North Korea lacks capacity to hit U.S. with accuracy: U.S. general; Napkin Calculation

EDIT: This discussion neglected ITAR regulations, which control the export of GPS systems for military use. Read down.

Reuters: North Korea lacks capacity to hit U.S. with accuracy: U.S. general.

The precise wording is: “What the experts tell me is that the North Koreans have yet to demonstrate the capacity to do the guidance and control that would be required,” said Selva, the second highest-ranking U.S. military official.

There is a general tendency with public statements to reassure with the phrase “has not demonstrated.” To my mind, the difference is the same as between an assailant with a gun in his pocket, and pointed straight at you. It should not be taken as much of a reassurance.

The problem of guiding an ICBM was solved in the early 1960’s. The ASC-15, built by AC Sparkplug, might be impossible for North Korea to duplicate. But things have  gotten a little easier.

I decided to do another nefarious napkin calculation. This one involves a product of VectorNav, a Dallas company who make inertial navigation systems the size of postage stamps. If you happen to want one for your hobby missile, the VN-200 GPS/INS will run you about $4000. It weighs about an ounce, and has all these nifty features:

  • Built in inertial navigation system.
  • Accuracy augmented by 50 channel GPS.
  • On-board computer with sophisticated de-noising algorithms.
  • Maximum g-load of 16 gees, which should be enough if it’s cushioned.
  • Heading accuracy of 0.3 degrees = 0.005 radians.
  • Pitch accuracy of 0.1 degrees.
  • Development system so you can customize it.

In the original post, I neglected that the VN-200 is compliant with ITAR (Intenational Traffic in Arms) regulations, which means that it has an altitude limit of 60,000 feet  and of speed, about 700 miles per hour, that make it unusable in a ballistic missile (see the spec sheet for conflicting figures that are probably more up-to-date). But GPS technology has become “disseminated”, which means that most or all parts that make up the VN-200 are available separately, if not as compactly. Generalized forms of the GPS software code base are also widely available. Quoting Wikipedia,

 These limits only apply to units or components exported from the USA. A growing trade in various components exists, including GPS units from other countries. These are expressly sold as ITAR-free.

So while it is not assured that you can buy a postage stamp sized VN-200 equivalent, neither is this discussion invalidated.

An inertial navigation system is not the same as an inertial guidance system. But mathematically, they are very closely related, by this saying, which every systems engineer knows: “The best estimator contains a model of the system.”

Here comes the napkin. The chord of a circle is a straight line connecting two points on the perimeter of a circle. The center of the circle is Pyongyang. The perimeter of the circle crosses a U.S. target about 4000 miles distant. Assuming a 0.3 degree cumulative error in heading on burnout, the length of the chord is 20 miles. With the target at either end of this chord, the accuracy of the missile, excepting the reentry vehicle, is plus or minus  20 miles. For various reasons involving the averaging of errors, the performance may be much better than that.

The above contains the assumption that the missile can be controlled; that the  vernier rockets, tiny rockets used to adjust the orientation of the missile, can actually apply the corrections called for by the navigation system. The experts cited by General Selva have available to them the telemetry, the reports sent by the missile to Pyongyang, to analyze.  So these messages would include all the commands generated inside the missile to  adjust the vernier rockets.

Since the experts did not see this tight orchestration, they concluded that the more modest goal of this test was to keep the missile pointed in approximately the right direction. Why did the North Koreans not try for more?

We would like to think that they can’t. But the more informed answer is not as reassuring.  There are dollars-and-cents reasons. The more tightly controlled the missile is, the greater the chance that it will careen wildly out of control and be a total loss. This is a universal problem with control systems, the BIBO stability problem. (I’m not providing a link; you wouldn’t enjoy the read.) The better the job you try to do, the greater the chance the machine/missile/gadget will blow up/burn up/shake apart completely.

So there are really two possibilities for the missile itself, excepting the reentry vehicle, which is a separate and equally important problem. The missile either:

  • lacks the finesse to act on what an off-the-shelf navigation system would tell it to do.
  • has all the necessary systems, with screw-tightening planned for future tests.

Reentry technology is classified, and not amenable to the napkin. But some observations can be made.

The range and capacity of current North Korea missiles requires close to the minimum energy trajectory. You can imagine this as how you would throw a baseball for max distance. In this shallow path, the reentry vehicle tends to “fly” and “skip” a little, which adds to the accuracy problem.  But recent North Korea tests have been almost straight up and straight down. This is brutal to the thermal protection, but potentially easier to guide. It offers North Korea an alternative  development path. Japan is already within range of this threat.

If you’ve read this far, with news of future tests by North Korea, you may be able to embark on your own extrapolation of the threat.

US military considers ramping up Libya presence

CNN: US military considers ramping up Libya presence.

An argument in favor of this was offered in Russians Deploy to back Libya’s Haftar, who may have  had a collaborative relationship with the C.I.A. in attempts to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.

The B.B.C. profiles Haftar. He has an uncanny resemblance to the German World War II general, Erwin Rommel, with whom he shares the same battlefield, and  these characteristics:

  • Initially, loyal servant of the state.
  • In early career, politically unselective.
  • Superb military skills.
  • Rebellion at the the level of treason, Rommel to Hitler, Haftar to Gaddafi, with the decisions apparently based on practical, rather than moral concerns. (Note: Rommel’s treason may be disputed by proponents of  the Rommel Myth.)

To the argument of the previous article may be added the assertion that Libya has the potential to become either an ISIS haven or, as once seemed possible in Syria, an ISIS sovereign state.

The counterargument can be constructed along conventional lines, in which the perils of American involvement figure prominently.

The genocidal element of Assad in Syria is currently absent.  To what extent it might develop under the changing circumstances depends upon the characters of the actors.  C.I.A. analysts , who have had ample opportunity to familiarize themselves with Haftar during the decade of his residence in Virginia, near C.I.A. headquarters, may offer favorable assessments.


Trump Putin Meeting; Finding the Great Trade; Conclusion

We discussed SALT I as an example.

What are the  current elements of Identity of interest, linkage, and trust?

We have to do some creative thinking to find these elements. Recently, with large troop concentrations around Moscow, there has been some speculation that the Russians are more fearful of the threat environment than revealed by public statements. To talk about it is a sign of weakness. The reasons for Russia’s geopolitical insecurity are discussed in Putin’s Job Works on Him; His Apology; Navalny Detained. Russia’s fear of Islamic fundamentalism was expressed  by Mikhail Gorbachev during his tenure as last head of state of the Soviet Union, and reiterated in a 2011 interview. From The Independent,

“It’s called the historical and political boomerang,” he says, referring to the US’s secret funding of Islamic extremists during the 1980s, when the Americans were fighting communism. “[The Americans] were working in secret with those forces with whom they are now fighting. They should accept their part of the blame. Let them say so. I think God has some mechanism that he uses to punish those that make mistakes.”

Gorbachev may be correct. The U.S. fought a successful proxy war, but it involved introducing the Afghan mujahedin, and precursors of modern jihadis, to modern weapons of war. Most of these elements had never seen anything fancier than Peshawar copies of Lee- Enfield bolt action rifles, and we gave them Stingers. We bought the Stingers back, but we couldn’t erase their imaginations.

The U.S. may now view Islamic fundamentalism with the same apprehension as the Russians, but this is new.  So now we can posit a litany of Russian complaints,  of how the Russians view us:

  • Our sympathies could empower  jihadist elements that could tear Russia apart.
  • We are dangerous fools, capable of fatally harming Russia, simply by not thinking about the consequences of our actions.
  • With the expansion of NATO, Russia’s western borders have been stripped of even a vestigial buffer.
  • Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton,  acted as cheerleader of the opposition during the 2011  Russia  elections.  How foolish of us not to understand that Russian elections, even with a fair count, are a ceremony of affirmation, not choice.

I’ve left out sanctions, which are reactions, not doctrine.  We assume that  mutual distrust has rational roots. But foreign affairs has always had a tinge of the psychopathic, with behaviors that would not be accepted of citizens.  We could attempt remediation, and receive a psychopathic response, as suggested by  Fiona Hill’s Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.  But we have the obligation to try.

Our possible initial responses to their objections:

  • We aren’t empowering jihadists.  At least, we hope we aren’t. We’re for a free Syria, we want Assad gone, and we want to defeat ISIS.
  • The freedom of Eastern Europe is not negotiable. Buffer states as pawns of great powers aren’t either. Get out of Ukraine.
  • Interference with Russia’s Potemkin democracy is something to talk about. But stay the hell out of our elections.

These are the generalities. The short lists contain potentials for identity of interest, and  for linkage and trust . The risk of discussion at this general level is small.  But to imagine a specific scenario risks the credibility of the entire discussion. So I’ll do it.

After ISIS becomes no more than an enduring nuisance, the Kremlin may eventually realize that Bashar al-Assad’s hands are so bloody that association risks  a cultural memory of genocide.   It could change the passivity of Russia’s Muslim population in an eye blink. No political process of the type that seeks consensus can work in Syria.  Three possibilities exist in which the U.S. and Russia could partner:

  • Replacement of Assad by a moderate Sunni “strong man” who would lead a government of mild religiosity. Examples of personalities are Egypt’s  Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,  and Libya’s Khalifa Haftar.
  • Partition, with replacement of Assad by an Alawite with less blood on his hands, to govern a rump state in which some Sunnis might be tempted  to remain.
  • Partition of Syria into a loose association smaller states incapable of independent existence, and reliant on the patronage and peacekeeping of the U.S. and Russia. Modern Switzerland was preceded by something similar. It grew together, slowly.

Perhaps, somewhere in the vicinity of the above, there is the seed of a Great Trade:

  • The  U.S. works in concert with Russia for the security of Russia’s southern borders.
  • In Europe, Russia  accepts that no nation need serve as a buffer state or the pawn of a “great power.” And it signals acceptance with an end to subversion in Europe.

A hundred years ago this November, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire,  the Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed, partitioning this region into spheres of colonial influence. In their wake, the colonial powers left weak states that drifted towards increasingly radical and idiosyncratic nationalism. Collapsing in warfare and ethnic discord, they left fertile ground for radical Islam.

This trend of a century cannot be reversed with an adversarial relationship of the U.S. and Russia.


Trump Putin Meeting, SALT I as Example, Part 3

Developing trust can’t be completely divorced from the human touch. Ping-pong diplomacy was the opener to the thaw in U.S. – China relations in the 1970’s. It was real, not symbolic. Vietnam and the Philippines have been staging sports events on one of the Spratly Islands. In Southeast Asia, ethnic distrust is so widespread, the games are   a useful step towards developing regard for someone from somewhere else.

Going up the ladder, international relations become increasingly intellectual and resistant to the personal touch. George Bush entertained Vladimir Putin on multiple occasions at his ranch, which did nothing to change Putin’s appraisal of Bush’s pipeline projects to bypass Russia. The Xi-Trump honeymoon has faded.  Following Trump’s   hosting of Xi at Mar-a-Lago, the China state press gushed optimism which, given the absence of inked agreements, must have been based largely on personal  impressions. But the warmth faded fast.

The most comprehensive negotiation resulting in a U.S./Russia treaty was SALT 1 (SALT II was never ratified, though the terms were observed till 1986.) Henry Kissinger’s White House Years  is unique in the annals of diplomacy, with personalities rendered in great detail. One can pretty much get the feeling of being there.

Subject to the confirmation or disagreement of Dr. Kissinger, this is how I read it. It was no Bush-Putin barbecue. Soviet hospitality was alien to our tastes, more trial than pleasure.   In the  demand on intellect, hard negotiating social skills, and memories acquired, it was like an astronaut’s rocket ride to the moon. Evenings of vodka toasts, with  decline not an option,  would be difficult for most.  Mordant humor was shared between the parties. But  pleasure was not of camaraderie, but of accomplishment.

The success of the SALT 1 negotiation was due to

  • Identity of interest, valued by both sides  at the level of survival. The success of SALT 1 occurred in a grim atmosphere of dire need, approaching desperation.
  • Linkage. Several other negotiations, part of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, were in progress at the same time.  These were desired by the Soviets as a formalization of the divided status of Europe, and opposed by elements of the West as a legitimization of Yalta. Although the term “linkage” was not originally coined for this, it fits well with a little stretching. The Soviets could not risk the backlash of a SALT failure.
  • Trust, born not of friendship, but necessity. The consequences of cheating were  too high. The arms agreements were well respected, even without formal ratification, until the recent violation of the 1987 INF treaty, with Russian deployment of a new cruise missile, discussed in The New Russian Cruise Missile – Geopolitical Implications.

So after a considerable time, trust was violated, because there was no longer identity of interest. Let’s take it philosophically: the Russians are not our friends, but we got some mileage out of the treaties.

SALT 1 did not occur in the atmosphere of, to put a point on it, “Leonid Brezhnev is our friend.”  To Putin’s credit, the Russian proposal to “fight ISIS together” contains one of the three elements. Somewhat to our amazement, with this proposal in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin evinced no awareness  of linkage. Whether explicit or not, whether used as a foreign policy tool or not, linkage is always present in the opposing viewpoint.

What elements from the above list can we find in the current U.S./Russia  situation? To be continued shortly.













Trump Putin Meeting Part 2

Why don’t we trust the Russians? For those of us who lived through the greater part of the Cold War, it is ingrained. For the rest of us, it is a question. All of of us must avoid the trap of believing without examining. So let’s reopen the question.

In what follows, I’ll take a deliberately provocative-to-us line, challenging the assumption that our moral superiority makes specific requirements of U.S. foreign policy. The distinction to be explored is whether a moral mandate has any chance of improving the state of the world, as opposed to a mere matter of principle.

In notable exception, the defense of Eastern Europe is not just for principle. It is real and  effective, protecting  our closest cultural relations, from Russia, as they aspire to the lofty values of our common cradle.  Russia is a threat to Eastern Europe because those countries have  greater levels of  human development than Russia. But in most other spheres, conflict with Russia has little rationale.

Russia has greater human development than several of the countries in the Arab world where Russia has intervened.   In Libya,  Russia has recently aligned with Khalifa Haftar. If, hypothetically, Haftar were to become the strongman of Libya, would this represent a tragic loss for potential democracy? It is doubtful. In  the state of social development of Libya, a Russian model “Potemkin democracy” would be a way out of chaos, a great improvement on the current situation. And unlike a real democracy, which has not been achieved by any Arab state except, possibly, Lebanon, it is within the realm of possibility.

In Syria, the real problem is not the impress of Russian values. It’s that Assad is hanging about 11,000 Syrians a month in his prisons and commits war  crimes against the Syrian population at large. But Russia’s representations to the West about their intentions in Syria serve as the most recent benchmark for the saying, “You can’t trust the Russians.”

The Yalta Conference is often cited as the start of distrust. In the years that followed, Russian promises of free determination for the nations of Eastern Europe were replaced by imposed satellite regimes. The list of military occupations by the Soviet Union is long, but Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 stand out, as advanced societies whose aspirations were crushed by the armies of the Warsaw Pact.

This is why, if Vladimir Putin’s accusations of NATO’s broken promises have any validity, we excuse ourselves.  And the Russian intervention in Ukraine implies a continuity of thought, from the old Soviet Union to modern Russia.

Perhaps George F. Kennan was right in his warning about the expansion of NATO. But history cannot be reversed. The way out is not backwards. The question of the day is, under what circumstances can Russia be trusted? This is pertinent not just to the rare treaty, but in every interaction.  Russia successfully paralyzed a Western response to the Ukraine conflict with a fog of misinformation. A similar approach in Syria has been partly confounded by the Syria Observatory for Human Rights, and independent observers. With the new porosity of Western media to “fake news”, misinformation has become an important Russian surrogate for actual military power.

Presidents are politicians with the personal touch.  A good politician has a  manner of dealing with people that increases his success in building his personal network and his power base.  It’s natural to try these domestic tools with foreign policy. This is why most presidents attempt what  Barack Obama called a “reset” with Russia. It’s a computer term. When you push the reset button, the computer forgets it’s current frame of mind, and gives you a fresh new screen.

The “reset” idea reoccurs with each administration. It is a reliable failure. Russian institutional memory is too long for the mere push of a button, There was a time, post Glasnost, when it could have worked, but we ignored, or bungled, or misused the opportunity. What went wrong would take volumes. In result, the old institutional memory of Soviet Russia, absent the ideology, resumed.

Fiona Hill, Trump’s Putin specialist, wrote Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, in which she asserts that, in time, Putin can slowly develop trust. I disagree with Ms. Hill in two seemingly opposite ways. Her detailed psychoanalysis  damning Putin is simply implausible at the distance of her observation. I would not go so far. Russia was failing as a state when Putin came on the scene. The legitimate doubts  are the classic ones: whether he has become as much part of the problem as the solution. Domestically, Russians don’t think so. They enjoy their abridged liberties with a diet rich in potatoes and poor in everything else. Who are we to second guess them?

But Russia’s foreign policy is relevant to us.  In common with the advocates of the “reset”, Hill invokes the abstraction of building “trust”, abstract as separate from real foreign policy, realpolitik.  This, in my opinion, is a big error.

Next: If not trust in the abstract, what is the way forward?