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Nuclear Brief September 28, 2005 (updated November 3, 2006)

U.S. Nuclear Strike Planning Against North Korea

Following the withdrawal of non-strategic nuclear weapons from South Korea, U.S. nuclear planning against North Korea has continued to evolve. Employment of non-strategic bombs against the North is now the responsibility of fighter wings based in the continental United States. Other nuclear planning involves Trident submarines and long-range strategic bombers.

The 2001 Nuclear Posture Review identified North Korea as an "immediate contingency" that sets requirements for U.S. nuclear strike capabilities, and the assignment of the Global Strike mission to STRATCOM in 2003 led to the creation of CONPLAN 8022, a new preemptive strike plan that has North Korea (among others) in the crosshairs. Finally, the North Korean nuclear test in October 2006 reaffirmed these planning requirements and triggered a strong reaffirmation of U.S. extended nuclear deterrence policy in the region.

U.S. F-16s Over Kunsan Air Base

The 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base last was certified to store and deliver nuclear weapons in January-June 1991.


The last known nuclear weapons certification inspection of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base occurred in the first half of 1991. The wing's history for the period January-June 1991 describes the weapons division at the base passed special Air Force training and inspections. These were needed for the wing to be certified to store and handle nuclear weapons on the base.

The history also describes that U.S. pilots at Kunsan Air Base underwent nuclear strike training. This consisted of general nuclear strike qualification, and "single-ship nuclear strikes." A total of 48 F-16C/D aircraft were stationed at Kunsan at the time, some of which were equipped to deliver B61 nuclear bombs stored at the base. After the withdrawal of the nuclear weapons in December 1991, the nuclear certification of the wing was allowed to expire.

After the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from South Korea in December 1991, the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base has been tasked with nuclear strike planning against North Korea.

Since then, strike planning against North Korea with non-strategic nuclear weapons has been the responsibility of fighter wings based in the continental United States. One of these is the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. During the first half of 1998, according to the 4th FW command history, a total of 18 F-15E Strike Eagle fighter bombers of the 336th Fighter Squadron were scrambled ("generated") in a Nuclear Employment Exercise (NEM) that simulated a nuclear strike against North Korea. Instead of flying to Korea, the aircraft dropped their BDU-38 dummy nuclear bombs at the Avon Park Bombing Range in Florida. The scenario was described by the wing commander:

"We simulated fighting a war in Korea, using a Korean scenario. This included [North Korean] chemical attacks to protect against using full chemical gear [sic]. The scenario...simulated a decision by the National Command Authority about considering using nuclear weapons....We identified aircraft, crews, and [weapon] loaders to load up tactical nuclear weapons onto our aircraft....[The] last phase of the exercise, the employment phase...required us to fly those airplanes down to a range in Florida and drop" the BDU-38s.

This scenario was exercised twice during the period and also formed the basis of the wing's nuclear certification inspection.

With a capability to strike targets in less than 15 minutes, the Trident D5 sea-launched ballistic missile is a "mission critical system" for U.S. Forces Korea.

Ballistic Missile Submarines and Long-Range Bombers

In addition to non-strategic air delivered bombs, sea-launched ballistic missiles onboard strategic Ohio-class submarines (SSBNs) patrolling in the Pacific appear also to have a mission against North Korea. A DOD General Inspector report from 1998 listed the Trident system as a "mission critical system" identified by U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Forces Korea as "being of particular importance to them."

Although the primary mission of the Trident system is directed against targets in Russia and China, a D5 missile launched in a low-trajectory flight provides a unique very short notice (12-13 minutes) strike capability against time-critical targets in North Korea. No other U.S. nuclear weapon system can get a warhead on target that fast. Two-three SSBNs are on "hard alert" in the Pacific at any given time, holding Russian, Chinese and North Korean targets at risk from designated patrol areas.

Long-range strategic bombers may also be assigned a nuclear strike role against North Korea although little specific is known. An Air Force map (see below) suggests a B-2 strike role against North Korea. As the designated carrier of the B61-11 earth penetrating nuclear bomb, the B-2 is a strong candidate for potential nuclear strike missions against North Korean deeply buried underground facilities.

B-2 Strike Planning Against North Korea

As the designated carrier of the B61-11 earth penetrating nuclear bomb and a possible future Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, the B-2 stealth bomber could  have an important role against targets in North Korea. Recent upgrades enable planning of a new B-2 nuclear strike mission in less than 8 hours.

The capability of the B-2 bomber to conduct short-notice nuclear strikes has been improved in recent years. Until the late 1990s, planning and processing of a single SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) sortie with a B-2 bomber took approximately 25 hours. In 1998, modernization was underway for a 50 percent increase in performance by providing three times faster hardware and software fixes. And in November 1998, STRATCOM ordered that the Operational Requirement Document for the B-2 be updated to allow even shorter timelines for nuclear strike missions:

a) Deliberate Planned Missions: no more than 24 hours.

b) Adaptive Planned Mission (Directed Planning Option and Theater Nuclear Option): no more than 8 hours.

While this upgrade is also intended for strike planning against targets in Russia and China, the implication is that planning for a new limited strike sortie against North Korea could be done in less time than it takes for a B-2 to fly from Whiteman AFB in Missouri to North Korea.

The Effect of the 2006 Nuclear Test

The future of U.S. nuclear strike planning against North Korea has attained new importance after Pyongyang conducted a nuclear test in October 2006. The test triggered a strong U.S. reaffirmation of the nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan, and appears to have bolstered nuclear (and conventional) planning in the region.

"The United States will meet the full range of our deterrent and security commitments," President Bush told Japan and South Korea immediately after the test. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to Northeast Asia where she almost spelled out the n-word, saying that "the United States has the will and the capability to meet the full range - and I underscore full range - of its deterrent and security commitments to Japan." (Emphasis added.)

Two weeks later, William Arkin disclosed that a revision of CONPLAN 5029 had begun to create additional preemptive conventional strike options against North Korean Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) activities. The Washington Times picked up on that lead and reported that conventional strike planning has been underway for months before the test, but was now accelerating. Nuclear strikes were considered excessive, a Pentagon official to the paper, but another senior defense official reaffirmed the nuclear umbrella and the United States "will resort to whatever force levels we need to have, to defend the Republic of Korea. That nuclear deterrence is in place."


The United States pledged in the Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks on September 19, 2005, that it "has no intention to attack...[North Korea] with nuclear...weapons." To the extent that continued nuclear strike planning represents an "intent" to attack, however, such planning contradicts the Joint Statement.

North Korea In Current Planning

On November 18, 2005, the new Space and Global Strike command became operational at STRATCOM after passing testing in a nuclear war exercise involving North Korea. See background.

Current U.S. Nuclear strike planning against North Korea appears to serve three roles: The first is a vaguely defined traditional deterrence role intended to influence North Korean behavior prior to hostilities. This role was broadened somewhat by the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review to not only deter but also dissuade North Korea from pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Why, after five decades of confronting North Korea with nuclear weapons only to see Pyongyang deepen its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration believes that additional nuclear capabilities will somehow dissuade North Korea from pursuing weapons of mass destruction is a mystery. It is even more so because the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review concluded that the removal of nuclear from South Korea and ships around the peninsula did not impact proliferation.

The second role is assurance, persuading South Korea and Japan that the United States has the capability and will to defend them against a North Korean attack. Washington is concerned about the possibility that Tokyo and Seoul may decide they need to build nuclear weapons too in response to North Korea's WMD program. "I believe it is important to have various discussions on it [possessing nuclear weapons]," Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso told a parliamentary foreign affairs panel after the North Korean test. "The reality is that it is only Japan that has not discussed possessing nuclear weapons, and all other countries have been discussing it," he said. But that discussion "is already finished," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe quickly intervened, insisting that his newly formed government is not split on the nuclear issue. Japan and South Korea may fear that Pyongyang does not believe the United States would be prepared to retaliate with nuclear weapons if North Korea attacked. But why a Japanese or South Korean nuclear bomb would be any better in affecting Pyongyang's calculations is unclear.

The third role is in case deterrence fails: The actual use of nuclear weapons to ensure destruction of targets. The Cold War deployment of hundreds of tactical battlefield nuclear weapons in South Korea anticipated deterrence failure on a grand scale, but even though these weapons have now been withdrawn, nuclear battlefield planning has continued. The Bush administration's preemption doctrine, which is partly motivated by North Korea, is the most extreme example of this because it anticipates that deterrence will fail. Although STRATCOM concluded in 1993 that "classical deterrence already allows for adaptively planned missions to counter any use of WMD," the Pentagon has not simply relied on existing capabilities to implement the preemption doctrine, but argued that new and more efficient offensive "global strike" and defensive missile defense capabilities are needed to defeat adversaries such as North Korea.

For other aspects of the Korean nuclear issue, see:

A history of U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea
Withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from South Korea
Nuclear umbrella over South Korea reaffirmed

Hans M. Kristensen/Federation of American Scientists | www.nukestrat.com | 2004-2006

download documents:

Department of Defense, Office of the Inspector General, "Year 2000 Compliance of the Trident Submarine Command and Control System," Report Number 99-167, May 24, 1999. [0.68 MB]

U.S. Air Force, "History of the 4th Fighter Wing, January-June 1998," n.d. [1998], excerpts only. [1.2 MB]
Partially declassified and released under FOIA.

U.S. Air Force, "History of the 4th Fighter Wing, January-June 1998," n.d. [1998], commander excerpts only. [0.3 MB]
Partially declassified and released under FOIA.

U.S. Seventh Air Force, "History of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, 1 January - 30 June 1991," n.d. [1991], excerpts only, pp. 22-23, 26-27, 49-50. [0.74 MB]
Partially declassified and released under FOIA.

background information

Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, "U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2005," NRDC Nuclear Notebook, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 2005.

Hans M. Kristensen, "Preemptive Posturing," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October 2002.

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  Hans M. Kristensen