Admiral James Stavridis (USN, Ret.), dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, joined me this morning to discuss the growing North Korean crisis:
HH: Pleased to welcome to the program for the very first time, Admiral James Stavridis. He is currently dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, but he spent nearly four decades in the United States Navy being, among other things, the commander of Southern Command in Miami, and the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Admiral Stavridis, welcome, it’s a real honor to have you on the program, thank you for joining me.
JS: Hugh, it’s a pleasure to be with you, and in a small footnote to Naval history, my first ship in the Navy was named the USS Hewitt.
HH: Oh, that’s terrific. I didn’t know that there was one.
JS: Oh, my God, I’m sure you’re related. It was named after a World War II admiral, Kent Hewitt. And the motto of the ship was be just and fear not. I thought you’d like to start with that.
HH: Oh, I love that. Be just and fear not. I think I’m going to have to go look up whoever Kent Hewitt was. I’ve got to ask you if you ever served aboard the Philip or the Taussig. Those are my wife’s family names. And so they’re a Naval family going a way…
JS: Oh, sure, way back. Yeah, that’s Naval aristocracy there. Taussig…
HH: Yeah, so I married, I’m just a civilian, Admiral. I’m going to get a lot of stuff wrong, but I hope you’ll be gentle with me as we go along. I want to start by encouraging everyone to read The Accidental Admiral, your memoir. Every single family member and friend I know in the Navy has enormous respect for you. And The Accidental Admiral brings it all together. And I appreciate you taking time with us on an important day. The Scotsman is reporting this morning that in a sign of rapidly escalating diplomatic tension, the South Korean Yonhap News Agency, citing a source close to the country’s government, said that the USS Carl Vinson will be joined off the Korean Peninsula by the USS Ronald Reagan, which ports in Japan, and the USS Nimitz. What do you make of three carrier strike forces in the same place at the same time right now, Admiral?
JS: If that’s true, if those three strikes groups come together, that is an enormous amount of American firepower. And it’s also synergistic when you put three carrier strike groups together, because they bring not only the aircraft on the flight decks of the carriers, but they all come with destroyers with long range Tomahawk missiles. So I have not seen that report verified by the U.S., yet, but it’s conceivable, because Reagan is home ported in Japan, and the other carrier is finishing work ups off the coast of San Diego. So possible, but let’s wait and see if that one is verified by the Department of Defense. It would be a significant move.
HH: Now I have had on this morning Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings, and Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, O’Hanlon and Boot both talking about the intersection of North Korean capabilities with regard to intercontinental ballistic missile capability and the miniaturization of their nuclear capacity to put on a warhead. How close do you think we are to having those lines crossed so that the United States actually becomes threatened physically, not by our ex-pat or our forces on the Korean Peninsula, but actually at the homeland?
JS: Well, they are correct. These are two streams. Miniaturization is one stream, and the other is the range of these ballistic missile. And Hugh, it’s like in Ghostbusters. You really don’t want the streams to cross.
JS: And unfortunately, I would say 18 months to 36 months.
JS: Yeah, this is a decision that’s going to be front and center for the Trump administration. And we’re right to focus on it now before the Koreans actually have the capability to take out Portland, Oregon.
HH: Now I have been talking for literally 23 years with my dear friend, Dan Poneman, who helped negotiate the ’94 agreement to, that the Clinton administration did. And I’ve read his book, Going Critical, and I realize that the South Koreans would suffer a million casualties if it comes to blows on the Korean Peninsula. But in your estimate, can we afford to allow those streams to cross? Do we have to move before that happens, given the nature of this regime?
JS: I think we do. And there are sort of three baskets of solutions you can drive toward. One is China and ensuring that they put the maximum amount of pressure to contain this. The second is covert Special Forces. We may or may not have seen that in the failed missile attempt over the weekend, which might have been interfered with by U.S. cyber. We don’t know. And the third basket is the three carrier strike group. Hit them with a hammer. You need to kind of work your way between those options, because you probably need pieces of each of them to try and contain this.
HH: Now Admiral, you’ve been in charge of those ships before. What kind of threat do the North Koreans pose to our actual battle groups off their coast? Can they attack them successfully, in your opinion?
JS: No. They could take a try or two. They have some long range missiles that conceivably could come out far enough, but those carriers are going to operate a couple of hundred miles out at sea. That’s routine operations. And all of those destroyers that shoot the long range Tomahawk missiles, Hugh, also have a very sophisticated air defense system that is called the Aegis system, which could defend the carrier. And then finally, the other threat would be submarines. The North Koreans have some primitive diesel boats. I don’t think they would pose a significant threat. So if we choose to go the military route, we have the capability to execute that.
HH: Before I go back to diplomacy, just a couple more points on the military route. I’ve seen that there are more than 40 facilities connected with the North Koreans’ nuclear programs, both uranium and plutonium. Is it possible to effectively destroy their capacity to produce additional munitions and ICBM’s in a series of strikes over a period of weeks? Or is that just, you know, shooting in the dark because of the nature of the deeply-buried tunnel system they have?
JS: The latter. It’s deeply buried, and it’s highly-hardened. So you’d have to use a whole series of super high end ordinance, including that massive air-delivered bomb that we saw in Afghanistan also over the weekend. You could do it, but A) it would take weeks to get at all those targets, if not a month or two, and then secondly, we’re not sure that we have everything correctly mapped and identified. Look at our experience in Iraq searching for WMD there. So it’s hard to find it all. So the military option really ought to be last resort.
HH: In the meantime, they have this massive array of artillery at the DMZ which can reach Seoul. In your strategic thinking, is that the first set of targets so as to reduce the threat to South Korea and Americans there? Or do you actually go after and hope that the regime does not react in total war way?
JS: I think you take out that artillery if you’re going to go in on a strike. You have to make the presumption that the North Koreans would use that if they were attacked in a massive way going after their facilities. So if you want to game this thing out, the first thing you’d take out is air defenses so your aircraft could operate wherever they wanted to over the norther part of the peninsula, and almost simultaneously, you’d be taking out those artillery batteries. Right behind that, you’d go into strike mode going after the facilities.
HH: I’ve got a lot of friends in that F-18 community, Admiral. What kind of risk do they face from North Korean defenses if they operate over North Korea?
JS: Fairly significant. This is a regime that has put, you know, choice guns-butter. All the money went into guns. And they have a fairly sophisticated air defense system, probably in the nature of what Syria has today, which would pose some significant problems for our friends in Hornets. And you’d want to again take those out early on. You’d probably use stealth aircraft, F-22, to go in and take them out along with Tomahawks, which of course are unmanned, so that our Hornet pilots in the F-18’s would have a clear path as they come off the deck of that carrier.
HH: Admiral Stavridis, do we have false positives in the civilian population? I’m just talking as a civilian. I just watch what I see and I talk to people. But the last few wars that America has fought have come relatively easy at enormous consequences and cost to the Americans who suffered the wounds, and our allies who suffered the wounds, and the civilian populations in the country. But we haven’t seen wholesale loss of American life of the sort that was routine in Vietnam, and of course, very routine in World War II. Does North Korea present the latter possibility?
JS: I think that today’s world, and you’ve written and spoken a lot about this, the flow of information, the blogosphere, the intense personalification, if there’s such a word, of each death means that even though we, I’ll put this in quotations, we only lost 6,000 Iraq, 5,000 Afghanistan, that type of thing. No comparison to what we lost in Vietnam, but all of those deaths are so intense and so personal because of the way the media reports them. And therefore, it becomes significant to our national psychology in terms of conducting big level operations. The second factor, one you’re well familiar with, is kind of what I’ll call Middle East fatigue. The country’s just tired of watching these wars seemingly endless in that part of the world, reduces the enthusiasm, if you will, to participate in events other places.
HH: Well, given the enormous downside, and the risks involved in this, is the likely result, in your view, enormous pressure on China to help us here? And isn’t it in their interest? And tell me if I’m just wrong. This cannot be an asset to them. They grew 6% last year, 7% last year.
HH: A war on the peninsula cannot be in their interest.
JS: It is absolutely not in their interest. And here is what they would like. They would like the Korean Peninsula to remain divided. What they don’t want is a reunification a la Germany after the wall falls and the creation of this economic juggernaut in Europe. They’re very concerned about a unified Korea that over time becomes a real competitor with them. So they like this divided Korean Peninsula, A), and B) your point, they’re all about growth. They have to keep growing to keep their population happy, because they have no democracy to act as a safety valve to it.
JS: So for those two reasons, they are highly motivated not to let this stumble into a hot war.
HH: Which is worse for them – a hot war or a united peninsula?
JS: I think for them, a hot war is the worst outcome of all. Second worst is a, is kind of a peaceful reunification, as odd as that sounds. Again, their vested interest is the status quo.
HH: And so, but if we force them to a choice, and is that what you think President Trump and Secretary Mattis are trying to do, force them to a choice?
JS: I don’t think they’ve strategically articulated that. I think they’re still operating at the, and correctly, at the tactical question of threat to the United States. And I think that’s where we ought to park this one for the moment. And again, I don’t think it’s in our interest to go to a hot war, either, for obvious reasons. So I think there’s a confluence of U.S. and Chinese interests here, which may help us.
HH: Last question, Admiral Stavridis, and thanks for the time this morning. If the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq are a 10 in terms of alert for conflict, where are we on the 1-10 list, and zero being immediately after V-E, V-J Day? Where are we on that 0-10 list?
JS: We’re bubbling between a 3 and a 4 right now. This one could go hot. I don’t think it will. I think there’s a less than even chance we go to active combat on the Korean Peninsula, Hugh.
HH: Admiral James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, thanks for joining me. The Accidental Admiral is his memoir. You’ve got to read that. Come back early and often, Admiral, I appreciate the time very, very much.
JS: And next time, let’s talk about USS Hewitt. Thanks a lot, Hugh.
HH: I will. I’m going to find out about that ship today. Thank you, sir.
End of interview.