U.S. Security Priorities

As the U.S. Congress continues debates on spending in FY2018, including this week in the U.S. House of Representative’s consideration of the FY2018 defense bill, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on security priorities.

Below, I compare the main threats to the U.S., as I see them, to determine a hierarchy of importance, beginning with North Korea, which is fresh on our minds after its recent missile test. I focus on risks that would kill many American civilians if they come to pass.

North Korea: A Threat

On July 4, 2017, normally a day of celebration for the United States, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), with enough range to strike Alaska, a landmark step in its nuclear weapons program, whose goal is to threaten first American bases in Japan and Guam and then Hawaii and San Francisco, Seattle, New York City and Washington, D.C., etc.

Today, most Americans are out of North Korea’s reach, but not for long. North Korea will likely be able strike Americans as they sleep in their beds, commute to work and spend time with their families and friends soon enough, in the next decade. After the missile test, Frank Baum, a former Department of Defense adviser on North Korea, pointed at that all countries that have successfully conducted an ICBM test went on to overcome the other main technological bottlenecks for a working, nuclear-tipped ICBM: miniaturization of a nuclear warhead to go on top of the rocket and protection for the nuclear warhead on its way back through the atmosphere to its target.

In the 2020s, North Korea is going to be able to hurl a rocket at San Francisco and kill hundreds of thousands of people. At the same time, also in the 2020s, North Korea may amass enough nuclear weapons so that a large-scale with the U.S. might result in a nuclear winter, the incineration of North and South Korean and American cities in a flash so hot that the ash rises into the atmosphere, shading and cooling the planet and damaging wheat and other crops; the exchange could as a result lead to mass starvation and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, including Americans, in a nuclear winter.


The U.S. does have a fix for North Korea, sanctions. The U.S. can sanction Chinese banks providing North Korea access to global financial markets. The U.S. has done it before. As the U.S. was seeking to further sanction Iran prior to negotiations, it identified a Chinese bank serving sanctioned entities from Iran. The bank, called Kunlun, was mid-sized. The Obama Administration in August 2012, cut off Kunlun from the U.S. financial system.. As a result, Kunlun was also prohibited from conducting any transactions in the world’s predominant currency, the Dollar. China lodged a formal protest but behind the scenes orchestrated an end to Kunlun Bank’s business relationships to sanctioned entities in Iran. Success. And we know how the story eventually ended, with a successful deal on Iran’s nuclear program. The U.S. has began applying these types of sanctions on Chinese companies helping North Korea.

The U.S. has failed in past negotiations with North Korea. But further sanctions against China’s financial sector could help. Unsuccessful U.S. efforts to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program go back to the 1990s, and since 2009, North Korea has refused to negotiate at all. The Trump administration in an April 26 statement said that it is open to talks on denuclearization but did not outline preconditions, which have been a main sticking point. North Korea wants negotiations but in the past has demanded first to be recognized as a nuclear-weapons state and to require the U.S. to reduce its presence on the Korean Peninsula. Based on past experience, negotiations are a long shot. They are the only decent option, however, and have a chance of succeeding with harsher sanctions in place.

The U.S. could also use anti-ballistic missiles to shoot down any ICBMs headed our way. In the Trump Administration’s budget request, he asks for over $1 billion to beef up our missile defense system in Alaska and California, the system that protects the U.S. from ICBMs. Anti-ballistic missiles are fine for reducing possible American casualties in an exchange with North Korea. But it is only a temporary fix meant to protect us from immature nuclear weapons programs. As North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs mature, they will be able to avoid our defenses, which probably won’t get much better: there are severe technical challenges to missile defense. In tests, the U.S. system for taking out ICBMs has a 50% success rate. To make sure an ICBM is hit, the U.S. fires four anti-ballistic missiles at each target. At the moment, with the planned 44 interceptors, the U.S. could knock out ten ICBMs. Each interceptor is pricey, costing $70 million each. It would be expensive to build enough interceptors to stop say, 100 ICBMS ($28 billion) and those ICBMs would have to be rudimentary, without for example countermeasures such as decoys meant to fool our missile defense.

The main drawback is that the U.S.’s efforts in missile defense could be persuading, China, which also has ICBMs and around 300 nuclear weapons, to enlarge its arsenal. So, say North Korea aims at Los Angeles 10 ICBMs, which the U.S. can shoot down with interceptors. But then China, because of worries about the interceptors, aims another 20 ICBMs at Los Angeles, increasing the firepower aimed at the U.S. and the possible casualties.

All in all, missile defense is helpful because it gives the U.S. more time to negotiate, even though there are drawbacks.

Any type of conventional military strike is worse than missile defense. The U.S. could use cruise missiles to strike North Korea’s weapons program, setting them back a few years. But there is a frightening likelihood of escalation, starting with North Korea’s retaliation, especially on Seoul, South Korea, or U.S. military bases in the region, whose buildings would be reduced to rubble and population decimated by artillery, chemical weapons or even nuclear attacks.

North Korea is going to able to hurl a nuclear warhead at a U.S. city in the next few years and is more likely to do so than, for instance, Russia, because Kim Jong-Un is unbalanced, or at least seems more unbalanced than the leaders of other nuclear powers. If North Korea amasses a large enough nuclear weapons arsenal within the next decade, a nuclear exchange could set off a nuclear winter, disrupting food supplies and killing many millions more after the initial exchange, which itself would be exceedingly deadly. There is a poor fix, sanctions and negotiations, which would likely limit the size of North Korea’s nuclear program.

North Korea should be of middling priority for the U.S. government. The threat to the U.S. in terms of a nuclear attack and nuclear winter is moderate. And there is fix, sanctions and negotiations, that have been successful in the recent past.


India-Pakistan nuclear programs

Experts generally agree that the most likely nuclear exchange would occur between Pakistan and India. Pakistan has threatened a nuclear strike against India to defend its territory. In addition, Pakistan is an unstable country rife with extremists who could obtain a nuclear weapon or nuclear materials to be used against India or even the U.S. In either case, a nuclear attack or exchange is possible.

If India and Pakistan fire their arsenals of around 100 nuclear weapons at each other’s cities, there is a low likelihood of nuclear winter. This amount of weapons may or may not be enough to case a catastrophic increase in the world’s temperatures.

The primary fix would be for the U.S. to encourage both countries to decrease the nuclear weapons arsenals and to put into place measures that make nuclear war less, primarily confidence building measures such as direct, high-level contact between the two governments in case of a nuclear scare.

The India-Pakistan nuclear standoff seems to pose a lower direct threat to Americans. At the same time, I am unsure of how effective a role the U.S. government could play in resolving this crisis.

Overall, India-Pakistan is a lower priority. The threat to Americans is less than the others, and the fix seems of lower quality.

Russia’s nuclear program

Russia has enough nuclear weapons to decimate the entirety of the United States, every one of our cities, and bring on a nuclear winter. As a fix, the U.S. could continue negotiating with Russia to reduce our nuclear arsenals while also ensuring that both sides remain deterred from attacking.

The scale of the threat from Russia is much greater than that from North Korea: Russia has deployed about 1,500 nuclear weapons ready to strike the U.S. at any moment. North Korea right now has 10–20 nuclear weapons in total. And in terms of a fix, there is a track-record of success in U.S.-Russia arms negotiations that certainly is not there with North Korea.

Russia is a top priority


In the 1300s, the Black Death killed 30–50% of Europe’s population in five years. In the early 20th century, small pox took the lives of 250 million people across the globe. The Spanish Influenza, around the same time but in a much much shorter period, killed 5% of the U.S.’s population or 5 million Americans, most of whom were young and fit and between 20 and 40 years old.

These types of diseases could be weaponized soon.

Through new understanding of genomes and gene-editing technology, it is becoming easier and easier to re-create and even edit these nightmares. Scientists have already done experiments taking diseases common among animals and making them transmissible among species that have shared traits with humans. The internet could make this type of research accessible to all, including ISIS and Kim Jong Un’s regime.

These diseases have the destructive power of a nuclear weapon. But they are more dangerous. Proliferation of Small Pox or H5n1 is going to happen fast, as fast as it takes to find directions online and buy the necessary technology and ingredients whose costs are going to keep going down.

There are decent fixes: Regulation of dangerous technology is a must, though at this point with the potential of genomics unrealized it is unclear whether the U.S. or any other government will be able to control proliferation. In any event, the U.S. should put into place disease surveillance, which would catch an outbreak of small pox that was intentionally released quickly and also help fight natural pandemics such as the Spanish Flu, which themselves represent a dire threat. In addition, the U.S. needs to be able to produce countermeasures to diseases quickly, ideally within 6–8 months of an outbreak.

Biothreats are a few years out but have the same destructive capacity of a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia. They are developing at a similar pace to the North Korea nuclear program but would be more deadly; At the same time its fixes, while still uncertain, seem more dependable than the fix for any of the nuclear threats.

Biothreats are a top priority, at least of equal priority to U.S.-Russia nuclear relations

FY2018 spending

I have roughly compared each of this threats by the amount of Americans potentially killed and by the quality of our protections. If a threat is dire and has high quality protections that are unfunded, the U.S. should fund them.

The U.S. Congress is increasing funding for the military. But I also think there are other tools needed to keep Americans safe, first and foremost measures to protect us from biothreats. In addition, U.S. diplomacy is being neglected and defunded even though it would be crucial in negotiations over the North Korea crisis, the India-Pakistan nuclear showdown and arms reduction treaties with Russia.