Three days after North Korea successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile two U.S. B-1B Lancer bombers flew from Guam to South Korea and dropped guided bombs on a target range. This isn’t the first time the B-1B has “sent a message” to Kim Jong-Un, and it likely won’t be the last, but what message do these bomber flights actually send? Do the flights indicate that efforts to drive a wedge in the U.S.-South Korea alliance won’t work? Are they a demonstration of American capacity to destroy North Korea’s nuclear forces early in a conflict without relying on U.S. nuclear weapons? Something else? All or none of the above?
The number of messages that the bomber flights could be sending reflects the fact that signaling is hard. States use displays of military power as a tool to communicate their intentions or positions to friends and adversaries alike, but these messages can easily be misread or even completely missed by the target. A recent book on nuclear weapons and coercive diplomacy by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann contains multiple case studies of crises involving nuclear threats where signals were frequently misread or missed entirely.*
The B-1B bomber flights offer a perfect example of how signals can be misread. The B-1B used to carry nuclear weapons, but under the terms of the New START treaty the bombers were converted to remove their nuclear capability. According to the U.S. Air Force the conversion process was completed in March 2011. From the U.S. perspective, the B-1B flights are likely seen a demonstration of U.S. commitment to the alliance and capability to counter North Korea’s nuclear arsenal with conventional weapons.
However, from the North Korean perspective the B-1Bs are not just a conventional threat. After the bombers conducted joint drills with South Korean forces in May 2017, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) called the exercises “nuclear bomb dropping drills.” Making the false claim that the B-1B is a nuclear bomber could just be for propaganda purposes, but Kim Jong-Un and the North Korean military may believe that the bomber has a nuclear mission. In isolation, incorrect statements about the bomber’s capabilities may not seem like a big deal, but if North Korean nuclear posture is formed based on assessments of U.S. nuclear and conventional strike capabilities then this small false assumption could have an outsized effect.
The B-1B flights are a useful example of how the target of a signal can develop different conclusions than what the signaler intends. Signaling is always difficult; there is no quick fix to ensure that signals will not be misread or missed entirely. U.S. policymakers must keep this in mind as they craft their approach to the North Korean problem, especially as they think about the role that military exercises and maneuvers play in their strategy. High profile military exercises will send a message to North Korea, but the message they receive may not be the message the United States intends.
⃰ Full disclosure: the Cato Institute hosted Sechser and Fuhrmann for a discussion of their book in March 2017.