Analysis

Nuclear alert: Pyongyang's chemical & biological weapons threat

While the international community has focused on Pyongyang’s nuclear program and missile tests, there remain another catastrophic possibility leading to a dangerous escalation: a moment of North Korean chemical and biological madness

27.10.2017
Nuclear alert: Pyongyang's chemical & biological weapons threat

By Can Kasapoglu

ISTANBUL

A few days ago, some press sources claimed that the United States Air Force was preparing to put its B-52 strategic bombers on very high alert status for nuclear missions.

The news story was of utmost importance because these legacy bombers have not been assigned to 24-hour, ready-to-fly status since the end of the Cold War.

Although an air force spokesman denied the claims, it was underlined that such a decision could be taken by the U.S. Strategic Command, which is responsible for a sensitive portfolio, ranging from nuclear operations to global missile defense and space operations.

Furthermore, the air force did not deny news articles suggesting the Pentagon had been working on improving the necessary infrastructure and logistics, such as “alert pads” at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, to boost the bomber fleet’s nuclear deployment capabilities.

In fact, while the international community has focused on Pyongyang’s nuclear program and missile tests, there remains another catastrophic possibility that could lead to a dangerous escalation: a moment of North Korean chemical and biological madness.

In order to grasp the essence of the issue, first and foremost, one should develop a robust understanding of high nuclear alert status and levels of nuclear planning.

For starters, a country’s nuclear arsenal is not merely tantamount to the number of operational assets that can be launched at short notice. Such a nuclear posture is not feasible due to economic burdens, operational concerns and diplomatic considerations.

Instead, the majority of nuclear warheads are stored in stockpiles separately from delivery platforms. The remaining assets are kept ready by being mated with their delivery means. These arms are called “deployed nuclear weapons”.

Additionally, not all nations “deploy” their nuclear weapons at a given time. Of the nuclear-capable countries in the world, it is believed that only the U.S., Russia, France and the U.K. prefer deploying between 20 to 27 percent of their nuclear arsenals, according to various open-source estimates.

While the U.K. and France (leaving aside tactical nukes) rely on nuclear-capable submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) loaded on ballistic missile submarines, Russia and the U.S., which account for more than 90 percent of the world’s deployed strategic nuclear weapons, have operationally ready inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM) as well as SLBMs.

Of these deployed nuclear weapons, high-alert status refers to deliverable assets to be launched on very short notice during possible escalations, say an ICBM that stays ready-to-launch in less than 15 minutes.

Flying beast

Open-source estimates suggest that there are currently more than 1,800 deployed nuclear weapons.

Given the presence of advanced multiple independent re-entry vehicles and higher-yield warheads in contemporary military arsenals, such a formidable build up definitely marks a set of armageddon scenarios.

So, should the U.S. Strategic Command indeed decide to put the B-52s on high nuclear alert status, what would such a move tell us?

As explained earlier, high alert status would mean that the assigned B-52s will no longer be separated from their nuclear munitions and will be kept at very high operational readiness to kick off any strategic strike mission within minutes.

At this point, having some technical insight into the B-52 Stratofortress would be timely.

This Cold War legacy giant platform is reported to fly at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet (16,700 meters) at subsonic speeds. It can carry a wide array of munitions including the nukes.

With new targeting pod upgrades, this platform’s combat efficiency in delivering advanced munitions will be improved.

Given the very fact that this flying beast could carry more than 30 tons of payload, one could easily imagine that B-52s could unleash catastrophic destruction onto their targets.

However, under which conditions could the U.S. administration opt for ordering a nuclear strike on North Korea?

For a moment, let’s imagine a low-probability/high-impact scenario: The U.S. initiates a limited nuclear strike to throw a decisive and really intimidating swing at North Korea.

Although this would remain a “thinking the unthinkable” option, Pyongyang’s one escalatory move could theoretically provoke such a heavyweight punch.

The move that could open the Pandora’s box would be a biological or chemical first strike on U.S. allies or forward deployed American troops.

Human experiments

Alarmingly, the Kim dynasty of North Korea enjoys the most formidable chemical and biological weapons (CBW) inventory in the world.

This extremely lethal arsenal is believed to include some real wildcards, such as the persistent nerve agent VX, the resilient bio-weapon anthrax, as well as smallpox, an extremely lethal pathogen that has been eradicated in its natural form.

Many skeptics might question the probability of a nuclear response to a non-nuclear but still WMD-driven attack initiated by Pyongyang.

In fact, the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review already addressed this tricky issue as follows: “… the United States affirms that any state eligible for the assurance that uses chemical or biological weapons against the United States or its allies and partners would face the prospect of a devastating conventional military response -- and that any individuals responsible for the attack, whether national leaders or military commanders, would be held fully accountable.

“Given the catastrophic potential of biological weapons and the rapid pace of bio-technology development, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and U.S. capacities to counter that threat.”

In the North Korean case, the abovementioned nuclear ambiguity vis-a-vis non-nuclear WMDs may well be interpreted as confirmation of retaliation against a devastating chemical and/or biological warfare campaign.

Also, just to remove any remaining doubts that the readers could still have, a massive chemical and biological warfare campaign that employed the most lethal and persistent agents could cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

In particular, industrialized countries with high population densities and intensive transportation infrastructures, such as Japan or South Korea, are extremely vulnerable to the CBW threat.

Last but not least, North Korea enjoys a notorious advantage in conducted human experiments as part of its CBW program. Technically speaking, human experiments are the most monstrous yet the most effective way of boosting the lethality of these weapons of terror.

All in all, although it is still a low-probability/high-impact scenario, there remains a risk of WMD bonanza on the Korean peninsula.

If such a day ever comes, it would not only mark a regretful milestone for the region but also a series of vital international violations that would sound pessimistic for the future of humanity.

[ Can Kasapoglu is a defense analyst at Istanbul-based think-tank the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy. ]

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency

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