U.S. Strategic Command is one of nine unified commands under the Department of Defense (DoD). Headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, USSTRATCOM is responsible for strategic deterrence, global strike, and operating the Defense Department's Global Information Grid. It also provides a host of capabilities to support the other combatant commands, including strategic warning; integrated missile defense; and global command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR).
Established Oct. 1, 2002, USSTRATCOM has made many contributions to the national defense. For example, it has provided intelligence, planning and cyber support to coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. It monitors orbiting satellites and space debris, allowing high-value spacecraft like the International Space Station to maneuver and avoid collision. It has fielded systems to provide limited protection against ballistic missile attack. In February 2008, it destroyed a satellite that was about to re-enter the earth's atmosphere. In 2011, it supported U.S. Africa Command's operations against Libya in a variety of ways, including long-range conventional strikes and ISR. Today's USSTRATCOM is the product of an evolution from a nuclear command to a strategic one in the broadest sense-from an organization prepared to employ thermonuclear weapons in a general war (which it existed to prevent) to a command that creates a variety of global strategic effects day to day in support of national objectives. Its rich history draws on important contributions from many different organizations stretching back to World War II.
The missions most directly associated with USSTRATCOM and its predecessors are deterrence and global strike. These were the missions of Strategic Air Command (SAC) from 1946 to 1992 and of the first USSTRATCOM from 1992 to 2002. SAC was created in March 1946 as one of three major commands of the U.S. Army Air Forces and became a major command of the U.S. Air Force in September 1947. As a specified combatant command, it was also charged with conducting long-range strike operations under the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. SAC's second commander, Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, built it into a combat-ready force with a peak strength in the late 1950s and early 1960s of 3,200 aircraft and 280,000 people. In the 1960s, aircraft strength dropped, offset by a force of 1,054 intercontinental ballistic missiles. To deter attack, the command kept these missiles and a sizable proportion of its bombers and tankers on alert, ready to launch within minutes. To assure command and control, in February 1961 EC-135, "Looking Glass" airborne command posts began round-the-clock flight operations that continued until July 1990. (Navy E-6Bs replaced the EC-135s in 1998 and have performed a random mix of air and ground alert to this day. )
After the U.S. Navy began deploying "Polaris" ballistic missile submarines in the late 1950s, Navy and Air Force leaders agreed to create a Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS) that planned how all US nuclear forces would be used in wartime. JSTPS produced its first Single Integrated Operational Plan in 1961.
Though best known for its connection with the nuclear deterrent, SAC conducted conventional bombing operations during the Korean war, 1950-53; the Vietnam War, 1964-73; and the first Persian Gulf War, 1991. Meanwhile, SAC's reconnaissance aircraft monitored developments along the periphery of the communist world and at various hot spots and flash points.
On June 1, 1992, SAC and the JSTPS were replaced by a new unified command, USSTRATCOM. In addition to the dramatic changes in the global landscape associated with the end of the Cold War, changes in the structure of the DoD stemming from the 1986 "Goldwater-Nichols Act" led national leaders to favor a single command responsible for all strategic nuclear forces. The new command's principal mission was to deter military attack, especially nuclear attack, on the United States and its allies and, if deterrence failed, to employ nuclear forces.
As USSTRATCOM neared its tenth anniversary, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld revived an idea that had been considered several times before, a merger of U.S. Space Command and USSTRATCOM. America's military had begun operating in space in the late 1950s, with many of the early systems developed to meet SAC's needs for surveillance, warning, meteorology, and communications. By September 1985, space activities had grown to the point that the Pentagon created a new unified command, USSPACECOM, to oversee them. Space systems gave the coalition in Operation Desert Storm a decisive edge, while later operations in the Balkans, Southwest Asia, Afghanistan and Iraq relied heavily on space-based command and control, communications, surveillance and intelligence, navigation, and weather systems. Secretary Rumsfeld's initiative to merge the two commands led to the creation of the current USSTRATCOM in 2002.
Two other missions took on increasing importance in the new century: missile defense and operations in cyberspace. Work on missile defenses began in the late 1940s. By the mid-1970s, the U.S. had begun to deploy a "Safeguard" system, only to have Congress cancel it soon after it was operational. President Ronald Reagan renewed efforts in 1983 with his Strategic Defense Initiative, which sought to defend the U.S. from large-scale attacks by the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War caused a reorientation of the program; the new emphasis was on theater defenses and protection against small strikes. By September 2004, the U.S. had deployed a limited, layered system that offered some protection to North America and had opened discussions about extending the system to cover allies.
The U.S. military's reliance on computer networks grew exponentially in the 1980s and 1990s. National leaders took steps to protect defense networks in 1998, creating a Joint Task Force for Computer Network Defense and assigning it to USSPACECOM. In April 2001, the task force's mission expanded to include computer network attack, and it was renamed Joint Task Force-Computer Network Operations. The task force became part of USSTRATCOM in October 2002; it was renamed Joint Task Force-Global Network Operations (JTF-GNO) in 2004. The network attack mission transferred in 2003 to a new organization, which evolved into the Joint Functional Component Command-Network Warfare (JFCC-NW) in January 2005.
A new attack led to further reorganization. A malicious code, which would allow an adversary to download critical defense information, spread across the DoD's classified and unclassified networks in 2008. As JTF-GNO synchronized efforts to disinfect and protect over 2.5 million computers in 3,500 DoD organizations spanning 99 countries, Defense Secretary Robert Gates endorsed the idea of a new sub-unified command under USSTRATCOM that would recombine offensive and defensive computer network operations. Established 21 May 2010, U.S. Cyber Command was fully operational on Oct. 31, 2010. JTF-GNO and JFCC-NW were disestablished.
Today, USSTRATCOM supports operations worldwide, sharing its broad portfolio of capabilities with the other combatant commands, while maintaining the readiness of the nation's nuclear deterrent.
(Current as of January 2017)