the SAF?

My response to the second comment:

On the second issue of the SAF’s role in counter-terrorism, my discomfort stems from a number of issues. One, for most countries, counter-terrorism operations within the country is a function of law enforcement agencies (OK, in the US, some of these law enforcement agencies are increasingly looking like military organisations in terms of their hardware and capabilities and operating styles). It is a legal issue that needs to be addressed. MINDEF traditionally stood for Ministry of Interior and Defence, hence MINDEF rather than MOD (Ministry of Defence). But the Interior role that MINDEF started out with was later divested from it with the creation of the Ministry of Home Affairs on 11 August 1970. If counter-terrorism is so pressing a national security issue, then I would argue what needs to be done is to given more resources to MHA – but this may require diverting some resources traditionally earmarked for MINDEF (both financial and human resources), and such a policy decision is something that MINDEF will almost certainly resist as much as possible.
Two, MINDEF is, in my opinion, undermining its own national security narrative – that Singapore faces potentially existential threats from its neighbourhood and beyond. References are constantly made to the Malaysian threats in the past to shut down water supplies, Indonesian Confrontation (and the recent commissioning of 2 TNI frigates after the two Indonesian commandos who were executed for the MacDonald House bombing is a reminder), and the 1991 Operation Pukul Habis (which points to fears that the two Muslim-majority countries sandwiching Singapore can collude to crush Singapore). The narrative goes on to appeal to such incidents as Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia imposing a quarantine on Qatar. Now, if this narrative of potential existential threat is to be taken seriously, then surely we need a SAF that is dedicated fully to preparing for such an existential threat; which means the SAF ought to be focusing exclusively on external defence, and dedicating its scarce resources (especially training time) towards the provision of all the skill-sets necessary for Singapore to be defended against such external existential threats. By adding counter-terrorism to its list of missions, the SAF may be diluting its skill-sets to defend Singapore against such external existential threats.
Furthermore, I am not going to mince words. Military skill-sets are difficult to acquire; they come about through rigorous and constant practice and training. The first generation of NSFs served full-time for up to 3 years, followed by 13 years of reserve training. By my time, it was up to 2.5 years. Now, it is up to 2 years. So what I see is the shrinking of time resources on the one hand, and the expanding list of skill-sets to be acquired on the other. It looks to me to be absolutely contradictory. The SAF will say that the shrinking time available is offset by more realistic physical training and computer-based training. I don’t think either applies. The recent ship collisions involving the USN’s 7th Fleet (culminating in the removal of V-ADM Aucoin) remains something of a mystery; but at least one plausible explanation for these collisions points to the lack of time for sailors to be properly trained. Surely this then applies to the SAF as well.

North Korea is a Problem that cannot be Militarily Solved

There has been much talk about attempting to find a military solution to the problem of North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programmes. The spectre of a military “option” to this regional security problem has gained greater currency, at least amongst certain element of the U.S. under the Trump Administration. This spectre is almost certainly driven, at least in part, by technical intelligence – gleaned from recent North Korean ballistic missile tests – that suggest that US territories and military bases in the Pacific region might be within reach of North Korea’s missiles. Together with the intelligence estimates regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, the probability of a North Korean nuclear attack has become a politically salient issue. It certainly did not help that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un spoke openly about the possibility of North Korea pre-emptively attacking US bases in the Pacific island of Guam.

President Trump’s response has been typically bellicose. There has been speculation about the prospect of a US military attack against North Korea – possibly against its nuclear facilities. Most recently, there has been talk of the possibility of a preventive war from policy circles in Washington, D.C. However, assuming that such talk is serious enough – in other words, that U.S. policy-makers and strategic planners are seriously considering their military options – there is no viable military solution to this long-standing problem of North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions.

Scenario # 1 – Attack North Korea’s Nuclear Facilities and the Subsequent Problem of North Korean Retaliation

The most feasible option – in terms of the material capabilities that the U.S. can realistically bring to bear – is to attack and destroy North Korea’s nuclear facilities. That the U.S. possesses the material capacity to attack these North Korean facilities is surely beyond doubt. The U.S. possesses strike capabilities that are incredibly precise, and assuming there is clear intelligence on the locations of these North Korean facilities (and it is incredibly difficult to hide any nuclear facility), these precise strike capabilities can hypothetically be brought to bear against these targets.

The problem is that North Korea will almost surely retaliate in some form or other. And it is difficult to imagine any such retaliation that does not include a conventional military attack against Seoul, the political and economic heart of South Korea. North Korea possesses long-range artillery and tactical missile systems that are placed along the DMZ in locations close enough to bring at least the northern part of Seoul under devastating kinetic attack. Such an attack will destroy significant parts of Seoul, have a significant negative impact on Seoul’s political and economic power, and undoubtedly result in massive loss of life.

Clearly, this scenario is strategically problematic.

Scenario # 2 – Attack North Korean Nuclear Facilities and ALL North Korean Military Forces Capable of a Devastating Retaliatory Strike Against Seoul

Any military option must therefore surely take into consideration the likelihood of North Korean retaliation, and include measures to ensure that such a North Korean retaliatory strike against Seoul will not happen. That is the only way by which Seoul will be willing to politically endorse such a military option.

Except this scenario requires a massive deployment of U.S. military assets to the region, and the U.S. military – while still the most powerful military force in the world – lacks sufficient capacity to undertake its existing treaty obligations around the world whilst simultaneously redeploying sufficient military assets to the Korean Peninsula to execute such a large-scale military option. It is simply beyond the capacity of the U.S. today. And, incidentally, the recent naval accidents have ruled out at least two guided missile destroyers from the US Navy from such a military operation.

In other words, this scenario is physically impossible, at least not without a significant redeployment of existing U.S. military assets, which is strategically and politically unfeasible.

The International Politics of Security Calculations on the Korean Peninsula

Implicit in the analysis of the preceding two scenarios is the international politics of the security calculus of the Korean Peninsula. Because this is a very complex issue, it is not quite as simple as the military options make it out to be.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, multilateral arrangements focusing on resolving the North Korean security problem revolved around the so-called Six Party Talks – the U.S., the P.R.C., North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. Even if you consider Russia today to be a strategically irrelevant actor (at least to the Korean Peninsula), any policy and strategy NECESSARILY takes into consideration the interests of the remaining five powers.

China looms largest in the international politics of the Korean Peninsula. It remains fundamental to China’s interest to have a buffer region in the Korean Peninsula that is at least neutral (if not outright friendly) to China’s regional geostrategic interests and concerns. North Korea as it is fulfils that interest. Any military option undertaken by the U.S. therefore necessarily requires at the very least the tacit acquiescence of Beijing. I know Beijing recently told Pyongyang that if the latter were to unilaterally attack U.S. bases in Guam, it is on its own; which seems to suggest that if Pyongyang were indeed to launch a pre-emptive strike against U.S. military bases in Guam, the P.R.C. would not object to a U.S. retaliatory strike against Pyongyang’s nuclear and/or military facilities.

If North Korea were to attack U.S. facilities in Guam, it is difficult to see how Washington, D.C. can accept such an attack without retaliating massively against North Korea, precisely to punish the latter for its impunity. Now, if North Korea were to attack U.S. soil … well, enough said.

Except I cannot see how the P.R.C might be prepared to wash its hands of Pyongyang. A North Korean pre-emptive attack on Guam will result in widespread destruction of North Korean military capabilities – a scenario that I think is not entirely unacceptable to Beijing. A North Korean attack on U.S. soil will almost surely invite a devastating military retaliation that must surely mean the demise of North Korea. And I cannot see how Beijing might be prepared to accept such a geopolitical eventuality.

Which means that when Beijing warned Pyongyang that it would be on its own if the latter attacked Guam, this was a stern warning to Pyongyang, but IT DOES NOT SIGNIFY BEIJING ABANDONING its regional buffer state. It is a stern warning, yes, but that is all it can be!

The money shot: no way Beijing will “accept” U.S. military action (whether preventive war or retaliatory strike) against Pyongyang.

Scenario # 3 – Japan and South Korea Acquire their own Nuclear Deterrence Capabilities

This is not a new scenario. Both Japan and South Korea have flirted in the past with starting their own nuclear weapons programmes. Japan is the clearest candidate. It possesses large stocks of weapons-grade plutonium, and its highly sophisticated technological base means that it can surely master the complex (but not impossible) chemical problem of manufacturing the appropriate trigger mechanism for a Nagasaki-type nuclear bomb. The ONLY thing that has stopped Japan thus far is its population, which maintains an almost-universal aversion to nuclear weapon options.

South Korea is rather more problematic, although an indigenous nuclear weapons programme is also not beyond its technological and political grasp. In the early 1970s, with the U.S. demonstrating what seemed then to be a waning interest in supporting the security and stability of the wider East Asian region, Seoul seriously flirted with the option of acquiring its own nuclear weapons. Of course, then, South Korea was militarily weaker than its northern neighbour, and nuclear weapons were regarded as a potentially cheaper option of counter-balancing against a militarily superior hostile neighbour. It was the U.S. that, upon learning of these South Korean flirtations, put an emphatic end to South Korea’s nascent nuclear ambitions.

However, a nuclear-capable Northeast Asia is not a positive development. South Korea and Japan might today contemplate, however remotely, the possibility of acquiring their independent nuclear deterrent. Except the mere possession of nuclear weapons DOES NOT MEAN a viable nuclear deterrence posture. Nuclear deterrence is likely more complicated than the mere possession of nuclear weapons, especially when the putative adversary (in this case, North Korea) is also at least potentially a nuclear weapons state. Given the short distances between these countries, nuclear weapons will create a “use them or lose them” dynamic in these countries; which only makes pre-emptive nuclear strikes (and the very thing that nuclear deterrence presumably seeks to avoid) all the more likely.

Finally, given the international politics of Northeast Asia outlined earlier, this scenario is, to all intents and purposes, impossible to realise.

Scenario # 4 – How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the (North Korean Nuclear) Bomb

To borrow from Stanley Kubrick’s great film, Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, learning to accept North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programmes is the ONLY feasible policy option. Of course, there is more to this option that just acceptance.

Fundamental to this option is the clear and unambiguous communication to Pyongyang that while the U.S. will accept North Korea’s ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, the U.S. will also SURELY obliterate North Korea and the Kim regime (more importantly) should the latter ever EMPLOY its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons against U.S. allies and interests in the Asia-Pacific region. The P.R.C. is also fundamentally important to such a message. The U.S. has an extended deterrence posture that covers Japan and South Korea. This extended deterrence posture must be communicated with maximum clarity by both Beijing and Washington, D.C. to North Korea. Pyongyang must be under no illusions that the U.S. will not retaliate, and massively, against any Pyongyang attack against the former’s allies and interests; and that such a retaliation will surely mean the demise of Kim Jong-un and his regime.

That, ultimately, is the only viable solution.

Behaving like Small States versus Staring Back and Standing Firm? Options for Singapore’s Grand Strategy

I don’t normally write about diplomatic issues, but the on-going spat between two of Singapore’s top diplomats has been, at least for me, riveting.

In one corner, there is the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Kishore Mahbubani, who had a commentary published in The Straits Times on 1 July 2017, entitled “Qatar: Big lessons from a small country”. In Kishore’s opinion, “Qatar ignored an eternal rule of geopolitics: small states must behave like small states. Why? The answer was given by the famous historian, Thucydides, when writing about the war between Athens and Sparta: ‘Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.'”

Kishore’s argument, in my reading, can be summarised into three points:

  1. Singapore, unlike Qatar, should not “act as a middle power and interfere in affairs beyond its borders.”
  2. Singapore should “invest more in Asean”, especially in the ASEAN Secretariat, whose annual budget is “only US$19 million, or S$26 million” despite servicing a reported 630 million people.
  3. Singapore should “cherish the UN”, which hasn’t necessarily prevented small states from “bullied or invaded and occupied by their larger neighbours”, but the UN Charter nevertheless “has made the world a safer place for small states.”

In the other corner, there is Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan, who, in his Facebook post of 2 July 2017, argued against Kishore’s commentary, and characterised it as “muddled, mendacious and indeed dangerous.” He further argued that Kishore advocates “subordination as a norm of Singapore foreign policy” and that Singapore will have to “live hat always in hand and constantly tugging our forelocks.” Bilahari’s argument is that small states like Singapore “will be friends to all who want to be friends with [them]. But friendship must be based on mutual respect. Of course [small states] recognise asymmetries of size and power … but that does not mean [they] must grovel or accept subordination as a norm of relationships.”

Later, Bilahari also recommended Ambassador Chan Heng Chee’s review of his own book as a more nuanced, careful and “far more balanced” approach to Singapore’s diplomatic strategy

The debate drew responses from Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong. The former characterised Bilahari’s initial rebuttal as “brilliant”. Shanmugam objected to Kishore’s small states behaving as such argument, arguing instead that such recommendations are “contrary to some basic principles” of the first Prime Minister, Mt Lee Kuan Yew. Shanmugam further added, “Mr Lee never advocated cravenness, or thinking small.”

The latter also took issue with Kishore’s commentary. As The Straits Times reported, Keng Yong sought to draw attention to ” the elephant in the room: what happens when small states’ core interests are impinged upon, and caught within broader big-power dynamics.  Or do small states’ interests not matter, and should be subordinated to that of big states? Putting it another way, must Singapore be so governed by fears of offending bigger states that we allow them to do what they want or shape our actions to placate them even if they affect our national interests?” Keng Yong also took issue with Kishore’s reading of Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue: “This was  actually mouthed by emissaries from Athens sent to the small state of Melos. The Athenians did not like Melos staying neutral in Athens’ war with Sparta and demanded tribute and submission from the Melians who maintained they were neutral and that Athens need not subjugate them. The Athenian emissaries responded with the now oft-cited quote and  said that if they accepted Melos’ neutrality, others would think that Athen was weak. Athens then proceeded to conquer Melos, killing its men, selling its women and children into slavery, and colonising Melos with its own people.”

Others also took to commenting on the debate. Kishore’s colleague at the LKYSPP, Dr Yap Kwong Weng, in The Straits Times on 3 July 2017, characterised Bilahari’s reaction as “exaggerated and unnecessary”, that Bilahari misconstrued “what Kishore had to say” and took Kishore’s “arguments out of context”, and that “Bilahari’s assertions are wrong and misleading.” Rather, Kwong Weng understands Kishore’s argument as “small countries like Singapore [needing] to exercise discretion concerning matters that involve great powers.”

Kishore himself has some out swinging. On 3 July 2017, in TodayOnline, Kishore wrote, “senior officials have been imprudent in their public statements. As a result, there have been some serious mishaps in our external relations”.

Interestingly, the Chan Heng Chee review that Bilahari cited has this to say: “I believe our foreign policy must be guided by a set of principles, but we should not highlight it in every speech we make, to say we have a “principled” foreign policy. We can make the point now and again, but it is for others to see our actions and conclude we have a “principled” foreign policy. Our foreign policy should be based on principles, but we should not be ideological about it.”

My own view? I don’t think Kishore’s commentary actually made the assertions that Bilahari alleged it did. I don’t agree with much of what Kishore has said over his long and distinguished career, but I have some sympathy for Kishore on this. I also tend to agree with Kishore’s assessment that small states should not stick their necks out, at least not without prior provocation. Bilahari is right on one thing: where small states have their core interests being challenged, they need to stand up to their larger neighbours and adversaries, in whatever way they can. They should not be cowed into submission by sheer disparity of size or power. But don’t stick your neck out. Don’t do stupid stuff!

A plea to my readers

Dear reader, if you chanced upon this blog, or if you follow it, I would really appreciate your thoughts on what I write.

In particular, I am interested in how readers reacted to the two preceding posts (19 May and 24 May) , both on the same issue. The 19 May post was my first draft, before it was submitted to Channel News Asia, whose editors worked on the draft and produced the text posted on 24 May.

Which do you think was the better draft?

More on North Korea, its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions, and what can be done to stop them

Further to the preceding post, the text below is what Channel News Asia published (link provided here)

Should we be worried about North Korea? Not for now.

In recent months, North Korea appears to be playing a game of chicken with the US. Apart from undertaking two missile tests to build up a long-range missile capability, it has also sped up its nuclear programme development.

These moves have not gone unnoticed or unanswered. Earlier last month, US President Donald Trump announced that the US Navy would deploy an “armada” led by aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to the waters around the Korean peninsula in response. It has also sparked off a flurry of shuttle diplomacy from China.

Of course, it turned out that the USS Carl Vinson had departed from Singapore and was actually headed towards the Indian Ocean to take part in exercises with the Royal Australian Navy. Eventually, the aircraft carrier deployed to the waters off the Korean peninsula, as Trump had initially claimed.

Keen observers are watching developments off the Korean peninsula with great interest, as people around the world worry about whether conflict is imminent. Some wonder, why are such military moves making things worse when they are supposed to deter North Korea? More importantly, should we be worried about North Korea’s weapons development and nuclear programme?


In itself, the deployment of the carrier battle group to the waters off the Korean peninsula, even if this happened right after Trump’s initial announcement, is nothing remarkable or unprecedented. Countries in the past have deployed military assets in response to provocative moves by another country, and especially those by a putative adversary.

Obviously, there is a range of reasons why countries deploy military assets. The military is after all a tool of foreign policy. We can be forgiven for forgetting that “war is a form of politics by other means”, as the memories of war fade from Asia.

Most of us have an idea of the totality of war, as images of complete destruction and the levelling of cities from World War II dominate our judgment of what conflict entails. But how many of us actually remember that the last outbreak of armed hostilities in Southeast Asia wasn’t actually that long ago – which includes a civil war in Indonesia that led to the breakaway of East Timor in the late 1990s or a border fight between Thailand and Cambodia over the Preah Vihear just five years ago?

In the case of the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson, ostensibly the intent was not to start a full-scale invasion but to shape North Korea’s behaviour: To compel North Korea to cease its missile tests and deter it from conducting a nuclear test that Pyongyang was widely rumoured to be contemplating.

After all, surely as a shrewd businessman, Trump understands that the definition of power is the ability of one party to change the behaviour of another. The logic goes: North Korea has done some very bad things in undertaking a missile test when Trump first met with Xi. So if the US deploys an armada, it will show North Korea that the US means business and they will back off.

Except it is clear that the Carl Vinson failed to do precisely the first – North Korea tested an apparently new ballistic missile capable of carrying a large nuclear warhead on May 15. But in a way, the US’ move was able to demonstrate the US’ resolve to respond to provocation from North Korea and signal the US’ displeasure to an unfriendly move at a critical time when Xi and Trump were meeting for the first time to some extent.

That this move was limited in shaping North Korea’s behaviour however, is worrying.


The problem is that North Korea’s endgame is not entirely clear; nor is it clear how its ballistic missile and nuclear ambitions fit with and contribute to the attainment of this putative endgame – which is regime preservation and deterrence against an attack from the US or South Korea.

What North Korea has to its advantage is the mystery that shrouds its military capabilities, which affords Kim Jong Un political space because no one can calculate the damage he can wreck upon them if he so wishes. There is much that remains unknown about North Korea and its ballistic missile and nuclear capabilities. Technical intelligence gathered from North Korea’s ballistic missile tests provide the only data – largely unverified and hence the variances – on their capabilities.

Authoritative estimates suggest that the recently tested Hwasong-7 short-range ballistic missile has a range of 800 to 1,000 km; whereas the inter-continental range Taepodong-2 missile tested in 2012 has a range of 4,000 to 15,000 km. The KN-14 inter-continental range missile currently under development is estimated to have a potential range between 8,000 and 10,000 km.

While this may seem to some as if North Korea has working missiles that can reach Australia, India and even New York, these ranges are ascribed to these missiles based on extrapolations from the technical intelligence gleaned from ballistic missile tests, and should therefore be treated with at least some scepticism.

Moreover, the tests that North Korea conducted were not actual intercontinental ballistic missile tests, which involve testing whether the missile can carry their weapons into the atmosphere, manage re-entry and detonate upon reaching a specific target.

Furthermore there are three glaring intelligence gaps concerning North Korea’s ballistic missiles which impedes our ability to assess if they can credibly launch a successful strike. One gap is the throw-weight, which relates to the size of the warhead that these missiles possess, which determines how much destruction each can cause. North Korea’s May 15 missile test may be able to carry a nuclear warhead. However, that further presupposes that North Korea has been able to weaponise its nuclear programme, to transform crude nuclear devices into warheads small enough to be deployed by missiles. There are no signs of this as yet.

The second gap is the accuracy of these missile guidance systems, typically measured in CEP, or circular error probable. As an example, the US Navy deploys the Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile that has an estimated range of 12,000 km, carries up to 12 warheads, and can land each warhead within 90 metres of its intended target. But there is simply no data on the accuracy of North Korea’s missiles.

A third gap is whether North Korea has access to high-grade material for the missile body which is needed to ensure that the missiles do not burn up when exiting and re-entering the atmosphere. Such material has been a key object in most UN sanctions.

Apart from missile technology, there is little known about North Korea’s conventional military capabilities except that its military is about 5 million strong and North Korea pours most of its government budget into defence which amounts to about US$6 billion (S$8.4 billion) accordingly to some estimates.

There have been suggestions of a North Korea link in the recent global cyberattacks. This is plausible because developing offensive cyber capabilities may give North Korea an asymmetrical advantage with the potential for disruption and intelligence gathering. For North Korea, the overwhelmingly antiquated nature of its conventional military capabilities means that such asymmetric capabilities are pretty much all it has as strategic levers.


Any effective military strategy necessarily requires an accurate understanding of the adversary’s intentions. By failing to understand the adversary – in this case, North Korea’s endgame – any strategy will fail to leverage the basic motivations of the adversary.

The effectiveness of a military strategy is predicated on three factors: capability, credibility and communication. The Carl Vinson battle group clearly possesses significant military capability. However, the credibility of the US’ threat, despite evidence of President Trump’s muscular foreign policy evident in the Apr 4 strikes against Syrian military targets, was debatable at best, for any military action against North Korea can only be conducted with at least the tacit approval of Beijing. But why Beijing would agree to weakening an ally at its doorstep that provides useful buffer and poses a distraction to countries like the US is unclear.

Finally, the fiasco surrounding the deployment of USS Carl Vinson demonstrated a failure to communicate clearly to the targeted state of North Korea that the US was going to do something that would hurt North Korea’s interests.


There is a seldom-discussed fourth factor: The susceptibility of the target state to being compelled or deterred. There are at least two schools of thought on understanding North Korean foreign policy behaviour.

At one end, encapsulated by US Senator John McCain, who famously described Kim Jong-un as a “crazy fat kid”, North Korea is regarded as an irrational actor. The country has a historical habit of assassinating political detractors and enemies of the state including past attempts to assassinate South Korean presidents and even Kim’s brother Kim Jong Nam. North Korea has also undertaken dubious military attacks that do not appear to have any benefit apart from testing how South Korea would respond. Recent incidents include the 2010 sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island, killing two South Korean marines that same year.

At the other end, North Korea may not be as irrational as the first school thinks it is. Proponents of this school argue that Kim Jong Un and his father Kim Jong Il deliberately cultivated a reputation for irrational behaviour as a way by which to maximise North Korea’s limited leverage in international politics.

If policy makers hold to the North Korea as irrational school of thought, this then provides very little incentive to attempt to understand North Korea and decipher its endgame. A crazy North Korea means the international community has little, if any indeed, leverage through which to compel the former to cease its missile tests and deter it from conducting another nuclear test in the not-too-distant future.

However, even an accurate understanding of North Korea will not necessarily result in strategic success; simply because the probability of Kim Jong-un truly behaving irrationally cannot be eliminated. The element of chance means that any strategy – however well thought through – holds within it the prospect of failure.

Finally, the deployment of military assets to the vicinity, whether for deterrence or compellance purposes, introduces an element of risk of miscalculation leading to a serious crisis, which if not properly managed, can result in armed conflicts that both sides might want to avoid.

North Korea is unlikely to significantly change its behaviour any time soon; neither will the US likely back off or down.

So we can expect further provocation from North Korea and the inevitable reactions from the US and other countries. But we shouldn’t expect these reactions to produce measures that work unless these involve China or South Korea – the countries that hold bargaining chips that North Korea may be interested in.