Early last summer, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld approved a top secret
"Interim Global Strike Alert Order" directing the military to assume
and maintain readiness to attack hostile countries that are developing weapons
of mass destruction, specifically Iran and North Korea.
Two months later, Lt. Gen. Bruce Carlson, commander of the 8th Air Force, told
a reporter that his fleet of B-2 and B-52 bombers had changed its way of operating
so that it could be ready to carry out such missions. "We're now at the
point where we are essentially on alert," Carlson said in an interview
with the Shreveport (La.) Times. "We have the capacity to plan and execute
global strikes." Carlson said his forces were the U.S. Strategic Command's
"focal point for global strike" and could execute an attack "in
half a day or less."
In the secret world of military planning, global strike has become the term
of art to describe a specific preemptive attack. When military officials refer
to global strike, they stress its conventional elements. Surprisingly, however,
global strike also includes a nuclear option, which runs counter to traditional
U.S. notions about the defensive role of nuclear weapons.
The official U.S. position on the use of nuclear weapons has not changed. Since
the end of the Cold War, the United States has taken steps to de-emphasize the
importance of its nuclear arsenal. The Bush administration has said it remains
committed to reducing our nuclear stockpile while keeping a credible deterrent
against other nuclear powers. Administration and military officials have stressed
this continuity in testimony over the past several years before various congressional
But a confluence of events, beginning with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the
president's forthright commitment to the idea of preemptive action to prevent
future attacks, has set in motion a process that has led to a fundamental change
in how the U.S. military might respond to certain possible threats. Understanding
how we got to this point, and what it might mean for U.S. policy, is particularly
important now -- with the renewed focus last week on Iran's nuclear intentions
and on speculation that North Korea is ready to conduct its first test of a
Global strike has become one of the core missions for the Omaha-based Strategic
Command, or Stratcom. Once, Stratcom oversaw only the nation's nuclear forces;
now it has responsibility for overseeing a global strike plan with both conventional
and nuclear options. President Bush spelled out the definition of "full-spectrum"
global strike in a January 2003 classified directive, describing it as "a
capability to deliver rapid, extended range, precision kinetic (nuclear and
conventional) and non-kinetic (elements of space and information operations)
effects in support of theater and national objectives."
This blurring of the nuclear/conventional line, wittingly or unwittingly, could
heighten the risk that the nuclear option will be used. Exhibit A may be the
Stratcom contingency plan for dealing with "imminent" threats from
countries such as North Korea or Iran, formally known as CONPLAN 8022-02.
CONPLAN 8022 is different from other war plans in that it posits a small-scale
operation and no "boots on the ground." The typical war plan encompasses
an amalgam of forces -- air, ground, sea -- and takes into account the logistics
and political dimensions needed to sustain those forces in protracted operations.
All these elements generally require significant lead time to be effective.
(Existing Pentagon war plans, developed for specific regions or "theaters,"
are essentially defensive responses to invasions or attacks. The global strike
plan is offensive, triggered by the perception of an imminent threat and carried
out by presidential order.)
CONPLAN 8022 anticipates two different scenarios. The first is a response to
a specific and imminent nuclear threat, say in North Korea. A quick-reaction,
highly choreographed strike would combine pinpoint bombing with electronic warfare
and cyberattacks to disable a North Korean response, with commandos operating
deep in enemy territory, perhaps even to take possession of the nuclear device.
The second scenario involves a more generic attack on an adversary's WMD infrastructure.
Assume, for argument's sake, that Iran announces it is mounting a crash program
to build a nuclear weapon. A multidimensional bombing (kinetic) and cyberwarfare
(non-kinetic) attack might seek to destroy Iran's program, and special forces
would be deployed to disable or isolate underground facilities.
By employing all of the tricks in the U.S. arsenal to immobilize an enemy country
-- turning off the electricity, jamming and spoofing radars and communications,
penetrating computer networks and garbling electronic commands -- global strike
magnifies the impact of bombing by eliminating the need to physically destroy
targets that have been disabled by other means.
The inclusion, therefore, of a nuclear weapons option in CONPLAN 8022 -- a
specially configured earth-penetrating bomb to destroy deeply buried facilities,
if any exist -- is particularly disconcerting. The global strike plan holds
the nuclear option in reserve if intelligence suggests an "imminent"
launch of an enemy nuclear strike on the United States or if there is a need
to destroy hard-to-reach targets.
It is difficult to imagine a U.S. president ordering a nuclear attack on Iran
or North Korea under any circumstance. Yet as global strike contingency planning
has moved forward, so has the nuclear option.
Global strike finds its origins in pre-Bush administration Air Force thinking
about a way to harness American precision and stealth to "kick down the
door" of defended territory, making it easier for (perhaps even avoiding
the need for) follow-on ground operations.
The events of 9/11 shifted the focus of planning. There was no war plan for
Afghanistan on the shelf, not even a generic one. In Afghanistan, the synergy
of conventional bombing and special operations surprised everyone. But most
important, weapons of mass destruction became the American government focus.
It is not surprising, then, that barely three months after that earth-shattering
event, the Pentagon's quadrennial Nuclear Posture Review assigned the military
and Stratcom the task of providing greater flexibility in nuclear attack options
against Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria and China.
The Air Force's global strike concept was taken over by Stratcom and made into
something new. This was partly in response to the realization that the military
had no plans for certain situations. The possibility that some nations would
acquire the ability to attack the United States directly with a WMD, for example,
had clearly fallen between the command structure's cracks. For example, the
Pacific Command in Hawaii had loads of war plans on its shelf to respond to
a North Korean attack on South Korea, including some with nuclear options. But
if North Korea attacked the United States directly -- or, more to the point,
if the U.S. intelligence network detected evidence of preparations for such
an attack, Pacific Command didn't have a war plan in place.
In May 2002, Rumsfeld issued an updated Defense Planning Guidance that directed
the military to develop an ability to undertake "unwarned strikes . . .
[to] swiftly defeat from a position of forward deterrence." The post-9/11
National Security Strategy, published in September 2002, codified preemption,
stating that the United States must be prepared to stop rogue states and their
terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction
against the United States and our allies."
"We cannot let our enemies strike first," President Bush declared
in the National Security Strategy document.
Stratcom established an interim global strike division to turn the new preemption
policy into an operational reality. In December 2002, Adm. James O. Ellis Jr.,
then Stratcom's head, told an Omaha business group that his command had been
charged with developing the capability to strike anywhere in the world within
minutes of detecting a target.
Ellis posed the following question to his audience: "If you can find that
time-critical, key terrorist target or that weapons-of-mass-destruction stockpile,
and you have minutes rather than hours or days to deal with it, how do you reach
out and negate that threat to our nation half a world away?"
CONPLAN 8022-02 was completed in November 2003, putting in place for the first
time a preemptive and offensive strike capability against Iran and North Korea.
In January 2004, Ellis certified Stratcom's readiness for global strike to the
defense secretary and the president.
At Ellis's retirement ceremony in July, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an Omaha audience that "the president charged
you to 'be ready to strike at any moment's notice in any dark corner of the
world' [and] that's exactly what you've done."
As U.S. military forces have gotten bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, the
attractiveness of global strike planning has increased in the minds of many
in the military. Stratcom planners, recognizing that U.S. ground forces are
already overcommitted, say that global strike must be able to be implemented
"without resort to large numbers of general purpose forces."
When one combines the doctrine of preemption with a "homeland security"
aesthetic that concludes that only hyper-vigilance and readiness stand in the
way of another 9/11, it is pretty clear how global strike ended up where it
is. The 9/11 attacks caught the country unaware and the natural reaction of
contingency planners is to try to eliminate surprise in the future. The Nuclear
Posture Review and Rumsfeld's classified Defense Planning Guidance both demanded
more flexible nuclear options.
Global strike thinkers may believe that they have found a way to keep the nuclear
genie in the bottle; but they are also having to cater to a belief on the part
of those in government's inner circle who have convinced themselves that the
gravity of the threats demands that the United States not engage in any protracted
debate, that it prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
Though the official Washington mantra has always been "we don't discuss
war plans," here is a real life predicament that cries out for debate:
In classic terms, military strength and contingency planning can dissuade an
attacker from mounting hostile actions by either threatening punishment or demonstrating
through preparedness that an attacker's objectives could not possibly be achieved.
The existence of a nuclear capability, and a secure retaliatory force, moreover,
could help to deter an attack -- that is, if the threat is credible in the mind
of the adversary.
But the global strike contingency plan cannot be a credible threat if it is
not publicly known. And though CONPLAN 8022 suggests a clean, short-duration
strike intended to protect American security, a preemptive surprise attack (let
alone one involving a nuclear weapon option) would unleash a multitude of additional
and unanticipated consequences. So, on both counts, why aren't we talking about
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