StratCom: 'Warfighting Is Our Vocation'

Former Bulletin of Atomic Scientists editor Mike Moore delivered a keynote address at the 2010 Annual Peace Conference in Omaha this past October. Author of the award-winning book, Twilight War: The Folly of U.S. Space Dominance, the Missouri native is one of the premier analysts on the dangerous militarization of space.

The Cold War was a nasty, frightful business. By the 1980s, the Soviet Union and the United States had some 85,000 nuclear weapons between them. Most of those bombs and missiles were far more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than 200,000 men, women and children.

Further, these bombs and missiles were ready to go at any moment. If one side attacked the other, the other side would retaliate. The time to make that ‘go-no go’ decision on retaliation, to ‘launch on warning,’ was, at best, 10 or 15 minutes. If one side waited a few minutes too long, its retaliatory force might be destroyed. ‘Use ’em or lose ’em’ was the order of the day. 

That’s why nuclear deterrence was labeled “Mutual Assured Destruction.” In shorthand, “MAD.” MAD was an apt acronym, since it was, after all, a mutual suicide pact: ‘If you kill me, I will kill you.’ 

This nuclear stand-off only ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

So, did deterrence ‘work’? Nearly 20 years later, that’s still a matter of heated debate. All we know for sure is that we made it through those five perilous decades without nuclear war. 

The nerve center for America’s nuclear deterrent during that whole period was, of course, the Strategic Air Command (SAC), just down the road at Offutt Air Force Base. SAC’s motto from 1948 onwards was “Peace Is Our Profession,” and in the dangerous and utterly immoral logic of the Cold War, the motto—ironic as it was—could be defended.

Full Spectrum Dominance

With the end of the Cold War, however, SAC was ‘stood down’ to be replaced by Strategic Command, or StratCom in 1992. At first, StratCom simply integrated SAC’s nuclear forces—bombers and missiles—with the Navy’s nuclear missiles based on submarines, usually called ‘boomers.’ 

Bombers, missiles, and boomers. A potent mix of end-of-the-world destructive power. Nonetheless, StratCom’s purported mission was still deterrence. Its weapons were meant not to be used.

The mission of deterrence itself, though, seemed to be on the back-burner. No longer was there a nation that could threaten America’s very existence. For decades, de facto U.S. policy was that nuclear weapons should never be used in combat. And that ‘nuclear taboo’ was real and potent. If there were a nuclear war (and that was always a possibility), it would start by accident or miscalculation—not by intention.

With the U.S. now the world’s sole superpower, America’s military instead shifted its focus to developing precision weapons that could be used to actually fight wars—conventional weapons tied to precision guidance systems. These new weapons (essentially bombs and missiles targeted by and guided by made-in-America satellites) have revolutionized America’s way of war over the past two decades. 

It is now possible for American weapons to actually hit their targets with almost unbelievable accuracy. That is something new in the history of warfare. If targets were properly selected, civilian casualties would be minimized. 

Consider NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia in 1999 on behalf of Kosovar Albanians, who were being brutalized and killed by Yugoslav army and police forces. Justifications of NATO’s actions are endlessly controversial. Was the intervention a ‘just war’? Or was it a violation of a nation’s sovereignty? In any event, the decision to go to war—even with a limited bombing campaign—was not easily made. 

NATO eventually approved air strikes as a way of forcing Slobodan Milosevic to the bargaining table. In opting for air attack, NATO had to weigh the lives of ethnic Albanians against the certainty that at least some civilians would be killed by NATO bombs and missiles. In the end, the decision was made only because NATO’s leaders were certain that the U.S. Air Force was capable of minimizing civilian casualties. 

After 77 days of bombing, Milosevic finally gave in. Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization that does not champion the use of military force, conducted an exhaustive on-the-ground survey with particular emphasis on documenting reports of civilian deaths from the bombing campaign.

“As few as 489 and as many as 528 Yugoslavs [civilians] were killed,” the organization’s report said. Human Rights Watch did not defend NATO. Although the designers of the air campaign went to great lengths to minimize civilian casualties, the report noted, the alliance could have done an even better job of protecting civilians. But to military officers, government officials, and think-tank warriors everywhere, the number of civilian deaths was strikingly low. How could some 23,000 bombs and missiles—only about 35 percent of which were true precision weapons—have produced so little collateral damage?

Part of the answer was satellites orbiting in space, particularly observation, communications, and global-positioning satellites. In military-speak, space had become the new ‘center of gravity’ for America’s military forces in the 1990s. This new way of fighting even acquired an ominous-sounding name: Full Spectrum Dominance.

U.S. forces, according to the new doctrine, would no longer be simply daunting. They would be overwhelmingly dominant—on land, at sea, in the air… and in space. So dominant, in fact, that no great power would ever again mount an existential challenge to the United States. After 9/11, Full Spectrum Dominance was to become the overarching mission of Strategic Command. 

New Missions

Over the next five years, the Pentagon added a host of new missions to StratCom. The command retained its role of providing nuclear deterrence, even in the absence of an existential threat. But it was now charged with developing the hardware to preemptively attack targets with conventional weapons anywhere in the world within an hour or two of a decision to do so. America would no longer stand by waiting to be attacked; it would be prepared to throw the first punch. “Prompt global strike,” it’s called.

The global-strike mission is now StratCom’s on paper, but how to actually implement it is highly controversial within the military and in Congress. Would the Russians or the Chinese mistake the launch of a prompt-global-strike missile with the launch of a nuclear-tipped missile, thus provoking a nuclear war by mistake? For that matter, would U.S. intelligence be accurate enough to justify preemptive strikes? Finally, was preemption—striking the first blow—consistent with historical American values? 

StratCom also inherited America’s military space mission. Part of that involves coordination of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites, communications satellites, global positioning satellites, and warning satellites. These space birds are enablers; they make precision war possible. 

There are no weapons in space—no ‘shooters.’ But land, sea, and air-based weapons are now so dependent on orbiting satellites that space assets have become key components of America’s warfighting systems. 

Beyond that, U.S. space policy—even today—asserts that the United States has the unilateral right to assume control of space in a time of conflict. Our space policies also state that the United States reserves the unilateral right to develop and deploy actual space weapons, a mission called “force application from space.”

That’s bizarre. Outer space is by international treaty the “province of all mankind.” Consonant with that, it must be used solely for “peaceful purposes.” The Outer Space Treaty (which has been in force for more than 40 years) is the brainchild of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a man who knew something of the terrors of war and the virtues of peace.

Similar to space control and force application of space, Strategic Command also was charged with the task of developing both defensive and offensive cyberspace. There is no question that America’s military and civilian computer networks are favorite targets of hackers in other nations; some of these attacks may have government sponsorship. 

But how this mission will play out is uncertain. The consequences of ordering a counter-offensive cyber attack against the computer networks of another nation could be enormously dangerous. Cyber attacks typically do not have a return address. And yet, a decision to order a counter-cyber attack might have to be made in minutes on the basis of highly ambiguous evidence.

This is just a sampling of StratCom’s new missions. Nuclear deterrence is cold spaghetti. Today’s StratCom is deeply involved in active warfighting. Satellites under StratCom’s purview identify targets and guide bombs and missiles to those targets. Wherever and whenever an unmanned aerial vehicle fires a missile at presumed terrorists in Afghanistan or Pakistan or elsewhere, StratCom hardware and personnel are key players.

“Peace Is Our Profession” is still StratCom’s motto. But a secondary line may be needed: “Warfighting Is Our Vocation.”

Capabilities v. Intent

Military officers do not make military policy. They do not decide whether the nation will go to war. Such decisions are made by our nation’s political leaders, not by uniformed officers. However, the armed forces are charged with implementing America’s policy of full spectrum dominance in the military sphere.

That policy has been interpreted by some as a smoking gun, proof that the United States intends to dominate the world… that it intends to outdo the Romans by creating a global Pax Americana. 

That is not my personal interpretation. Full spectrum dominance describes a way of fighting, not a political program with an imperial slant. Nonetheless, what possible combination of words could seem more imperial than that?

The fact that the United States is focused on achieving total military dominance in battle—our nation’s political and military leaders say—should not alarm anyone. Achieving dominance over a foe has been the aim of warfare since the beginning of recorded history. But beyond that observation, our government constantly asserts a companion argument: U.S. intentions are ‘always non-aggressive.’ Its use of military power is always benign.

It is true that the United States, once it had conquered or killed everyone who stood in the way of its Atlantic-to-the-Pacific “Manifest Destiny,” has not engaged in traditional aggressive war. But the obvious question is: What other nation state would be willing to subject its national fortunes to changing U.S. whims and geopolitical aims? Past behavior is not always the predictor of future behavior. That’s ‘International Relations 101.’

In assessing the threat posed by existing or potential rivals, national leaders throughout the world are far more interested in capabilities (demonstrated or presumed) than in intentions. Capabilities are thought to be roughly measurable. In contrast, divining the intentions of another nation’s leaders is a speculative art and often futile. Intentions can change as quickly as governments. Capabilities, on the other hand, have a modest degree of permanence.

All major powers value their own sovereignty and the freedom to act in defense of their vital national interests. They do not like to be at the mercy of another state, particularly a nation such as the United States that has repeatedly demonstrated technological wizardry and amazing capabilities in actual warfighting. 

To America’s leaders, building a military of overwhelming dominance seems sensible and necessary. To many other nations, such a capability may suggest a velvet-glove hegemony that could one day turn to steel-fisted imperialism. That’s a recipe for a new arms race, perhaps even a new cold war.


American exceptionalism has a long history. Long before there was a United States, the English colonies in the New World were widely seen in Europe as a divinely blessed promised land where spiritual and civic regeneration was possible, even likely.

If the American experiment should fail, wrote Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist No. 1, that failure would deserve “to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.” After retiring as president, Thomas Jefferson described the United States as the world’s “sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government.” Herman Melville put it this way in 1850:

God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world; the advance guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours… 

It makes no difference whether the United States was actually singled out by God for greatness, or whether it was merely a nation blessed with abundant natural resources, good and deep topsoil, a moderate climate, energetic immigrants from the Old World, and a lot of room to fill once the original inhabitants had died of smallpox or had been otherwise ‘removed.’ 

What is relevant is that so many Americans have believed in American exceptionalism over the years. The widespread belief in America’s exceptional mission has contributed to a host of misadventures in the name of goodness, of ‘doing the right thing.’ Consider the words of the late Senator J. William Fulbright, who wrote this in 1966, early in the Vietnam War:

Power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is peculiarly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God’s favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations— to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image.

We all know how America’s ‘righteous’ involvement in Southeast Asia turned out. It was our nation’s first modern war largely inspired by the messianic vision of American exceptionalism—a war that caused more than 58,000 American deaths and the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Vietnamese. 

The spirit of exceptionalism took a beating in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The world suddenly seemed more complicated and less amenable to American direction than had been previously thought. But for many Americans in the 1990s, the fall of the Soviet Union as well as the quick victory in Gulf War I restored their faith in America’s steadfast righteousness and military competence. 

The two events promoted a resurgence of exceptionalism—even triumphalism—in public life. Triumphalism still flourishes. The cover of the March 8, 2010 issue of National Review captured the mood well. A determined, muscular, ruddy-cheeked Lady Liberty stands atop the globe. In her left hand, an enormous American flag. In her right hand, a broadsword. The coverline reads: “Defend Her: Obama’s Threat to American Exceptionalism”

When applied to foreign policy, American exceptionalism is dangerous. It has too often led our nation’s leaders to believe that the United States—and only the United States—can play by its own rules on the global stage. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has declared itself, at least by its actions, a de facto global policeman.

Strategic Command, which revels in its new multifaceted global role, has become the chief cop on the global beat. It is the operational arm of American exceptionalism.

As long as we citizens, in whom sovereignty is vested, go along with that global-cop idea, the United States likely will be beset by conflict and war. We simply cannot police the world. Not even the United States is that powerful. Our attempts to police the globe simply beget resistance and violence.

I have no magic prescription, other than to recall the words of John Quincy Adams, who famously summed up America’s neutralist foreign policy in 1821 while serving as James Monroe’s secretary of state. “What has America done for the benefit of mankind?” Adams rhetorically asked.

For nearly a half century, he said, America had “respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own.” She did not interfere in the “concerns of others.” Indeed, “wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

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