Three takeaways from the CISAC Visit to USSTRATCOM

On May 14 and 15, 2018, many of the CISAC fellows were lucky enough to visit the United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska. USSTRATCOM oversees strategic deterrence on multiple fronts, including nuclear weapons, missile defense, and, until recently, cyber-attacks. This trip was only the latest iteration of a longstanding relationship between CISAC and USSTRATCOM to foster research and debate on deterrence, assurance, and nuclear security

Our visit involved several highlights. General John Hyten, Commander of USSTRATCOM, took time out of his schedule to speak with us during breakfast on the first day. We were briefed on the global mission and history of USSTRATCOM, strategic planning, laws of armed conflict, nuclear modernization, and cybersecurity. The fellows were also able to visit the Global Operations Center and Battle Deck, where many of USSTRATCOM’s most important day-to-day functions take place. Several CISAC fellows (including me) had the opportunity to brief both military and civilian members of USSTRATCOM on a range of issues spanning from nuclear terrorism to the proliferation of offensive cyber capabilities to the domestic politics of American citizens’ growing perception (now at a historic high) of national decline.

I walked away from the experience with three strong impressions.

First, USSTRATCOM is populated with thoughtful individuals who have deeply sober attitudes about the devastating impact of using nuclear weapons. Each person we met was committed to ensuring the nation’s security but emphasized how seriously they took the notion of nuclear conflict and how they all sought never to prevent conflicts from reaching that point.

Second, I was struck by how everyone at USSTRATCOM was open to discussing new or provocative ideas. During our breakfast, General Hyten called upon one of the fellows working on Russian nuclear doctrine. It was clear that he was aware of the fellow’s work and disputed its conclusion. The two conversed about their differing views for several minutes before agreeing to disagree. Another one of our fellow’s briefings focused on the origins of the recent United Nations treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Her talk drew some skepticism, but also many questions and generated a very civil discussion. USSTRATCOM invited us to speak, took our arguments seriously, and sought to understand any viewpoint that they felt could be valuable.

Third, and lastly, there is enormous need and potential to continue building connections between the military (or government more broadly) and the academic community. Visiting USSTRATCOM highlighted how scholars who study security may not fully grasp the realities behind how to effect and maintain it. This might lead to academic work that tends to be unrealistic or too reductive. Conversely, both military and civilian members of USSTRATCOM may be so engrossed in addressing specific problems that they sometimes miss the forest for the trees or overlook fallacies in their strategic logic. This could result in policies that have unintended and, given USSTRATCOM’s purview, severe consequences. Collaboration between these two worlds is perhaps the best tool we have for solving both problems simultaneously. The potential ramifications are too important not to do so.

Eric Min is a Zukerman Postdoctoral Fellow in Social Sciences at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, where he also obtained his Ph.D. in Political Science. His research focuses on the application of text analysis, machine learning, and statistical methods to analyze the dynamics of conflict and diplomacy. Starting in the fall of 2018, he will be an Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles. He can also be found on Twitter