Air Force Global Strike Command’s second decade in business will be a busy one.
Created in 2009 as Strategic Air Command’s post-Cold War replacement, Global Strike oversees the bulk of the Pentagon’s nuclear weapons and provides bomber aircraft for combat operations and deterrence flights around the world.
More than 70 years since a nuclear weapon was last used, and three decades after the Cold War ended, Global Strike is making changes to take on a new era of deterrence—one that spans not just nuclear assets but faster weapons and growing space, cyber, and electromagnetic spectrum concerns as well.
In a recent interview with Air Force Magazine, Global Strike Commander Gen. Timothy Ray discussed what the command is trying as it heads into the 2020s, facing a world in which Russia is not the standalone strategic concern for the US.
The command on Oct. 18 announced it had created a new, classified strategic plan to position itself for the coming decades, calling it the “largest redirection in the command’s 10-year history.”
“The need for a clear way ahead is more prevalent now than ever with the rising tensions between Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and transnational violent extremism, and the increase in our adversaries’ nuclear capabilities and innovations,” AFGSC said in a release. “This plan directly aligns command forces more closely with the 2018 National Defense Strategy.”
Among the roadmap’s nine overall goals is an effort to grow the services Global Strike can offer US Strategic Command, which oversees daily operations of nuclear forces, as its air component.
“I want to have the operational concepts and how we present the forces redone in the next six to nine months,” Ray said.
Global Strike and STRATCOM practiced what that might look like during Exercise Global Thunder earlier this fall, trying approaches that “have not been done since the Cold War ended” and—in some cases—offer more capability than the military had at that time, Ray said.
Global Thunder is an annual exercise where the US and allied nations like Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom train for conflict scenarios involving nuclear forces.
“We don’t have sanctuary in the United States based on lots of different threats,” Ray said. “We start thinking about hypersonics, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, submarines, space, and cyber, all those things will be a dimension of this. How do we operate with those particular challenges working against us? That’s probably been more relevant than we’ve done in a very long time.”
He added that the exercise incorporated newer aspects like space, cyber, and electronic warfare “probably more correctly,” but said the details are classified.
Global Strike is considering changes to how it supports STRATCOM as it prepares to bring on the B-21 bomber, Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent missiles, the Long-Range Standoff Weapon, refurbished B61 bombs, the MH-139 helicopter, and modern command-and-control technologies and aircraft in the next few decades. The command wants all those new assets to come together seamlessly so it can properly partner with STRATCOM.
Holistically thinking about that portfolio now “drives how we operate on a day-to-day basis, our command and control on a daily basis, and how the wings report and how they manage their alert force,” Ray said. “A few small changes for how we’re managing the schedule has given tremendous stability to the maintenance and security and operations teams.”
He acknowledged that the service can’t grow its bomber squadrons to the extent envisioned in the “Air Force We Need” plan. Even though the command is working through implementing its bomber roadmap now—with plans to retire the B-1 and B-2 so the B-52 can fly for 100 years alongside the new B-21—Ray said it’s imperative to think about the fleet in new ways, not just in numbers.
A recent report by the nonprofit research organization RAND Corp. argued that to successfully modernize its enterprise while facing financial and technological challenges, Global Strike needs to craft master plans for the transition between old and new missiles and bombers and to draw on the experience of older USAF groups like Air Combat Command.
“Nuclear-specific tasks related to testing and certification have not been performed at scale for many decades and will need to be relearned and revised for the current conditions,” the report said. “The sheer scale of the programs is daunting. And this ambitious set of programs will be fielded by [AFGSC], a relatively young command with a relatively small staff that has limited experience in fielding new systems.”
A workforce of about 34,000 people manages the nuclear enterprise, though that number will never be as big as the Air Force wants, Ray said. For a more productive and efficient staff, Global Strike is creating cross-functional teams that will focus on broad issues like modernization, sustainment, and human capital.
“Instead of it being a platform-by-platform discussion, talk about how we drive through this with enterprise partners and … be able to help ourselves across the board,” Ray said. Building combat readiness isn’t about making the flightline work harder, he said: “This is about moving the big levers of the enterprise.”
For example, Global Strike said a team of people from across the command, Defense Department, and federal government were able to drive down the cost of new weapons generation facilities that support bomber maintenance, training, and storage. The price of a B-52 facility dropped from $750 million to $229 million, and a B-21 facility fell from $580 million to $199 million, according to command spokeswoman Linda Frost.
“These facilities will be the backbone for the generation of Air Force combat lethality,” Frost said. “Modernized designs improve safety, security, and capability and meet the requirements for current and future weapons. Our goal is to have five bomber WGFs and with the reduction of costs, it allows for the right weapons generation footprint.”
Global Strike also hopes for a better future for its missileers and bomber crews. Its first decade was marred by a major operations test cheating scandal, periodic reports of drug use, and even several lost weapons.
Now, the Air Force is beefing up its nuclear education and leadership development, charting missileer career paths for Reservists, and trying to be mindful of operations stress, the need for a sense of purpose, and other health concerns. As the service tries to cut its suicide rate, Ray noted his command can draw on the knowledge of a nearby Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Louisiana.
“This plan encourages Strikers to know their part of the mission and execute it with the knowledge that their leaders, through the four-star level, has their back,” CMSgt. Charles Hoffman, Global Strike’s command chief, said in the release.