When a pair of American B-2 bombers jetted halfway around the globe two weeks ago in response to North Korean threats to turn South Korea into a “sea of fire,'' it was the U.S. Strategic Command that dispatched them.
StratCom officials at Offutt Air Force Base say the bombers' flight to take part in a military exercise served dual purposes, demonstrating the U.S. commitment to an ally and showing off a military capability.
But there was an unspoken message for North Korea, too: Don't mess with the United States.
StratCom's most critical mission is helping to deter any attack on America or its allies. As Gen. C. Robert Kehler, StratCom's commander, described that role recently, StratCom seeks to make “anyone who might contemplate such an attack recognize that they will not achieve their goals, and will pay an extraordinary price if they try.''
With tension recently heating up on the Korean Peninsula as the result of North Korea's threats, there's no doubt that the 2,200 StratCom personnel based at Offutt have been heavily engaged.
StratCom officials speak little of the command's work, much of which is highly classified.
“Personnel at StratCom remain committed to ensuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” StratCom officials said in a general statement.
But the U.S. response to the Korean conflict clearly cuts across numerous mission areas in which StratCom has major responsibilities. Among them: general deterrence, the ability to strike global targets with conventional or nuclear weapons, missile defense, ensuring the function of space-based military assets serving all military branches and providing the president with ready military options for all possible scenarios.
“StratCom exists to deal with remote eventualities,'' said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a national defense think tank. “They have rooms full of people who think about nothing else, and they've been doing it for a long time.''
Indeed, deterrence of America's enemies is a legacy mission for StratCom, born of Offutt's half-century role as the command center for America's Cold War nuclear arsenal.
While StratCom remains the steward of that arsenal, since the end of the Cold War the command's role has been significantly broadened to include non-nuclear deterrence and strategic planning, defending the nation against a variety of threats.
From its bunker headquarters at Offutt, StratCom leaders and personnel constantly analyze possible threats around the world, considering available military responses and contemplating the creation of new capabilities.
“Prepare for uncertainty'' says part of StratCom's mission statement.
Should a national security crisis arise, StratCom's leaders present a range of thought-out military options to the president and his national security advisers. And on their orders, StratCom makes sure the appropriate military units rapidly implement the chosen response.
“StratCom is big enough they can make decisions of that sort and specialized enough to know what they are doing,'' Pike said. “These are not plans that have to be dusted off. They are constantly thinking about these things.''
North Korea, an old Cold War adversary, has given StratCom much to think about recently.
In December, the politically isolated, economically weak communist nation conducted a missile launch in violation of United Nations resolutions, and then in February announced that it had conducted a nuclear test.
The rhetoric from dictator Kim Jong Un only ratcheted up from there, with threats to attack South Korea and a declaration that North Korea's military has been authorized to launch a nuclear attack on the U.S.
The words caused more bemusement than panic in the United States.
It's unclear whether North Korea has a missile capable of reaching the United States. It is somewhat more likely that North Korea could launch a nuclear attack on South Korea or Japan.
StratCom officials recently answered some questions about the command's role in Korea. They say they've worked in close coordination with the Hawaii-based U.S. Pacific Command, which controls U.S. military actions in the Korean theater.
They declined to detail the degree to which Kehler or other StratCom leaders are consulting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on the matter. They also declined to say whether the Korean threats have altered alert levels within the command.
But one U.S. action regarding North Korea with clear StratCom fingerprints was the late-March flight of the B-2s to take part in the South Korea's “Foal Eagle'' military exercises. StratCom dispatched the planes on a 13,000-mile, nonstop round trip from Whiteman Air Force Base in central Missouri.
While B-2's are often called “stealth bombers,'' there was nothing stealthy about this mission, which was announced publicly by U.S. military officials in Seoul. It was intended to get North Korea's attention.
“B-2 missions to (South Korea), such as the one that participated in the Foal Eagle exercise, help ensure the U.S. Air Force's ability to conduct long-range global strike missions and demonstrate U.S. commitment to our allies and to regional security,'' StratCom said in a statement.
While the ultimate decision to send the B-2s was for the president and his advisers to make, it was most likely part of a range of deterrence options offered up by StratCom.
“They have a whole menu of activities like that they can use to demonstrate resolve and capability without blowing anybody up,'' Pike said. “Someone had to say one (plane) is not enough, five is more than called for, but two is a nice number.''
StratCom is also charged with overseeing the growing U.S. capacity to defend against missile strikes, devising plans for what is needed to negate a specific missile threat.
That gave it a clear role in the announcement by Hagel last month that the United States was beefing up missile defense emplacements defending North America. The changes came after North Korea made threats of launching missile attacks on the United States. While the reality of the threat is unclear, some defense observers saw it as “cheap insurance'' against an attack.
StratCom said in a statement about the missile defense moves, which included deployment of additional missile interceptors at Fort Greeley in Alaska and additional missile defense radar systems in Japan, that they would keep the United States ahead of the Korean threat.
Going forward, Pike said, StratCom's leaders will need to engage in a lot of complex calculus as they assess the Korean threat.
Kim “is not a rational actor,'' Pike said. No one can be sure what he will do. He may truly believe that North Korea could win a war against the United States.
“North Korea is like 'The Truman Show,' '' Pike said. “They live in a separate reality.''
If conflict in Korea eventually leads to war and North Korea's collapse, that would potentially put U.S. forces right on the Yalu River, the border with China. What would the Chinese think about that? How would they respond? StratCom is thinking about such things.
Overall, Pike predicts that Korea will boil over into military conflict before tensions ultimately ease. While many dismiss Kim's rhetoric, he has been so bellicose toward South Korea that he will almost have to take some kind of small-scale military action, Pike said. If he doesn't, people will say he's just all talk.
“He is going to have to go kinetic, and unlike previous episodes, (South Korea) will hit back, and hit back harder than he hit them, and it will escalate,'' Pike predicted. “Cooler and wiser heads will intervene to cool it off. But for a couple of days, it will be very exciting.''
Not all analysts see that as a likelihood. Some believe that Kim won't go beyond his current bluster.
But whatever happens in Korea, StratCom plans to be prepared.
“We continue to monitor the situation,'' StratCom officials said in a recent statement, “and remain ready to provide capabilities to deter, defend against and respond to the threat posed by North Korea.”
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The United States initially reacted to the latest North Korean tirades with a military show, partly to reassure South Korea and Japan that they needn't do anything rash, and partly to persuade China to rein in its neighbor. Among the actions:
» More U.S. warships were sent to the region, including the first new littoral vessel, designed for combat close to shore.
» Annual U.S.-South Korea drills went on as planned, and the U.S. pointedly disclosed – with photos – that B-52 and B-2 bombers were taking part.
» In a first-ever deployment, the United States sent THAAD, a truck-mounted anti-missile system, to protect Guam.
» A U.S. seaborne X-band radar, a detection system that looks like an oil rig, was sent to the region. A land-based version is already in Japan.
» The United States said its West Coast anti-missile system would be beefed up in the coming years.
» The U.S. adopted new financial penalties and joined the U.N. in strengthening the sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear tests.
» In recent days, the U.S. response has been toned down to avoid giving North Korea an excuse for escalation or a reason for miscalculation:
» A long-planned U.S. test launch of an intercontinental missile was postponed.
» U.S. military leaders stressed that they can react proportionately, without immediately resorting to all-out war. They said they might or might not swat down a test missile if North Korea were to launch one.
— From World-Herald press services
Why experts play down the threat to the U.S.
» It's difficult to build a compact nuclear weapon, with a small payload that is light enough to be carried very far.
» In 2009, one expert estimated that North Korea's TD-2 design could carry a 1,100-pound payload 5,592 miles.
» A bomb of that size would be far less powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and isn't considered a credible intercontinental threat.
» But it could wreak havoc on a city or a U.S. base in Japan, such as Yokota Air Base, home to the U.S. 5th Air Force, or Yokosuka Naval Base, the port for the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and its battle group.
Source: McClatchy News Service