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Not Just A Last Resort?

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.


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