The US Strategic Command (StratCom) kicked off its largest annual training exercise on October 30 with the commencement of Global Thunder 2018. The training event involves StratCom’s headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base as well as its many subordinate units around the world, such as missile and bomber wings. It encompasses all missions, including strategic deterrence, space operations, cyberspace operations, joint electronic warfare, global strike, missile defense and intelligence, and is expected to last for about 10 days.
The United States had warned Russia about Global Thunder in advance as required by the New START. Last week, Russia held a strategic nuclear forces’ exercise too. President Vladimir Putin personally took part in the event as the Supreme Commander in Chief. The tests included an ICBM, three submarine-launched ballistic missiles and “an unknown number” of air-launched cruise missiles.
Global Thunder typically occurs about this time every year. It is taking place in the period of immense tensions between the United States and North Korea as President Donald Trump is to visit US Asia Pacific allies, including South Korea and Japan, in early November.
The US military is also planning a military exercise involving three of the Navy’s aircraft carrier strike groups scheduled to take place near North Korea, while Mr. Trump is traveling through the Asia-Pacific region. He’ll be in South Korea on November 7-8. Pyongyang will undoubtedly interpret it as another provocative act. Visiting South Korea on October 28, US Defense Secretary James Mattis emphasized that the United States would never accept a nuclear North. In August, President Trump warned the North not to make any more threats against the United States, and said that if it did, it would be met with "fire and fury like the world has never seen." Despite the president’s warning the threats were made.
Global Thunder has certain background. Moscow has recently expressed its concern over the involvement of non-nuclear NATO states in joint missions during nuclear exercises in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
According to Alexander Grushko, Russia’s Ambassador to NATO, “We expressed our concern about the NATO continuing practice of involving non-nuclear states of the alliance in joint nuclear missions in violation of articles I and II of the NPT. This is also important in terms of compliance with the provisions of the Russia-NATO Founding Act, which remains one of the few pillars of material stability and security in Europe.”
Unlike Global Thunder, some exercises with nuclear scenarios are conducted by the US and its NATO allies without prior warnings. The example is Steadfast Noon held in October with Czech and Polish participation. The nuclear exercise had not been officially announced and the alliance was very tight-lipped about it because of the political sensitivity of this mission. The secrecy struck the eye. Only a few weeks before the training event, NATO complained that Russia was not being transparent about its Zapad exercise held in September. The forces practiced NATO’s nuclear strike mission with dual-capable aircraft (DCA) and the B61 tactical nuclear bombs the US deploys in Europe. It was the first time the Czech Republic took part sending its JAS-39 Gripen fighters. The Polish F-16s are nuclear-capable aircraft.
President Trump wants to ensure the US nuclear arsenal is at the “top of the pack.” He believes the United States has fallen behind in its weapons capacity. An ambitious and expensive program, estimated to take 30 years and cost upwards of $1 trillion dollars to upgrade and replace all three legs of its nuclear triad, is under consideration. Beyond constant upgrades of the existing nuclear systems, new weapons are designed to replace the current ones. The Navy is designing a new class of 12 SSBNs. The Air Force is examining a new mobile ICBM along with extending the service life of the Minuteman III currently in inventory. The service has begun development of a new, stealthy long-range bomber and a new nuclear-capable tactical fighter-bomber. A new long-range nuclear cruise missile is being developed to replace the current one. The production of B61-12, a new guided “standoff” nuclear bomb able to glide toward a target over a distance, is also underway.
A draft of the new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is being debated in Washington. According to the Guardian, “Among the new elements under consideration are a low yield warhead for a ballistic missile intended primarily to deter Russia’s use of a small nuclear weapon in a war over the Baltic states; a sea-launched cruise missile; a change in language governing conditions in which the US would use nuclear weapons; and investments aimed at reducing the time it would take the US to prepare a nuclear test”.
The plans include bringing back the nuclear Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missiles, which were dropped from the arsenal in 2013. It may mark a decisive end to the era of post-cold war disarmament. “You can … be assured that our administration is committed to strengthen and modernize America’s nuclear deterrent,” said Vice President Mike Pence on October 27, visiting Minot air force base in North Dakota, home to Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and B-52 strategic bombers. According to him, “History attests the surest path to peace is through American strength. There’s no greater element of American strength, there’s no greater force for peace in the world than the United States nuclear arsenal.”
There are signs that a new Cold War is in the air. For instance, the US Air Force is preparing to put nuclear-armed bombers back on 24-hour ready alert.
A future long-range, rapid-strike capability (Prompt Global Strike-PGS) is seen in the United States as a partial alternative to nuclear weapons for hitting important time-sensitive targets. The capability sought by Washington could allow US forces to conduct a non-nuclear strike against any location in the world in one hour or less. The appearance of such weapons may lower the nuclear threshold. Unlike strategic nuclear forces, the development of long-range conventional weapons is uncontrolled. No talks are held to address the problem.
With tensions running high, any exercise, especially a nuclear one, is risky. The failure of the US to warn Moscow as it should, in the case of Steadfast Noon, greatly increases mistrust.
Global Thunder is timed with the exercise scheduled to take place near North Korea and the trip of President Trump across the Asia Pacific. It’s hardly a coincidence.