At a time when the world is increasingly jittery about nuclear conflict, U.S. Strategic Command spent much of the past two weeks in an exercise preparing for one.
From Feb. 7 to Feb. 16 StratCom was the maestro conducting Global Lightning 17, an annual command-and-control exercise that also involved several other major U.S. military commands, U.S. government agencies and major international allies.
During the exercise, StratCom and its military partners simulate a conflict with a foreign power, though the details remain secret.
“We don’t know very much about the nitty-gritty,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s sort of a string of activities, emanating out of StratCom to the other combatant commands.”
Over the years, Global Lightning has expanded to include non-nuclear missions that have been added to the StratCom portfolio, such as cyberwarfare, space warfare, joint electronic warfare and missile defense.
“The threats we face today are just as real as they were in the past but are more complex in this interconnected information age,” Gen. John Hyten said in a statement. “Exercises such as Global Lightning provide our combined forces an opportunity to train as we would fight in a real-world situation.” Hyten was leading his first major exercise since taking command of StratCom in November.
During the exercise, a Trident submarine test-launched four Trident II D5 missiles off the Pacific coast. An ICBM also was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
The real world intruded on the exercise Feb. 11 after North Korea test-fired its own missile from the northwestern city of Kusong into the Sea of Japan. North Korean missile launches are tracked in StratCom’s underground command post, which also was the nerve center for Global Lightning.
The exercise was conducted at the same time as the U.S. European Command’s Austere Challenge 17, a simulation that tested command coordination in a fictional scenario involving European security.
Kristensen said the exercise would have practiced scenarios that were adjusted at the request of the White House in 2013. Those adjustments allow some missiles to be aimed in different ways, depending on the scenario, and allow the deployment of fewer weapons.
“It’s much more flexible than the (plans) that were there before,” Kristensen said.
Great Britain was among the U.S. allies who joined in the mission. In a statement released by StratCom, Royal Navy Commodore Paul Burke said the exercise had improved since he last observed it four years ago, with other nations playing a bigger role.
“The exercise has always been forward-leaning, but now it’s really showing how we need to integrate and how we need to work, if we ever go to war, together.”