North Korean “Pole Star” submarine-launched ballistic missile, April, 2016.



The latest missile launching from North Korea, which took place in April, was announced actually, belatedly, to distract from the flopped launch of another missile. The missile shown in the video provided by the North Korean government was fired from a submarine. The audience was small, comprised mainly of Kim Jong Un himself. The launch takes place in an oddly intimate cove, a site more suited for a beach barbecue.

I couldn’t help but be struck by the accompanying image, which showed a familiar black and white paint job on the missile, and the curious name of the missile, dubbed “Polar Star.”

We expect history to repeat itself. It doesn’t, really, but certain tropes, not to say memes, do reemerge. If they seem farcical, they’re no less dangerous for that.

As a child during the Cold War, with a parent involved in nuclear weapons development, I remember going to the award ceremony. Sitting on bleachers in the hot California sun, watching a group of Navy bigwigs sweating in their uniforms, looking tiny next to the mockup of the then new (I’m guessing 1962) Polaris medium-range ballistic missile. It stood, cool and abstract in a coat of flat white with linear black, in strict horizontals like a composition by Malevich or Mondrian. I was young enough and short enough to crawl under the missile’s rocket engine nozzles and look up at the snazzy black on white paint cylinder, topped by a nose cone that promised 600 kilotons of nuclear explosion. (“Fifty times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, in the parlance of the times.)



Polaris nuclear missile launch, circa 1960. (Note black on white paint job).


At that time, America’s first submarine-launched missile was dubbed the Polaris. The ability to launch some dozens of these missiles from untraceable locations under the surface of the seas made this a key component of the ‘triad’ the three parts of America’s ability to offer “mutually assured destruction” (this missile was designed to hit the enemy after they had launched a strike at US targets.) The other two being ground-launched ICBMs, and long-range bombers. There were some 41 of these submarines, each armed with 16 missiles.

In terms of the name, it is important to remember that Polaris was a US Navy development. The naming convention for land-based missiles tend to draw heavily on ancient mythology, favoring Greek, e.g. Titan, Ajax, Atlas, Hercules, or the odd Norse god, e.g. Thor, the first ICBM. While the trope of naming missiles after Greek demi-gods is obvious, with the typical attribution of divine powers to atomic weapons, the use of a star’s name is less so. In fact, the word “Polaris” to indicate the North Star sounds classical, but was actually coined in the late 1700s. And Pole Star, the name used for the North Korean missile, is a variation of the name. Perhaps the name refers to the guidance system, a key feature when the weapon was new.




And the Polaris, developed principally by Lockheed, represented something new. First off, it was a Navy operation built over objections from Army and Air Force. Creating a complex weapon system from scratch, one that could launch a small medium-range ballistic missile from any where a ship can go, and deliver an atomic warhead to a target some thousand miles away with with accuracy presented a challenging set of technological problems in propulsion, guidance, warhead miniaturization and overall size. With the impetus of the Soviet Sputnik the Navy approached the problem not just with new technology, but with a new design approach, PERT, or Program Evaluation Review Technique, which allowed for iterative interlocking design efforts and became a standard for certain types of large corporate design efforts.

But the Polaris, as innovative as it was, was first launched in 1960. Newly elected President John F. Kennedy, himself a Navy man, watched a launch. The new President, and the new trim and deadly missile were a timely match. Polaris-armed subs were in service during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The Polaris went out of use in the US Navy around 1980, replaced by the Trident.


KN-C30560 16NOV1963 President John F. Kennedy observes the firing of a Polaris missile by the Submarine Andrew Jackson aboard the U.S.S. Observation Island off the coast of Florida. Please credit "Robert Knudsen, White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston"

President John F. Kennedy watching launch of Polaris missile at Cape Canaveral, Nov, 1963.(JFK Presidential Library)


So why would North Korea develop a missile that is both named identically with an obsolete American one that went out of use thirty years ago, and uses elements from the same design palette? The choice of name seems like a clear reference to the US missile. Other North Korean missile names seem to be more geographical. For example, Taepodong, the name of the North Korean ICBM missile series, means “Large Watery Place” and seems to reference the North Korean launch site. (This is not to make fun. The Magna Carta was signed at Runnymeade, which could be interpreted similarly.i)The North Korean submarine launch platform itself is an old Soviet model. And Soviet missiles tended to be painted army green, and had names like R-11 and R-13. Maybe just not exciting enough for someone who obviously loves his weapons of mass destruction.



I want to take a style tour of submarine-launched missiles. But first, I have titled this essay “missile aesthetics.” Can one speak of the category of the aesthetic in relation to weapons systems? This essay begins by looking at design elements of the submarine-launched ballistic missile. And when I say design, I refer initially to what is often thought of as product design. Not all products are designed this way. The most familiar, at least for myself, is probably automobile design. This is a field where a design process starts with a sculptural model that more or less disregards engineering, and then the engineers attempts to fit the actual vehicle into that skin. “Automotive design is the profession involved in the development of the appearance, and to some extent the ergonomics, of motor vehicles or more specifically road vehicles.” as Wikipedia would have it. So initially I am looking at the exterior appearance, and the trim. But ultimately I want to use the category of the aesthetic to examine the submarine-launched ballistic missile as a “cultural object,” a set of technologies that are designed to relate to other aspects of culture.



Indian Sagarika missile launch, 2013.


While the US Press tends to focus on bad boy Kim, and his retro rockets, he is one of the small players in the “Nuclear Club.” Around the world there are moves to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. The meetings between President Obama and India’s Prime Minister Modi in early June, billed as cordial and resulting in an agreement for India to purchase half a dozen US nuclear power plants, not to mention a major defense agreement, suggest that there is at least tacit approval for the Indian development of a hugely extended nuclear weapon capability in the form of a nuclear armed submarine production program. (right now, their the only ones other than the security council five who have a ballistic missile sub.) 

It is worth noting that the Indian missile, the Sagarika, ( सागरिका,Sanskrit for “Oceanic”) launched for the first time from an India-built submarine in 2013, also seems to sport the classic black trim-on-white color scheme.

The Chinese have on offer the JL-2 (巨浪-2) or “Giant Wave” Their missile offers a different design profile. The photos suggest something more like a giant airborne grain silo with perky blue trim.


JL-2 r MIRV Giant Wave 2 Chinese IBtercontinental-range submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM)8,000 km multiple warheads Chinese Type 094 (Jin-class) submarine Type 092 (3)

Chinese JL-2 Giant Wave missile launch

And while the US is quietly applauding India, presumably as a potential deterrent to Chinese ambitions, the Chinese themselves have a recent deal with Pakistan to build eight subs. While these are not explicitly for nuclear weapons, the defense press has suggested that, given Pakistan’s agile missile-production industry, the purchase opens the possibility.

The French contender, the M51, looks frankly penile, if the penis was re-envisioned with turquoise and white stripes on a black background, perhaps by Nike.



French Navy M51 missile on launch.




In his seminal essay on post-war Italian scooter design, Dick Hebidgeii notes the difficulty of locating any discussion of modern industrial design. These are processes that are extended through time and space, and situated in several sites of production and consumption, from design, and manufacture, through advertising, consumer judgement and varied consumer use, all changing (in relation to each other) over time. His answer, at least in that essay is to create what he calls a ‘dossier’ based on original documents. 

By their nature, nuclear weapons, which are designed for mass destruction, rather than mass consumption, would seem to fit a consumer design model poorly. But in a way we are all consumers, at least in those countries where our tax dollars pay, and pay very handsomely, for nuclear weapons. And, as secret weapons, the documentation of design and purchasing decisions is mediocre.

But these weapons are commodities. Here is a description of the SPO, the Navy’s Polaris design group:

An alchemous combination of whirling computers, brightly colored charts, and fast-talking public relations officers gave the Special Projects Office a truly effective management system. It mattered not whether parts of the system functioned or even existed. It mattered only that certain people, for a certain period of time, believed that they did.”

Harvey Sapolsky “Polaris System Development, (quoted in Spinardi.)

In his book From Polaris to Trident: The Development of US Fleet ballistic missiles, Graham Spinardi notes that there are at least two major theories about how weapons development happens. One assumes a rational actor who assesses needs and develops weapons accordingly. The other assumes that in a democratic society at least, the choices are political, and fall into the same tactical areas of salesmanship that all politicking implies.

This brings us back to a place where a design-based discussion has relevance, because we are talking about the creation or manipulation of human desire. Not desire for goods in the normal sense, as it is the rare individual that gets their own missile, but the more amorphous desire to be part of the weapon-owning nation.

So what are we getting when “we” buy a nuclear weapons system? A sense of security?  Satisfaction that we are citizens of a great nation? In a post-Cold War world the classic notion of “deterrence,” AKA “mutually assured destruction,” seems weaker than it did in the Cold War era. (In fact, deterrence probably is a big factor for Kim, who can look at the fates of Saddam Hussain and Muamar Khaddafi as a good reason to have weapons that would preclude easy “regime change.”)

To get at the role of nuclear weapons in terms of nation building and its corollary, “citizen formation,” India is perhaps more instructive than North Korea. While the Indian nuclear program goes back to the founding of the Indian state in the late 1940s, the modern version is explicitly linked to right wing Hindu-based politics, in the form of the BJP which took office under the leadership of A.B. Vajpayee in 1998 and conducted nuclear tests a few months later. Recommended viewing is Anand Patwardan’s stunning epic doc “War and Peace” which offers a complex and unsettling depiction of the origins and development of the Indian nuclear program in a mix of mythology, Hindu nationalism, and macho weapon-love. I mention India and Patwardan’s film not to specifically indict India. What is important is to ask how nuclear weapons “work,” how they mean in the contemporary world, a world of globalization, neo-liberalism and a general global trend toward national chauvinism and strong-man governments.

The useful question is probably not why does Kim Jong Un’s Korea develop a weapon that looks to be an imitation of a Cold War stalwart, but in what ways are things different now? How has the meaning of these weapons changed? With the Cold War long over, and socialism discredited as an economic alternative, we are in a kind of late late capitalist period. I can’t hope to answer these questions here, but I would like to speculate on possibilities.


Weapons systems are a commodity, and they are packaged to impress. Hebidge notes that the Vespa, ironically the work of a WW2 bomber manufacturer, was designed for a new type of consumer. Rather than a motor cycle, the very name of which emphasizes its mechanicality and power, the scooter hides its engine, sheathing its works under smooth curves. The scooter comes out of the early Post-War era, but defined itself in the 60s. The Polaris is from the Era of Cool, the late 50s and early 60s, a period of skinny ties, bebob jazz, and cigarettes that put death “a neat, clean quarter inch a way. What is different about this missile in 2016, as opposed to 1962? How does it mean? What is its “cultural significance” in a globalized world?



Lambretta ad, circa 1967


One of the standard tropes about missile-production is the missile-as-penis. The classic cartoon shows a lab with the caption “Scientists comparing missile size.” A missile is a projection of power. The gendering of weapons, and of anti-nuclear movements is subject for another day. But there is one aspect of the penis that might help us understand the role of the nuclear missile as culture actor.

In her analysis of The Story of O, psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin notes the role of the penis of the sadist. It represents the sadist’s desire, but indirectly:

The penis represents their desire, and through this indirect representation they will maintain their sovereignty. By interposing it between her and them they establish a subjectivity that is distanced, independent of her recognition. Indeed, they claim that their abuse of her is more for her “enlightenment’ than their pleasure. … Their acts are carefully controlled: each act has a goal that expresses their rational intentions.”iii

Is this a useful way to understand a missile? Here, the severe black on white look, and the lack of aerodynamics can help serve create the veneer of rationality for nuclear weapons, particularly weapons whose sole purpose is to destroy entire cities. “This missile is a war-preventer.” says that sober exterior. The comparison may be farfetched, but a couple of things make me feel it is a useful one. I am not suggesting that the relationship of the citizen to the State is necessarily sado-masochistic. But the power equation with nuclear weapons is also skewed. I realized when I was twelve that the threat of a Soviet invasion was less frightening to me than the existence of weapons that can destroy life on Earth. So the element of fear, total fear, is brought into the Social Contract. The other thing is that nuclear weapons are the one kind of weapon designed not to be used. Their value is exactly in the fact that they are frightening, it is a power that works affectively and emotionally. Here again, the sober stylistics help emphasize the element of rational control. 

Nation states are imagined communities. The role of nuclear weapons in creating those imaginaries is something complex. We are asked in a certain way to identify with the power. This power is in one way the state’s monopoly on violence. Aside from the problem I mentioned before, that the potential violence that is supposed to make us feel secure under the aegis of the State tends to do the opposite, there is another problem. Weapons systems, the military units that deploy them and the industries that spawn them tend toward an unsettling autonomy.  The weapon-system gone rogue is a classic thriller plot. In this case, think Red October.  Suffice to say always something problematic about weapons from the point of view of the State. In 1000 Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari create the term “The Nomadic War Machine,” and note that it is “exterior to the State.” 

In North Korea, weapons development is part of a larger picture where one leader rules the State, and the Party, and heads the military as well, and leads all three, not to mention the People, in an ongoing struggle against the capitalist world. In this equation, citizens are invited to see the power of Kim and the power of North Korea’s nuclear weapons as co-extensive.


The cover of a special “missile issue” of the North Korean paper, Rodong Sinmuniv


It is worth noting that even in a democratic society, where that identification is not explicit, its existence puts a very heavy burden on the social contract, perhaps even more so in a democracy, e.g. when it becomes personalized in the hands of the commander-in-chief with their finger on the button, as Elaine Scarry’s recent book, Thermonuclear Monarchy suggests.v



As I have suggested here, the Polaris and its related sub-launched family around the world are a type of weapons system envisioned at the height of the Cold War. The fact that similar systems are being developed in a new generation of nuclear-armed nations is depressing. But in fact, the mid-century vision of a large ballistic missile is being rethought. Several countries, including the US, Russia and China are developing nuclear-tipped cruise missiles designed to be launched by bomber aircraft. The US program calls for a thousand missiles under the label “Long Range Standoff Weapon” or LRSO. It is extremely difficult to shoot down an ICBM, which follows a mathematically predictable trajectory, although there are systems such as Iron Dome, Patriot that claim some success. Cruise missiles follow a guided path that is not trajectory-based, making them hard or even impossible to track. They can be highly accurate, and are armed with small nuclear warheads. This also means that these weapons can potentially be used “tactically” in pursuit of battlefield goals, bringing down the bar considerably for deployment. Their accuracy, by the way, does not equal reliability. Last year 4 out of 26 Russian cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea to hit targets in Syria some nine hundred miles away crashed in Iran. These were armed with “conventional warheads,” but they suggest why arming them with nuclear capability is alarming. Ironically, the LRSO is sold as a way to keep the US nuclear bomber fleet viable. Even former Secretary of Defense William Perry called them, “uniquely destabilizing.”vi


NIKE17Nike nuclear missile launch controls, AKA “The Button.”


How does the missile occupy national space? We live in a world where promises of peace seem to be disappearing. We can as citizens, identify with the destructive power of a weapon, thought of as a deterrent. “My country is a powerful one. If my nation is threatened, we can obliterate the enemy.” This type of military capability is notable in that it doesn’t solve real problems we see in the world today, problems, such as terrorism, global warming and migration that may seem more pressing than the possibility of a nuclear war.

Nuclear weapons ask us to identify with power, power focused through very few hands, the ones on “The Button.” This focussing of power distorts democracy and creates an endless problem. That which is supposed to supply the security of the security state does the opposite. It’s real promise, and its appeal to desire, is that of a wiping out, of total obliteration, e.g. of “The Other.” It is notable that we are living at a time when people around the planet are rejecting being managed, whether with the Occupy movements or the Arab Spring, they are looking alternatives to representative systems of government that can only offer more or less mystified identifications with power, rather than real control over our lives. One can only hope that in the emergence of new forms of citizen power we will find both a more genuine democracy, and a final abandonment of nuclear arms.

 Martin Lucas



iActually it isn’t. Runny is probably derived from an Old English word for “meeting”.

ii“Object as Image: The Italian Scooter Cycle” Hiding in the Light (London, Routledge, 1988.)

iiiBonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (New York, Pantheon, 1988.)

vThermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom (New York, Norton, 2014)


Following the North Star: Kim Jong Un and modernist missile aesthetics | 2016 | Uncategorized