President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un lobbed red-hot rhetorical fireballs last week over Kim’s nuclear weapons program.
Whatever comes of that tough talk, it’s clear Offutt Air Force Base personnel will play a big role in the outcome.
If Trump should decide to inflict “fire and fury” on North Korea, he’ll use plans crafted by military experts at Offutt’s U.S. Strategic Command, drawing in part from intelligence gathered by Offutt-based 55th Wing air crews. And if Kim is deterred from launching his missiles, credit in part the arsenal of nuclear, cyberwarfare, space and missile defense weapons arrayed against him — all under StratCom’s control.
“Right now, certainly, in the basement of StratCom they’re working on this very hard,” said Tyler White, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor specializing in national security studies.
Almost every day, 55th Wing Rivet Joint RC-135 aircraft fly off the Korean Peninsula from their base in Okinawa, Japan, listening in on radio and other electronic communications from Kim’s realm.
The wing’s Cobra Ball jets can detect missile launches and monitor them, gleaning valuable intelligence about missile capabilities.
Constant Phoenix planes carry equipment that can detect radiation in the atmosphere if a bomb is tested.
All of those planes are manned by Offutt-based crews.
“You can use them just about anywhere,” said White, who is part of a nationwide academic alliance sponsored by StratCom. “It’s a huge part of the analytical toolkit.”
StratCom is in charge of coping with large-scale threats to the United States. Its analysts plan for nuclear counterstrikes. And they make sure the nuclear arsenal is in order — in the horrifying event that offensive weapons are needed, but mostly to discourage attacks by adversaries, including North Korea.
“StratCom’s mission is to deter the enemy from thinking they could attack us,” said Lana Obradovic, a professor of international relations at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “If there were nuclear weapons, then it would be up to StratCom. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.”
While nuclear warfare is StratCom’s signature mission, it’s not the only one. StratCom also oversees warfare in space and cyberspace. And it’s in charge of a network of interceptors designed to stop intercontinental ballistic missiles.
That network’s importance has been magnified in the past month by twin milestones by the North Korean regime: the successful test of a missile that can reach the United States, and its reported ability to miniaturize a weapon for mounting on an ICBM.
The Ground-based Midcourse Defense system has met with mixed success. About half of its 19 tests since 1999 have failed, but the last two have been successful — including the most recent one, in May.
“Our commitment to the defense of our allies, including the Republic of Korea and Japan, in the face of these threats remains ironclad,” Maj. Brian Maguire, a StratCom spokesman, said in a statement released Thursday. “We remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies from any attack or provocation.”
Around the clock, in StratCom’s Global Operations Center underneath its Offutt headquarters, battle watch teams monitor a worldwide network of sea-, land- and space-based sensors designed to alert them instantly of incoming threats. If Kim launches something, they’ll be the first to know.
Public attention has been focused on North Korea as the rhetoric continues to heat up between Trump and the North Korean leader. Early in the week it was reported that U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded Kim could now fit a nuclear weapon on a missile.
On Tuesday, Trump improvised his “fire and fury” remarks during a meeting about the opioid epidemic, at his New Jersey golf retreat. Soon after, Kim lobbed back a threat to launch missiles at the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.
Trump’s comments drew criticism from world leaders and even members of his own party, including Arizona Sen. John McCain. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued statements trying to calm the situation.
But Friday, Trump ratcheted up the rhetoric again when he tweeted that U.S. military solutions were now “fully in place, locked and loaded” in case Kim should attack the U.S. or an ally. He later told reporters Kim “will truly regret it and he will regret it fast.”
Yet several local experts who spoke with The World-Herald said they don’t think Kim will act on his threats.
“What he’s doing is actually quite rational,” Obradovic said. “If you’re just trying to survive, just trying to preserve a horrible regime, then you need nuclear weapons.”
“He’s interested in maintaining power,” White said. “Launching a nuclear weapon at the United States will bring that to a quick end.”
Obradovic spent two years teaching at a university in South Korea. People there, she said, are accustomed to inflammatory rhetoric from the North.
“North Korea’s always been provocative,” Obradovic said.
White said Americans have lost perspective over the limited risk that Kim’s nukes pose here.
“In America we’re panicking because North Korea has nuclear weapons. But so, too, does China, and so does Russia,” White said. “The people in South Korea, they’re not freaking out about this.”
Maorong Jiang of Omaha knows something about the mindset of the North Korean people. He grew up in China in the 1960s and 1970s, when anti-Western propaganda was a big part of the culture. He grew up suspicious of Americans but later emigrated and is now a permanent U.S. resident as well as the director of the Asian World Center at Creighton University.
He’s also visited North Korea.
Jiang believes the U.S. should do more to reach out to the North Korean people. He said they know almost nothing of the United States except the propaganda fed to them by the Kim regime.
“We don’t do any work to help them know what it is like outside North Korea,” Jiang said.
Jiang said Kim has exploited the current turmoil in American politics over the Trump presidency and a U.S. policy toward North Korea that has been incoherent for years.
Jiang believes Trump could make inroads with Kim by showing him kindness and respect — something like he did in April, when he publicly described the North Korean leader as a “smart guy” who had overcome adversity to achieve his position at a young age.
That comment was derided by U.S. observers, but Jiang thinks the overture was the right move, though he said that it should have been made in private.
There are, and long have been, quiet ways for the U.S. and North Korea to talk when they need to, through a link in North Korea’s United Nations mission in New York.
“This is the right time to extend an olive branch,” he said. “Talk privately, with respect, only the U.S. and North Korea.”
Trump’s fiery rhetoric over the past week is almost certain to make things worse, Jiang said. It fails, he said, because it doesn’t frighten Kim or the North Korean people.
“The North Koreans are not afraid of dying for the glory of their country,” Jiang said.
But White said Kim and Trump seem to like the splash they make with their amped-up remarks.
“Both sides get a rhetorical bonus for saying these things,” White said. “It’s scary, and the stakes are very high.”
The U.S. and North Korea have been engaged in a war of words that has waxed and waned ever since the Korean War, which ended without resolution in 1953. It’s a story without an ending, at least not yet.
“This is an interesting episode,” Obradovic said. “I hope it’s just an episode.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized Maorong Jiang's citizenship status.