The North Korea dilemma and the lesson of Pearl Harbor

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If North Korea launched a missile with a nuclear weapon toward an American city or military installation, how much warning time would the US have? It remains unclear, but with the latest North Korean launch, we can be sure that warning time is decreasing and the threat of war is increasing – perhaps in tandem, as North Korean technological prowess grows.

This is the high-anxiety situation that faces the US President, Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is not new.

The North Korean problem evokes the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (December 8 in Japan). In a few days, the United States will remember those who perished on that fateful day 76 years ago. But beyond the memorials, it is worth examining the situation prior to the war and consider lessons that might relate to today’s problem.

In the 1930s, the US was not the dominant force in the Pacific. Our land forces were small and dispersed, and our naval force was made up mostly of old ships that were no match for Japan’s fleet. As the ‘30s and the Japanese threat progressed, Americans became more – not less – isolationist and willing to turn a blind eye to our westernmost holdings.

Congress and the administration, however, were not. In 1934, Congress passed the Vinson-Trammel Act, providing emergency appropriations to build 65 destroyers, 30 submarines, one aircraft carrier, and six cruisers.  In 1937 and 1938, naval expansion received another boost with additional authorizing legislation, and in 1940 Congress passed the Two-Ocean Navy Act – also known as the 70 Percent Act because it increased the size of the navy by 70%. At the very height of the influence of the isolationist America First Committee, Congress nonetheless approved seven new battleships, 18 aircraft carriers, 29 cruisers, 115 destroyers and 42 new submarines. By then, America was expecting big trouble on two fronts and was ready to get ready. But Congress was late – most of these ships would not come online until 1943.

At present, there is no strong Congressional activity, or any proposal from the administration that would upgrade the design of an area-wide explosive vehicle to knock down enemy missiles

If there is an analogy, it is that the United States can see the missile threat from North Korea rising – as it saw the threat from Japan rising – but has not even reached 1934 in planning to meet it.

The US has not developed defenses that can be considered sufficiently reliable or capable against a multiple North Korean missile launch. The US is heavily invested in hit-to-kill technology, meaning the enemy missile would be destroyed by a high-speed projectile that rams it directly. This compares to an area-wide explosion designed to be used against aircraft, exploding relatively near the threat, releasing hard pellets (often made from tungsten carbide) with explosive force that rip up the incoming aircraft.

The benefit of hit-to-kill is that it would cause less collateral damage than using an area-wide explosion in space. The downside is that hit-to-kill is a largely unproven and possibly inadequate missile defense array that does not cover all possible targets and may not work.

At present, there is no strong Congressional activity, or any proposal from the administration that would upgrade the design of an area-wide explosive vehicle to knock down enemy missiles.

There has long been a debate whether Roosevelt “let” the Pearl Harbor debacle happen to provide him with the political room to declare war on Japan, knowing the Axis would also be obliged to declare war on the United States. Recent research shows that the US government certainly had a plan to be provocative, definitely had enough intercepts to know an attack was coming, and that one of the targets was Hawaii and Pearl Harbor.  The admiral in charge of the fleet in Hawaii, RA Husband E. Kimmel, and LTG Walter Short, were held accountable, relieved of duty and demoted in rank on December 16, 1941. While there is evidence that important intelligence was not shared with them, it is also true that both failed to prepare Pearl Harbor for a possible attack and did nothing to move ships out of harm’s way, or even man anti-aircraft systems and pay attention to radar scans that showed the Japanese air armada heading for them.

The US cannot afford the same failures when the threat is nuclear.

Because of the shortcoming of missile defense and the fact that North Korea seems unresponsive to persuasion in the form of three aircraft carrier task forces and sorties by B-1 bombers off the North Korean coast, President Trump’s options are bleak: wait for a real North Korean attack with the risk of something far worse than Pearl Harbor, or preempt if preparations look threatening. No matter how you look at it, the threat is circa 1941, while our preparations are stuck in the mid-1930s.

Taking a lesson from history, meanwhile, Hawaii is restarting regular tests of its air raid siren system, last heard from during the Cold War.

Stephen Bryen and Shoshana Bryen co-authored this article. Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center and has more than 30 years experience as a defense policy analyst.

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