WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Air Force general on Friday said the appearance of nuclear-capable B-2 and B-52 bombers in military exercises with South Korea earlier this spring had the intended effect of easing tensions with North Korea.
The value of nuclear deterrence is “no better shown” than in the recent flyovers of the Korean Peninsula by bombers based in the United States, Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak said at a breakfast event on Capitol Hill.
The decision to include the mammoth strike aircraft in the March-April bilateral exercises was made after weeks of repeated North Korean threats to attack the United States and South Korea. Pyongyang was responding to the U.N. Security Council’s condemnation of its underground nuclear explosive test in February, its third since October 2006.
Some Obama administration officials reportedly expressed concern in April that the bomber overflights during the exercises were overly provocative, potentially heightening the risk that Pyongyang would trigger a war with its neighbor to the south.
Harencak insisted, though, that the South Korean flyovers had just the opposite effect, signaling to key Asian nations Washington’s resolve to protect Seoul and its allies.
“It sends a message,” said the Air Force assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration. “More importantly, it showed the enduring value of the strategic nuclear deterrent.”
He made the assertion in advocating that the United States continue plans to develop and field a next-generation bomber called the Long-Range Strike aircraft. Like the B-2 and B-52, the new bomber is to include a capacity to launch either conventional or nuclear weapons.
Taking audience questions, Harencak was asked whether the presence of the bombers in South Korea inadvertently demonstrated to Pyongyang just how indispensable long-range nuclear weapons could be for the North itself to obtain.
North Korea appears intent on developing missiles with increasingly longer reach, but widespread doubts remain about its ability to build a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on such weapons.
“That idea that we would entice people to move away from their own pursuit of a particular course by not demonstrating [our nuclear capability] might work” in some instances, he suggested.
However, “the calculus was, that hasn’t worked in the past with that particular country,” Harencak said. “You’re going to have to deal with each potential adversary there differently. And one size doesn’t fit all.”
Could such posturing actually stoke belligerence and undermine longtime efforts to convince North Korea to abandon its atomic program and relinquish its estimated stockpile of fewer than 10 nuclear warheads?
The general, a 30-year veteran bomber pilot, responded that he had not personally taken part in internal Defense Department debates over how best to handle the heightened tensions with North Korea.
“But I believe that the deliberations in this particular” case revolved around the view that responding to Pyongyang’s escalatory rhetoric with words alone “hasn’t worked in the past and would not work” this time, he said. “I believe that having a strong, credible deterrent and the capabilities to deter other people is far more effective than unilaterally just backing away.”
Harencak also poked fun at the idea that nuclear weapons could be eliminated anytime soon, despite President Obama’s iconic 2009 speech in Prague. At that time, the president promised “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” albeit “perhaps not in my lifetime.”
“I hope that day comes. I hope that day comes soon. And when it does, I want to invite you all over to my house for a party,” Harencak said of eliminating nuclear arms worldwide. “I’d just ask that you don’t feed any of the hors d’oeuvres to my unicorn.”