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The War Nerd July 15, 2006
The War Nerd
America’s Problem: No Dong By Gary Brecher Browse author Email

FRESNO, CA -- Am I the only American who doesn't understand why we didn't zap that North Korean missile on the launch pad? Seems like everybody, liberals and rightwingers, agrees we don't need to worry about Kim's silly ol' ICBMs. Kim's just acting up, trying to get attention.

Well, if Kim was trying to get my attention, it worked. I'm funny that way -- every time somebody aims a nuke-capable ICBM at me, I overreact like you wouldn't believe.

And I don't care if the missile fell into the ocean. As far as I'm concerned, it's the thought that counts. Like if the psycho down the block starts cleaning his rifle and howling, "I'm comin' fer you, Brecher!" I wouldn't be too reassured if the cops told me, "Don't worry, he's a terrible shot!"

The name of the town where North Korea tests its missiles says it all about our reaction: "No-Dong." That's what US Presidents have been showing for almost 40 years, every time North Korea slaps us in the face: no dong whatsoever.

It's not like the North Koreans are shy about what they're doing. They've said over and over that their plan is to develop nuclear weapons and the ICBMs to send them toward US cities. They hate us like poison, and they're not shy about announcing that either.

I remember listening to the translation while a North Korean vet told what he thought was a very funny story about playing with the corpses of some US soldiers his men had killed:

Attention: Only fanatics are that coordinated.

"We grabbed some dirt and put it in their mouths, saying, 'Oh, are you hungry? Here, eat some dirt!'" Then he laughed for the camera, to show how funny it was. If you've ever seen an insane North Korean officer try to laugh...makes me gag just remembering his expression, the sounds that came out of his mouth.

I've written before about North Korea. If you want details, see that column: The point is, the North Korean military threat is serious. Saddam never posed a threat to the American homeland; Khadafy was a paper tiger from the get-go; but North Korea is crazy enough, smart enough and tough enough to press that nuclear trigger as soon as it's operational.

Their missile-testing ground has been operational since 1990. We've been surveilling it since they started building it in 1988. Just looking at where they put it, on the Sea of Japan, as far from the Chinese and Russian borders as you can get in NK, tells you what they're up to. They wanted a spot where their so-called allies, Russia and China, couldn't interfere without fighting their way across the entire peninsula, and as close to Japan as possible, because next to us, they hate Japan most. That's their style: real clear, no bullshit, in your face.

And they're serious about security, which is why we have to rely on satellite pix and a few defectors to find out what's going on up there. According to a NK defector named Im Young-Sun, the NK military just ordered all civvies living within 80km of the No-Dong base to leave, find somewhere else to live, right now.

Nobody complained. NK Complainers have the life expectancy of a Sunni door-to-door salesman working Sadr City.

Satellite pix show that the No-Dong base is crude, simple stuff. And that leads a lot of peacenik bloggers to claim we don't have to take the NK ICBM launch program seriously. For one thing, the roads leading to No-Dong are just dirt tracks, and there are no winter quarters for the staff. That, along with spoiling our Independence Day, is why Kim decided to test his ICBM on July 5: because you can't test anything except thermal socks at No-Dong come winter.

But the peaceniks just don't get how serious and crazy NK's military is. They don't need winter housing or paved roads, because they don't pamper their soldiers, their physicists, anybody (except Kim, with his kidnapped South Korean actresses and porn DVDs). If they had to, they'd order a few villages to line up and carry the ICBM on their backs to the launchpad through the mud or snow, and if a few hundred peasants got squished along the way,'s all in the name of the People. Who's complaining?

Just to show he's a nice guy, Kim threw all those evicted peasants a bone: he named the ICBM NK launched on July 5 the "Taepodong-2" after one of the evacuated villages, Taepodong.

By the way -- I can't resist those names. "No-Dong" is pretty good, but "Taepodong" is even funnier -- sounds like an X-rated episode of Dragnet: "What type o'dong was it, Ma'am?" "Oh, nothing to worry about, only stayed up about 42 seconds..."

And it's true, the Taepodong-2 only stayed up 42 seconds. That's supposed to cheer us up. It shouldn't, though. For one thing, how do you know the missile wasn't supposed to take that dive at the 42-second point?

Two key points here: first, developing a working ICBM takes a lot of tests, and not all of them are meant to test the full trajectory of the missile. US ICBMs generally need about 20 test launches before they go into production. Smaller missiles get way more than that; the reason ICBMs only get 20 is that they're so damn expensive even the DoD has to economize. So maybe this was a typical first test in a series, designed to check out launch and first-stage components. 42 seconds may have been the programmed duration of flight.

Second point: short flight means the test-bed falls into the ocean near the NK coast, where our subs and recovery ships (like the Glomar that retrieved half a Soviet sub from the deep ocean) can't grab the remains. After all, Kim doesn't have the whole of the South Pacific to test and recover ICBMs like we do, or all of Siberia like the Soviets did.

The test missile fell in two chunks (first and second stage), but both came down so close to the NK coast that nobody's going after them. See, NK never bought into that 12-mile limit rule. Their fast attack craft patrol aggressively up to 200 miles from the NK coastline. And they will attack anything when they're in the mood. There's lots of reasons for that attitude, starting with (a) they're insane; and (b) NK makes most of its foreign exchange by exporting pure heroin, speed and any other drug decadent capitalist youth will buy, so they don't want anybody even looking at coastal freighter traffic out of Pyongyang.

Sitting duck: the Pueblo sailing in international waters.

The US Navy learned about NK coastal patrolling the hard way back in 1968, when NK grabbed a hi-tech US intel ship, the USS Pueblo, when it was 15 miles off the NK coast. NK marines boarded the ship, killed one crewman and took the other 82 back to Pyongyang, where they were tortured for 11 months. The Navy had screwed up, as usual, dumping an old, slow vessel loaded with top-secret listening gear to patrol right off the coast of the world's most dangerous enemy nation with no escort whatsoever. The Pueblo was armed with two machineguns, but the crew, a bunch of tech geeks, never fired a shot. They were busy trying to feed top-secret documents into their hand-fed stove. Yup, that's all they had for destroying America's most secret recon records.

Then the NK boats fired a 57mm shell into the Pueblo, killing one guy and wounding three others, and the Pueblo was taken -- biggest intelligence haul in history for the Soviets, and the Commies didn't lose a man getting it.

You'd think we'd have leveled Pyongyang in retaliation. But I'm telling you, we always wimp out against NK. The Pueblo's crew was tortured for nearly a year, humiliated, forced to make videos begging the North Koreans' pardon -- and we did nothing.

The wuss-outs kept coming. In 1969 NK shot down a US EC-121. All 31 crew were killed.

We did nothing.

In 1976, in one of the weirder, Viking-style NK attacks, a crew of NK soldiers who were pruning trees under the "supervision" of US officers at the "truce village" of Panmunjom decided to prune their supervisors instead, and hacked two American officers to death.

We did nothing.

So fools like me who thought we'd vaporize that ICBM on the launchpad were the sort of suckers that pay the light bill for all those lit-up Vegas casinos. Should've known better.

One thing you'll notice, though, is that our worst wuss-outs came while we were wasting men and materiel on dumb wars: Nam in 1968-69 and Iraq in 2006.

Actually we had a better excuse for cowardice toward NK back in the 60s: "We don't want to start a nuclear war with the USSR." That won't work in 2006, but still, our best response is, "Ha ha, Kim, ya missed!"

That's what everybody's saying, even Pat Buchanan, who I usually agree with So I went over to Free Republic, a good reliable hard-right site thinking there'd be some rage from the wacky Freepers at the way Bush let the country down. Nope. They made every insane excuse for Bush you could think up, like "I bet we knocked that missile out of the sky with some secret death-ray laser" and "Ha ha, stupid gooks can't even build an ICBM that works!"

Look, a wimpout is a wimpout, whether it's the liberal LBJ who left our sailors to be tortured when the Pueblo was grabbed, or Bush letting North Korea test missiles designed to hit California. Face facts.

And don't try to hide behind amateur theories about ICBMs and ABMs, like those Freepers claiming we must've shot down the Taepodong-2 with an "electromagnetic ray" (that's a quote from some idiot's post). Even Pentagon R&D, the most optimistic people except those smiley muscle girls who work at gyms and tell you how you can lose 25 lbs by July, aren't claiming we'll have a working laser ABM system until 2010. And I'll bet you that we won't have it ready in 2010, either.

The concept is theoretically pretty cool: laser turrets on modified 747s, linked up to sensor nets on antimissile ship screens and land radar arrays. The plan is to have these laser-armed 747s flying patrol at intervals just big enough to allow us to cover the whole arc of the planet where an ICBM might launch.

But I've followed every DoD R&D initiative since I was in junior high, and I know a pipe dream when I see one. When 2010 rolls around, we still won't have any working laser-based ABM system. It's like Star Wars and the B1B: all about dividends to shareholders, not about war or weapons that actually work.

You have to realize that ICBM's are the most fearsome weapon ever made. Once they get rolling, their cruising speed is 15,000 mph. To stop it, you need a missile or beam that will track and strike and stop this huge monster, the size of a farm silo, moving through near-space six times faster than the fastest interceptor aircraft ever built.

Forget about killing it with beam weapons. They just don't exist. And if they get built, I'd much rather have the job of building an ICBM that was hardened against them (reflective armor, warhead deep inside the fuselage, decoy missiles) than the impossible job of inventing some death ray that can break through those defenses in the few, few seconds you've got between launch and detonation over an American city.

SCUDs: Missiles too dumb to track.

So that leaves anti-missile missiles, or ABMs. You've got two basic kinds: short-range ABMs to counter SCUDs or SS-20 short- or mid-range, nuke-capable missiles, and anti-ICBM interceptors. Both, frankly are pretty shaky tech. But the short-range models have some kind of chance of working. The anti-ICBM type is, far as I can tell, pure bullshit, like Star Wars.

Let's start with the short-range anti-missile missile we're giving Japan, in the hope it'll save them from NK SCUDs and SS-20s. This missile was a Navy design -- that's a warning sign #1 -- the SM-3, first fitted to Aegis cruisers. The land-based version, PAC-3, are designed to handle SCUDs, not ICBMs. They've dropped the warhead used in smaller designs like the Patriot, because we figured out in Gulf War 1 that the SCUD is too big and dumb to knock down with a small warhead.

By the way, that's not the Patriot's fault. Patriot is a damn good design and did exactly what it was supposed to do: get close to the target and detonate. Trouble was, it was designed to destroy Soviet jets, very fragile targets and guided missiles, not SCUDs, which are just giant rocks.

It's the guidance systems, the electronics, that make a missile vulnerable to small warheads; no guidance, and it's like David trying to drop Goliath with a wad of tofu.

The SCUD is as strong and dumb as a thrown boulder. To knock a boulder off course, you need another boulder -- so the new anti-SCUD missiles have no warhead. Instead they use a plain old heavy weight where the warhead would be, like a lead-filled war club. It's called a "hit-to-kill kinetic warhead" or KW, but that's all it is, a big chunk of metal to whack a SCUD off course. The new ABM motto is "Ramming speed!"

That makes it an even tougher job, because they don't have to get close like a warhead, they have to hit it directly, hard enough to deflect it.

Then there's the issue of saturation. Koreans...dude, they may be crazy but they sure ain't stupid. Think back to your last math class. I bet the Koreans came tops, right? These people can figure. So, facing a goldplated guided weapon like the SM-3, they'll figure it can maybe take out a SCUD. Key word: "A SCUD." Not 200 SCUDs. Or 2,000. SCUDs are unguided tubes of fuel, not that hard or expensive to make. You launch 2,000 against a screen of Aegis cruisers; you lose the first ten...or 20...or 50...;so what? If even one out of ten makes it, it destroys a ship worth billions. Who wins that exchange?

Now put nukes on, say, one out of every 50 SCUD's and send 2,000 against Japan. I wouldn't want to be slurping my Soba in Tokyo while that real-world video game played out. That's why nobody's laughing in Japan. Koreans hate Japan already, even in the South. A nuke-tipped SCUD would make Hiroshima look like an M-80 in a trash can.

That's the bad news (unless you're a Japanese anime fan, in which case it's a dream come true). Now for the way, way worse news: the anti-ICBM program. This missile is the Ground-Based Midcourse Interceptor (GBMI). Notice the word "midcourse." That means this thing is supposed to hit an ICBM at its full speed, something like 15,000 mph. Yeah, sure.

The development of the GBMI has been long and slow, even by Pentagon standards. And embarrassing. If you follow DoD tests, you know it's standard practice to rig them in the new weapons systems' favor. Like, if they're testing a new antitank missile, and the program engineers know it's not ready, well -- dozens of times, they've been caught tagging the target tank with IR or other beepers, so their lemon of a design can hit it. The bigger the budget and the lousier the tech, the more chance they're faking it. And based on recent news about the GBMI, I'd bet the rent this weapons system does not work, never will work, is only in place to siphon money to contractors.

I'm basing this on a weasel-worded press release issued on Dec. 20, 2005 by Missile Defense Agency: "Information regarding the operational status of missile defense assets, to include the number of operationally available ground and sea-based interceptor missiles, and the operational status of system sensors and radars has historically been and will remain classified."

Hard to read, isn't it? It's meant to be. Press releases like that are meant to bamboozle and confuse civvies. They hope you'll just give up and leave it to them. Luckily, I've been reading this crap since age 12, and I can translate for you. What the Missile Defense Agency is telling you is that from now on, they ain't gonna tell you shit about the testing program for the GBMI. Their excuse is, naturally, "it's classified," but believe me, when a weapon system works, DoD is faster with the publicity than Madonna's agent. And in the early stages of testing the GBMI, they were in the press every week billing it as America's savior. So when some bureaucratic slime starts feeding you this line of crap, it means just one thing: the damn weapon is a bust.

Another clue that the GBMI doesn't work is that -- well, guess how many are in the US inventory? A grand total of 11. That's right, we've got 11 of these ICBM-killers to protect our cities. So if a real nuke power like Russia attacked us, it's just barely possible that 11 American cities might be saved. Too bad for the other few hundred. They'd look like bonfires on a beach -- a very dark, radioactive beach.

Of course the real reason we only have 11 is that even the designers and their bought-off military bagmen know the thing just plain doesn't work. And never will. And if it did, those 11 tubes would only stop 11 warheads, meaning only three or four ICBMs.

That's not even to mention all the scary stuff an ICBM designer can invent to fool our stooge ABM's. Here's some examples: ICBM's that break into 12 mini-missiles mid-flight, like early MIRV's. Or supercooled ICBM's launched along with a dozen decoy, uncooled ICBM's, so our ABM's jump the fakes while the real thing, the ultimate coolster, har-har, glides down to erase Portland or San Diego without a scratch on it.

Or, if you want the ultimate nightmare scenario, nukes that don't even require a missile to reach their targets because NK secret agents (best in the world, by the way) have already deposited them at the bottom of Oakland harbor, or unloaded them in a sealed, lead-lined container at a rail depot in Chicago. I talked about that possibility in a column years ago and it still applies. What if Kim is making these noisy launches as the ultimate decoy, when he's already got nukes in place along the West Coast?

Maybe he does, maybe not. But the key point for a military planner is figuring out before the war starts whether the offense or defense will have the advantage. In 1914 everybody picked offense, but defense won. 1939 rolls along, they all pick defense -- and offense wins.

Apply that to ICBM vs. ABM tech right now. To me, it's real clear that the offense -- the ICBM -- will literally destroy the defense, ABM. Along with every city those pitiful ABM's are supposed to protect.

That's why I don't think it's so funny that North Korea's perfecting nuclear weapons and ICBM's at full speed while we waste our manpower in Iraq and our money on anti-ICBM cash-siphons that have way, way less chance of working than the Maginot Line ever did.

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Gary Brecher
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