The world is more complex and dangerous than during the Cold War. The problem we now face with nuclear-armed states like North Korea and possibly Iran is the possibility that in a confrontation, a weaker North Korea or Iran may opt for the grave risk of mutual devastation to unilateral defeat.
In discussing the risk inherent in nuclear threats, Barry M. Blechman and Robert Powell, "What in the Name of God is Strategic Superiority" in National Security and Strategy, ed. by Robert H. Connery and Demetrios Caraley (Academy of Political Science, 1983) wrote:
"Before the introduction of ballistic missiles and long-range bombers armed with atomic weapons, battles has to be won or lost on the ground before either side considered surrendering a vital interest. Moreover, when a military verdict finally forced the issue, the only alternative to surrender was further intolerable damage. Military superiority was fundamentally asymmetric: If one side had it, the other did not. Thus, the losing side’s policymakers had only two alternatives: surrender or face continued destruction and suffering.
In the present era, the set of alternatives available to the “loser” is larger. Nuclear-armed missiles and bombers that can withstand an enemy’s attack and retaliate with devastating force … have invalidated the previous asymmetry of military verdicts. Throughout any confrontation, both sides will retain the capability to destroy one another. Thus, policymakers on the losing side of a military struggle have a third alternative. At any time during a confrontation, they may attempt to coerce the opponent (and apparent victor) by beginning to implement, and thus to make credible, the threat to destroy the other’s society implicit in the existence of nuclear forces. Of course, such a strategy would have to be pursued in full realization that the other side could respond in kind, thereby leading to mutual destruction, but the risk of mutual devastation may well seem preferable to the certainty of unilateral defeat… In short, when faced with defeat, the prospect of, at best, a negotiated settlement and, at worst, mutual defeat may appear the “least worst” choice among a set of awful alternatives.
Whether or not this third alternative exists affects profoundly the utility of military superiority, because it drastically alters the character of risk in confrontations… The crucial questions for policymakers who perceive to be superior militarily is whether the party they threaten might still choose the third alternative, preferring a grave risk of mutual devastation to unilateral defeat." (Id., pp. 82-83).
The answer to this crucial question remains... elusive; but must be addressed.
North Korea clearly has chosen to pursue nuclear-based security to prevent itself from being coerced politically and militarily by the United States, and gain political respect and legitimacy as a regional power. The nuclear option is insurance against defeat and/or humiliation at the hands of the United States, South Korea, or anyone else. It is worth pondering that as the force structure and technological capabilities that the United States displayed in recent wars are beyond the capacity of any nation in the foreseeable future, the only recourse available to a developing power is the cheaper and more accessible nuclear/ballistic missile option.
Paradoxically, our search for a conventional combat capability in order to preclude nuclear war has proven so successful, that others seek to counter this capability through nuclear forces. Iraq could have drastically altered the outcome of the war, politically in particular, had they used SCUD attacks earlier and with more powerful warheads. Iraq's missile force structure was both logical and affordable; its poor execution and lack of punch is what rendered it ineffective. We cannot use this lack of combat effectiveness as a planning factor, for other nations may prove better capable of effective employment.
For example, during the Falklands War, Argentina successfully used their very limited number of Exocet missiles to cause considerable damage to the British Navy. Despite recent failures, North Korea's missiles are bound to perform better after failures are studied and corrected. Massive strikes, properly timed and combining alternate conventional, chemical, and/or nuclear warheads can create widespread damage, both in military terms and more importantly in political terms which will dictate the war's tempo and determine what outcome will follow. Strategically, a nation equipped with a missile force which is facing a far better armed and more capable opponent will seek to retain a retaliatory capability, with a secure reserve force which will guarantee unacceptable pain, or cause sufficient doubt as to intentions and capabilities upon the enemy, thus allowing for the maximum room for political maneuver. Our future adversaries will combine mobile missiles for offensive operations, dispersing them in depth, using active deception measures for protection and ensuring its operational capacity.
This is the face of future war.