Was North Korea testing a suitcase nuke?
From correspondents in Washington October 10, 2006 US intelligence has detected an explosion of less than one kilotonne in magnitude in North Korea but has not been able to determine whether it was nuclear or not, a senior intelligence official said.
The official, who asked not to be identified, said that first-time nuclear tests historically have been in the several kilotonne range.
“We are aware that there was a sub-kilotonne explosion in North Korea,” said the official. “We have not been able to determine at this point whether it was in fact nuclear.”
Apart from this original article, I have not found any second confirmation of a second subkiloton blast. So the original article must now be considered suspect. Still the discussion below on suitcase nukes is probably still worthwhile. Both the pros and the cons are fully presented in the discussion and reader comments, which includes the personal reminiscences of a reader present at a Davy Crockett tactical nuclear weapons live test.
The small size of the detonations has led to speculation that the North Korean tests are really "faked" nukes using large quantities of convention munitions. Chester explores the logic and arguments behind this theory without necessarily subscribing to it. However, there is another possibility. Kim Jong Il is testing suitcase nukes. The probable design heritage of a North Korean suitcase nuke would probably be Russian. Here's some of the little that is known about such weapons. The disturbing them about them is that they were rated at one kiloton, very close to the measured North Korean yield.
On 7 September 1997, the CBS newsmagazine Sixty Minutes broadcast an alarming story in which former Russian National Security Adviser Aleksandr Lebed claimed that the Russian military had lost track of more than 100 suitcase-sized nuclear bombs, any one of which could kill up to 100,000 people.
"I'm saying that more than a hundred weapons out of the supposed number of 250 are not under the control of the armed forces of Russia," Lebed said in the interview. "I don't know their location. I don't know whether they have been destroyed or whether they are stored or whether they've been sold or stolen, I don't know."
Asked if it were possible that the authorities did know where all the weapons were and simply did not want to tell Lebed, he said, "No."
During May 1997 Lebed said at a private briefing to a delegation of U.S. congressmen that he believed 84 of the one-kiloton bombs were unaccounted for. In the interview with 60 Minutes, conducted in late August, Lebed said he now believed the figure to be more than 100.
The Center for Nonproliferation Studies, in its examination of the suitcase nuke issue substantially concurs about the range of the yield.
Sifting through available evidence, one can conclude that if such devices existed, they likely had the following characteristics:
* Small size (60x40x20 cm) and relatively light weight (probably upward of 30 kg). These parameters are generally consistent with available information about Soviet 152-mm artillery shells, as well as with the U.S. SADM. * Low yield (less than 1 kt, maybe as low as 0.1 kt). * Remained under control of the 12th GUMO (the Main Department at MOD in charge of handling all nuclear devices), were kept at or near MOD Special Forces (Spetsnaz) bases, as well as at central storage facilities, and were intended for transfer to Spetsnaz at short notice. * Short life span between scheduled maintenance. According to the chief of the 12th GUMO, Igor Valynkin, small munitions required replacement of components every several months (other sources mentioned six months). Valynkin's statement is the most direct corroboration of the allegations about the existence of portable nuclear devices. Stationary nuclear mines with such a short warranty period simply did not make sense, while portable devices for use behind enemy lines could still be acceptable. * Were likely equipped with reasonably sophisticated permissive action links (PALs), which should preclude unauthorized use. Also, there is unconfirmed information that some small nuclear devices (munitions for 152-mm howitzers) were kept during peacetime in "half-assembled" state, i.e., parts were kept separately, although quick assembly in the case of war was possible.
Curiously, the Russians are now circulating the absurd claim that the device was actually much more powerful than measured. Breitbart/AP says:
Russia's defense minister said Monday that North Korea's nuclear blast was equivalent to 5,000 to 15,000 tons of TNT. That would be far greater than the force given by South Korea's geological institute, which estimated it at just 550 tons of TNT.
However this is unlikely since other geological surves, including the USCGS have put the North Korean yield in the same low order of magnitude. Finally we should recall the dramatic conversation of Vladmir Putin with Nathan Sharansky at the Kremlin as reported in the LA Times and discussed at the Belmont Club.
"Imagine a sunny and beautiful day in a suburb of Manhattan," he [Putin] said. "An elderly man is tending to the roses in his small garden with his nephew visiting from Europe. Life seems perfectly normal. The following day, the nephew, carrying a suitcase, takes a train to Manhattan. Inside the suitcase is a nuclear bomb."
The threat, Putin explained to me a year before 9/11, was not from this or that country but from their terrorist proxies — aided and supported quietly by a sovereign state that doesn't want to get its hands dirty — who will perpetrate their attacks without a return address. This scenario became real when Al Qaeda plotted its 9/11 attacks from within Afghanistan and received support from the Taliban government. Then it happened again this summer, when Iran was allowed to wage a proxy war through Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and northern Israel.
Richard Miniter wrote an article in the Opinion Journal called Baggage Claim: The myth of the suitcase nukes. In it he notes that Lebed was an unreliable witness in addition to making a number of arguments against the plausible danger of the suitcase nuke.
Nearly everything Lebed told visiting congressmen and "60 Minutes" was later contradicted, sometimes by Lebed himself. In subsequent news accounts, he said 41 bombs were missing, at other times he pegged the number at 52 or 62, 84 or even 100. When asked about this disparity, he told the Washington Post that he "did not have time to find out how many such weapons there were." If this sounds breezy or cavalier, that is because it is.
Indeed, Lebed never seemed to have made a serious investigation at all. A Russian official later pointed out that Lebed never visited the facility that houses all of Russia's nuclear weapons or met with its staff. And Lebed--who died in a plane crash in 2002--had a history of telling tall tales.
Donald Sensing for his part, argues that it is far too early to dismiss North Korea's efforts as a dud at his post in One Hand Clapping.
Using the US Geological Survey figure of 4.2 magnitude body wave of the seismic shock, giving a 1 KT achieved yield, actually buttresses the case that this test was not a fizzle, in my view. For battlefield purposes, say, against the South Korean or US forces on the peninsula, a 1 KT device is more usable than a 20 KT bomb. A 1 KT weapon is smaller, thus easier to conceal, and can be designed to be fired from existing artillery pieces, whether cannons or rockets. A Nagasaki-yield weapon would be of little military utility in fighting against South Korea or American forces. And you much more easily can get from a tested 0.6-1.0 KT proof-of-concept device to a usable terror weapon of the same yield, than from a test of a much larger yielding device. DefenseTech concludes the test was a “dud.” I think it’s far too soon to be laughing aloud at Kimmy boy, myself.
Austin Bay thinks the Nokors might not have the technology to engineer a small warhead. "Such a small boom means this could have been a failed test (they wanted a larger explosion). I doubt the NoKos have the sophistication to produce a small, efficient 'low yield' nuclear weapon."
I think its important in this discussion, not to confuse the a 'low yield' from a small amount of fissile material with the miniaturization of components required to create a suitcase weapon. I know that RAND has just published a study describing the delivery of a terrorist bomb by ship to a US port -- a kind of shipcase weapon. So I think that the issue requires quite a bit of attention which I hope will be forthcoming in the next few days.
Also, Thomas Holsinger writes to say that he doesn't think it is a suitcase nuke, but a development of a "missile-ready plutonium implosion-type weapon" from the AQ Khan catalogue of nasty things an aspiring dictator may want for his birthday. He's preparing a long article soon to appear at Winds of Change.
Opfor links to this discussion and likes this bit. "I think its important in this discussion, not to confuse the a 'low yield' from a small amount of fissile material with the miniaturization of components required to create a suitcase weapon. I know that RAND has just published a study describing the delivery of a terrorist bomb by ship to a US port -- a kind of shipcase weapon. So I think that the issue requires quite a bit of attention which I hope will be forthcoming in the next few days." But Opfor thinks that the North Koreans are going for the big bang. They're just working on it.
Bingo. The idea of the Norks creating some sort of suitcase bomb is absurd. They don't have the technology and it's not what they want. In fact, they can't even miniaturize to achieve a somewhat easier goal, mating a bomb to a working missile. And they want that bomb to yield large, not small, results.
North Korea wants a weapon that can knock out Hawaii, or Anchorage, or LA, so that they can have a free hand in attacking the South. It's an offshoot of the old chicom doctrine, "defending Taiwan isn't worth Los Angeles." People are confusing the Nork ideology with that of jihadists. Islamists want a bomb to generate damage, destruction, and casaulties. Their goal is chaos. The North's goal is Seoul.
As for the TNT hypothesis, let's put that one to bed right now. It is science fiction to think that the Norks can slip hundreds, if not thousands, of tons of TNT into a single entry mine shaft withour our spy sats detecting the activity. Remember it was those space assets that blew the whistle on the North's nuke operation in the first place.
Kim Jong Il is going to keep at this until he gets it right. Once he can credibly threaten the US with the proper bomb + delivery system, he'll adapt a far more aggressive posturing. And that's when things will get interesting.
Of course the idea that the Nokors are "working" on the city-killer raises issues of its own. If this is true, the longer America waits for Kim to set up the worse its position becomes. It's in some sense analogous to waiting for a hostile who has just had a misfire clear his weapon and reload -- except this time with a .458 Weatherby Magnum in place of .22 short.
One of the more interesting discussions I remember from my time at school was whether an attack by a small nuke would "cross the threshold". This was especially true when small nukes were employed at sea, such as during a naval engagement. One school of thought was that sufficiently small nukes were actually usable weapons, weapons which would not initiate an uncontrollable Doomsday exchange. But there were those who opposed such weapons because they would create ambiguous strategic situations. That was one of the objections to 1980s-era Enhanced Radation Weapons; the so-called Neutron Bomb. But the return of the small nuke concept has also been bruited in relation to the Nuclear Bunker Busters, which may be required by the US to take out deeply buried bunkers. But if the enemy were to possess small nuclear weapons, even if these were really truck-sized devices with only a small fissile payload, they would still create huge strategic problems. For example, if a nuke in the yield size of .8 KT were detonated in Manhattan would that be enough to precipitate an all-out retaliation against the usual suspects? Arguably not. One thing is certain. A nuclear attack with a small device would complicate any response, because to point out the obvious, it would not be destructive enough to generate an automatic response, in the same way a NORAD detection of thousands of inbound warheads would. So, for my part, I would be worried if the Nokors were developing a small weapon, whether it was miniaturized or not.