Ambitious Exercise Program Keeps Stratcom Mission-ready
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb., April 16, 2013 U.S. Strategic Command’s exercise program, once focused solely on nuclear readiness and command and control, has gone global, now encompassing all its mission areas and crossing into every combatant command.
Stratcom exercises as it would fight, Patrick McVay, the command’s director of joint training exercises, told American Forces Press Service. That means integrating all the capabilities it could be called on to provide regional combatant commanders: space, cyber and ballistic missile defense capabilities, among them.
“We’d never do nuclear operations in a vacuum,” McVay said. “It is never going to be just nuclear. … It is going to be in space and in cyber, and we are going to have to use all our capabilities.”
Except in the event of the most devastating of conflicts -- engaging nuclear forces -- Stratcom would serve in a supporting role to a regional combatant command, McVay explained. But even those lines would quickly blur, he said, causing a ripple effect across the homeland and ultimately, the entire U.S. military and interagency.
“It is an interdependent world, and no combatant command is going to be fighting the fight on its own,” he said. “We are going to be interdependent, supporting and supported by one another.”
That recognition has transformed the command’s exercise program, now closely linked with those of U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Pacific Command, U.S. Southern Command, U.S. European Command, U.S. Africa Command, as well as U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Transportation Command.
All, McVay explained, understand the capabilities Stratcom would provide them in a conflict, and the need to establish the necessary relationships and procedures now.
“If something happens in an area of responsibility and the first time our commander talks to their commander about what their requirements are in a crisis, that is not an optimum situation,” he said.
“That’s why we do our exercise program with them: to establish those relationships and those linkages, so they can understand what our capabilities are and what Strategic Command brings to the fight in terms of space and cyber capabilities, [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and other support.”
Stratcom participates in nearly every major combatant command exercise, injecting intelligence-based scenarios to add realism, said Chris Real, chief of the command’s joint exercise division.
“All our exercises are based on real-life events, real-life actors, real-life capabilities and threats,” he said.
With increasing frequency, Stratcom also includes interagency operations into its exercises. “In the past, we focused only on the military part because we are a military organization,” Real said. “But in the real world, there is never a time when the military does anything on its own. It is always working with the State Department and other agencies and organizations and the whole-of-government, so we are working to replicate that in all our exercises.”
The goal is to ensure the exercise program provides “a dress rehearsal of everything we think we would do in a real crisis,” Real said. “That way, if something bad happens next week, we are more ready to do it, because we practiced everything as realistically as possible.”
While integrating these elements into its own exercises and the exercise support it provides other combatant commands, Stratcom maintains a stringent training schedule for its nuclear deterrence mission.
“That’s critical, because for this mission, every day is game day,” McVay said. “You can’t afford to mess that up, because the standard is perfection.”
Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, Stratcom’s commander, and his headquarters staff and component leaders rehearse nuclear operations scenarios daily, with McVay’s team working in unexpected twists to ensure they’re familiar with the latest procedures. The global operations center exercises its procedures several times a day as well.
“This is something that you practice and practice and practice all the time to make sure the command stays on top of the procedures,” McVay said. “The philosophy of the training is to maintain that edge every day.”
Two major annual exercises, Global Thunder and Global Lightning, test out capabilities across the nuclear enterprise, with bombers, submarines and land-based missiles participating.
Effective deterrence requires “having the capability to do what we say we will do” if attacked, McVay said, as well as the national will to use it.
“So if we let our nuclear capability atrophy or become unreliable, we lose that capability,” he said.
With its ambitious exercise program ensuring the command remains mission-ready, McVay said, Stratcom’s most important goal is to provide the deterrence that helps prevent conflict from breaking out.
“The optimum situation is that [Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, Stratcom commander] never has to fight this fight, [and] we don’t have to defend our space assets -- we don’t have to fight off a cyberattack, we don’t have to do a global strike against an adversary, we don’t have to conduct nuclear operations -- [and] instead, we deter an adversary from taking the steps that would result in that,” McVay said.
“That’s what strategic deterrence is all about, and the goal of everything we do here at U.S. Strategic Command,” he added.