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U.S. Stratcom isn't your father's Strategic Air Command

With jurisdiction from the bottom of the ocean to deep space, U.S. Strategic Command has its hands full in a very complex world. CNET Road Trip 2013 visited to better understand the mission.

The chapel at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb. is adorned with stained glass windows that reflect a half-century of U.S. Strategic Command's mission.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- The world is a very big place, but wherever there's a mission for the U.S. military, there's a role for the U.S. Strategic Command.

This is Stratcom, one of three American combatant commands, a place that does everything from running B-2 bombing raids over places like Libya to analyzing radiation fallout from the nuclear power plants in Japan that were crippled by 2011's earthquake and tsunami. From the depths of the oceans to 22,000 nautical miles into space, U.S. Strategic Command has jurisdiction.

As part of Road Trip 2013, I was invited to visit Stratcom headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base just south of Omaha. Its headquarters, which will soon be replaced by a billion-dollar super-modern facility on the base nearby, is hallowed ground for students of the Cold War, given that in an earlier incarnation, Stratcom had another identity: U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC), which was created in 1946 to oversee America's growing nuclear arsenal.

Stratcom's importance in today's military structure is signified in part by the fact that its commander, currently Gen. C. Robert Kehler, is nominated by the president of the United States and confirmed by Congress. The command's leadership reports only to the secretary of defense and the president.

Founded because of America's nuclear stand-off with the Russians, Stratcom (and its SAC predecessor) has been defined by three big events: the beginning of the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Daniel Terdiman

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Initially tasked with commanding nuclear bombers, SAC became a joint command when nuclear weapons became available to submarines, and it was necessary to synchronize operations between the Navy and the Air Force.

In 1992, with the end of the Cold War at hand, SAC was deactivated, and subsequently, U.S. Strategic Command stood up, the first time that all three legs of America's nuclear triad -- intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines, and strategic bombers -- were together under a single command. But with the 9/11 attacks, the old U.S. Stratcom was deactivated, and a brand-new Stratcom stood up, now also tasked with Homeland security missions. It also signified the merger of U.S. Stratcom and U.S. Space Command.

Today, then, Stratcom has a wide portfolio that includes missile defense; cyber warfare; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; information operations; targeting and analysis; global strike missile defense; joint electronic warfare; and combating the use and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

As part of that portfolio, Stratcom is responsible for deterring and defending against strategic attacks on American assets that might include ballistic missile strikes, cyber attacks, or those on American satellites. In other words, Stratcom has gone far beyond deterrence against the kinds of nuclear strikes that were the fear of everyone during the Cold War.

But Stratcom's priorities still revolve around potential nuclear attack. They begin with deterrence against nuclear attack through the maintenance of a secure, effective, nuclear deterrent force, Stratcom said. Stratcom also is tasked with working closely with America's other two combatant commands with the goal of winning in any kind of conflict or combat. And it must respond to the kinds of challenges that are emerging in an increasingly contested, competitive, and congested space environment. Additionally, it must build cyberspace capabilities and capacity. And finally, Stratcom must find ways to prepare for uncertainty. The idea is that while no one can prevent surprise, you can prepare for a wide range of potential scenarios by maintaining global situational awareness.

In recent years, Stratcom has spent much of its energy focusing on the ongoing attempts to keep terrorists from attacking American or allied assets. But it has also dealt with unexpected situations ranging from the Arab Spring to tensions in North Korea. And part of that involves reassuring America's allies in South Korea that they are protected against potential nuclear aggression from North Korea. Other missions have included running early bombing missions in Libya, working with the Chinese on combating cyber surprises, and planning contingencies related to the civil war in Syria. While it's too early to jump into action, Stratcom might oversee going into Syria and getting rid of stockpiles of WMDs in Syria if and when that conflict comes to an end.

Whether Gen. Curtis LeMay, who was the first SAC commander, would recognize the world's strategic environment today is unclear. After all, the Soviet Union doesn't exist anymore and the Russians are a nominal U.S. ally. Instead, we are more concerned with stateless terrorists and the potential that suicide attackers might strike us with nuclear bombs or other WMDs.

But what LeMay put in place that he would recognize today is a goal of being prepared for the unexpected and supporting the country's most senior military leaders, up to and including the president.

SAC may be no more, but its legacy definitely lives on, in a 1950s-era building well inside Offutt Air Force Base. It's been updated for the 21st century, but LeMay would likely feel confident that what he created is still there. Whether the world is safer today, Stratcom has never had a more important role to play in America's overall military plan.