View Full Version : If a Quarantine of North Korea is called . . .

12-26-06, 06:41 AM
December 26, 2006
If a Quarantine of North Korea is called . . .
By D.M. Giangreco

North Korea's apparent detonation of a nuclear device in October and threats to test fire nuclear missiles present the United States with no useful military option. But these moves may have finally sent enough of a chill down Chinese spines that we may be able to do something that the US Navy is quite good at --- establish and maintain an effective quarantine of the Pyongyang regime.

China wants stability and trade; it doesn't want chaos in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. China wants respect and the 2008 Olympics, it doesn't want Japan to become part of the West's ballistic missile defense system or, worse yet, go nuclear itself. Yet, with Seoul (held hostage to North Korean missiles and artillery) and the Chinese unwilling to impose any form of big squeeze that could send several million destitute, starving North Koreans paddling north across the Yalu and Tumen Rivers, direct military options are off the table unless Pyongyang strikes first.

The Chinese, however, are not keen on the idea of nuclear components transiting their coastal waters or air space for a number of reasons including culpability if a dirty bomb or some other strike is launched against the West. Within days of the test, China voted for and began to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1718 calling for inspection of North Korean cargo, and publicly signaled that it will acquiesce to US efforts ensuring that nuclear materials are not shipped to third parties over surface, sub-surface, and air routes. Chinese diplomats do not make idle comments, and the statement by UN ambassador Wang Guangya was clear as a bell:
"China will do inspections, but inspection is different then interdiction and interception. I think different countries will do it different ways." (Emphasis added.)
This has since been echoed by South Korea.

The unknown perils of a quarantine are manifest --- attempted repeats of the Pueblo incident; heightened tensions in the region; games of "chicken" on the high seas; the mysterious appearance of naval mines in or on the sea lanes to South Korean ports, to say nothing of the communists upping the ante by attacking the South. And the list goes on. Any US naval deployment would have to be robust, aggressive, and of unknown duration because Kim Jong-Il is a "survivor" well-practiced at making displays of "unpredictability," and who has no intention of giving up the ghost anytime soon.

Although China's cooperation allows us to place carrier battle groups in the Sea of Japan and also the Yellow Sea's restricted waters without having to watch our backs, threats elsewhere make it less than prudent to lock carriers into this mission any longer than necessary. And, interestingly, these developments may provide added impetus to calls that the last two remaining battleships be reactivated.

There are arguments both for and against the use of battleships (only two remain, the USS Iowa and USS Wisconsin) as more than simply museums. They are very firmly held by both proponents and detractors of the warships' effectiveness and viability, have been endlessly rehashed and, in specific contexts, both sides have made good sense. Current mandated safeguards in case they need to be recalled (as defined in the Conference Report for the Fiscal Year 2007 Defense Authorization) are "cathodic protection, dehumidification, and other methods as needed," and that no alterations be done that could not be "reverted."

Even with no changes to the Iowa's and Wisconsin's suite of Tomahawk and Harpoon missiles or other significant equipment upgrades and retrofits, the ships would take at least a year to rejoin the fleet. But while this sounds like a long time, dealings with North Korea require that one think in terms of not years, but potentially decades. If a full-up quarantine of the North becomes part of the long-term strategy for keeping the nuclear genie in the bottle, two to three carrier groups could well get tied up in a quarantine which --- in terms of pure time --- exceeds our blockade of Southern ports during the Civil War, or even rival Britain's operations during the Napoleonic Wars. And as Iran gets pushed to the fore, another potentially very lengthy commitment must be considered.

The first DDG-1000 class destroyer, a forthcoming class of warships well-suited to such operations, will not be ready before 2012 even in the miraculous event that all deadlines are met, and the delivery of the first CG(X) cruiser is even less certain. The uncomfortable reality is that the Iowa and Wisconsin may have to be brought back to bridge the gap, and a surface action group relieving a carrier strike group off Korea in 2008 could well include combatants --- such as swarms of fast, new littoral combat ships (LCSs) --- centered around a battleship and an air element operating from an amphibious assault ship.

The never-ending battle over tight dollars and even tighter personnel endstrength limits will have to be reexamined now that there are more wild cards in the nuclear deck. As for arguments that the battleships are exceptionally manpower intensive, former Navy secretary John Lehman maintains: "We manned them in the 1980s with about 1,400 officers and men. By manning only two of the four engine rooms," says Lehman, "they still make 24 knots and save several hundred crew. With other sensible reductions made possible by newer technology they could be manned with fewer than 800." And, he adds, "At whatever manning, there simply is no substitute."

If a quarantine is established, reactivating the battleships would not only free-up carrier decks --- and strategic options --- years before the DDG-1000 and CG(X) become available, but would be seen in Asia and around the world as a clear visible statement of both restraint and a firm determination that the US will not allow the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue states and terrorist entities.

[Adapted by the author from "Recipe for a Quarantine" in the December US Naval Institute Proceedings.]