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.*