North Korea is still racing to achieve a comprehensive nuclear deterrent. And the closer it gets to its goal, the less time the United States and its allies have to try to stop it. Depending on factors such as the strength of U.S. intelligence, the progress of North Korea's missiles and nuclear programs and how much risk Washington and its allies are willing to tolerate, the United States may already have missed its opportunity for preventive military action. Official assessments indicate that, at most, Washington has 18 months before the window closes; after that, the United States and its allies probably will have no choice but to adopt a policy of deterrence toward North Korea.
As the clock ticks down, we're constantly scanning the horizon for signs of an impending strike on North Korea, such as the evacuation of nonessential personnel from South Korea or a heightened alert level in the region. Most of these have yet to materialize, suggesting that military action is unlikely this year. Others, however, have already manifested.
The United States is enhancing its force posture in and around North Korea. Three U.S. carrier strike groups are en route to the Western Pacific, where they will conduct a combined exercise in mid-November. The gathering is a rare occurrence — the last time three U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups convened for a combined exercise was in 2007 — and will give the United States a powerful force within striking distance of North Korea. The U.S. Air Force, meanwhile, has announced that, for the first time, it will send a squadron of a dozen F-35A stealth fighter jets to Kadena Air Base in Japan in early November for a six-month deployment. Stealth fighters would figure prominently in a potential U.S. strike on North Korea. The United States has also dispatched several submarines, including at least one nuclear cruise missile submarine, to Korean waters. And finally, the U.S. military recently revealed that it increased its stockpile of munitions in Guam by about 10 percent between late August and late September. The small island in Micronesia is a major fuel and ammunition storage area for the U.S. military in the Pacific region, and it would play a central role in a conflict with North Korea.
Taken together, these developments suggest that the United States is preparing for a confrontation. But that doesn't necessarily mean that Washington is gearing up to start a war with Pyongyang. The United States and it allies are in a precarious standoff with North Korea. Military preparations, exercises and movements like the ones underway near the Korean Peninsula may simply be a part of the United States' effort to keep its options for handling North Korea open. Not every deployment is a prelude to military action.
Nevertheless, these types of developments give an idea of what a prospective military campaign would look like, while also raising the risk in the region. Consequently, tracking them is critical. North Korea, after all, will be watching out for the same kinds of military movements and preparations from the United States. If it concludes that a strike is imminent, Pyongyang will be more likely to resort to pre-emptive action. And even if both sides manage to avoid a war, buildups and exercises to contain and deter North Korea may well be the new normal.