OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. — Late on Thursday afternoon, Gen. John Hyten was sitting at the head of a conference table talking to reporters who had accompanied Defense Secretary James Mattis to the headquarters of U.S. Strategic Command.
Eight minutes into the discussion, an aide interrupted the STRATCOM commander. “Is there something going on?” Hyten asked.
“Yeah,” another aide replied.
Hyten politely clarified his answer to a previous question, shook a few hands, and left the room. Less than an hour later, reports emerged North Korea had fired another missile, its 11th since May and the first since being slapped with U.N. sanctions earlier this week.
At STRATCOM, North Korea’s missile launches have become a common occurrence, military officials here said. About an hour before Hyten was whisked from the room, a military official recalled that a launch in August had caused another group of visitors to be quickly removed from the command’s Global Operations Center, more than 60 feet underground.
It just so happened that Thursday’s launch happened as Mattis was visiting STRATCOM, the command here that oversees America’s nuclear weapons arsenal — and tracks every North Korean missile launch.
About an hour after the launch, Mattis, and the small group of reporters traveling with him, were back at his hotel in the Omaha suburbs.
“We’re very practiced on this,” the secretary said. “It was nothing novel to our ability to observe and orient ourselves.” But the launch “sent millions of Japanese into duck-and-cover” as it passed over the country before landing in the Pacific Ocean, Mattis said.
Earlier on Thursday, Army Col. Ray Hernandez, the battle watch commander in the Global Operations Center, stood in the middle of a room full of computers, massive projection screens on the wall and boxy telephones — some with more than 100 buttons — explaining how the facility would respond to a North Korean missile launch, or a nuclear war. There are still relics here of the Cold War, like digital clocks on the wall that would count down the time remaining before an enemy nuclear weapon detonated in the U.S., or a U.S. weapon struck an enemy. Under that, there’s another clock that displays the time the STRATCOM commander has to safely escape the ops center if a nuclear missile was inbound. The commander would run up a stairway into a waiting vehicle that would rush to a nearby E-6B aircraft equipped with an airborne version of the underground command center.
The E-6B aircrew can talk to, and launch, ICBMs in silos across the northern U.S. and from submarines. Just down the road from the STRATCOM headquarters, one of these planes sat on alert Thursday, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. The crew — a mix of Navy, Air Force, Army and Marine Corps officers — regularly practices for they call “the worst day in American history.”
“When you’re all drinking a beer on Saturday, I’ll be on this plane practicing for nuclear war,” said Army Brig. Gen. Greg Bowen, the command’s deputy director of global operations.
Launches like Thursday’s are quickly detected by satellites, and the news relayed to the command center. But since North Korea is experimenting with different kinds of missiles in various types of configurations, it usually takes time to figure out the specific type that was launched, Hernandez said.
“That’s a very hard thing to do, especially with North Korea,” he said.
The battle center here coordinates with U.S. Northern Command — which would attempt to shoot down a missile heading toward the the United States — and other military commands around the world.
“The collaboration across all of our commands from Korea and Hawaii to Washington went smoothly,” Mattis said of Thursday’s launch. “It’s just a reminder that we can do this from any location, wherever I’m at be it an airplane, STRATCOM, in Washington, D.C., literally in a hotel room we have the connections and the displays of data that allow us to do this. It was just a confirmation that we’re in a good stance to never be caught by surprise.”