Inside Stratcom on September 11: Offutt Exercise Took Real-L

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Inside Stratcom on September 11: Offutt Exercise Took Real-L

Postby admin » Sat Nov 04, 2017 5:48 am

Inside Stratcom on September 11: Offutt Exercise Took Real-Life Twist
by Joe Dejka
February 27, 2002
Copyright 2002 The Omaha World-Herald Company

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When terrorists struck America on September 11, U.S. bombers were sitting gassed up on the ground, armed with nuclear weapons, as part of an annual war exercise.

The goal of the exercise: test the U.S. Strategic Command's ability to fight a nuclear war.

One aspect of the exercise, called Global Guardian, involved loading nuclear weapons onto airplanes. The airplanes did not, however, take off with the weapons onboard, according to briefers at the Strategic Command's headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue.

Global Guardian is one of many "practice Armageddons," as they sometimes are called, that the U.S. military stages to test its readiness. That the exercise was, according to briefers, "in full swing" at the time the United States came under attack is at least an odd coincidence.

After keeping details of the day quiet for months, StratCom briefers last week provided members of the news media with information about the goings-on in the command headquarters that day.

Another part of the Global Guardian exercise put three military command aircraft packed with sophisticated communications equipment in the air.

The three E-4B National Airborne Operations Center planes, nicknamed "Doomsday" planes during the Cold War, are based at Offutt.

The airplanes give top government officials alternative command posts from which to direct U.S. forces, execute war orders and coordinate actions by civil authorities in times of national emergency.

Aboard one of the three planes was the Federal Advisory Committee, whose chairman is retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft. The plane had been dispatched to bring committee members to Offutt to observe Global Guardian.

Military authorities canceled the exercise after the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, but all three of the E-4Bs remained in the air.

The attacks on that Tuesday morning occurred as a tour group was preparing to visit StratCom's underground command center, Offutt briefers said.

The visitors were in town for the ninth annual Buffett Classic golf tournament, scheduled to get under way that day. The event raises money for children's charities and attracts high-powered business and news media people from around the country.

Some of the visitors already were at StratCom, having breakfast with then-commander in chief Adm. Richard Mies.

The group was scheduled to tour the center and receive an unclassified mission briefing.

When the plane hit the second World Trade Center tower, Mies had to excuse himself from the group.

Staff members had left the command center in anticipation of the tour group's visit. When the tour was canceled, the battle staff reconvened in the center.

Base security went to its highest level.

All eight giant video screens in the command center were loaded up with data, providing Mies the latest information on the unfolding drama as well as information on the status of America's strategic forces involved in the exercise.

Although StratCom staff received word earlier in the day that President Bush might come to Offutt during the crisis, actual confirmation came only 20 minutes before his arrival, briefers said.

The president first spent about 20 minutes in the command center, where StratCom staff used the video screens to bring him up to date on the attacks and their aftermath.

StratCom briefers described Bush as "very collected" and concerned during the briefing.

Then Bush went to another room in the headquarters, the Joint Intelligence Center, where he conducted a multichannel video conference with members of the National Security Council.

StratCom briefers declined to comment further on the president's visit.

The Washington Post produced the following account of Bush's time at Offutt based on interviews with the president, his top aides and other government officials:

Shortly after arriving at Offutt at 1:50 p.m., Bush told his highest-ranking Secret Service agent that he wanted to return to Washington as soon as possible.

As Bush arrived in the command center, staff there were tracking a commercial airliner on its way from Spain to the United States. It was giving out an emergency signal, indicating that it might have been hijacked.

Bush remembered a voice booming out from a loudspeaker. "Do we have permission to shoot down this aircraft?"

"Make sure you've got the ID," the president responded. "You follow this guy closely to make sure."

It was a false alarm.

At 2:30 p.m., Bush convened the National Security Council via secure video links from various command centers in Washington.

During the meeting, CIA Director George Tenet reported that he was virtually certain that Osama bin Laden and his network were behind the attacks.

Tenet said al-Qaida was the only terrorist organization in the world that had the capability to pull off such well-coordinated attacks. Intelligence monitoring, he said, had overheard a number of known bin Laden operatives congratulating each other after the strikes.

The council discussed whether it was safe for Bush to return to Washington and if banks, airlines and the Pentagon should continue business as usual the next day.

As the meeting was ending, Bush said: "We will find these people. They will pay. And I don't want you to have any doubt about it."

He boarded Air Force One, and it took off from Offutt at 3:36 p.m.

GRAPHIC: Color Photos/2 President Bush, center, conducts a video conference with members of the National Security Council while at Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue on September 11. Next to Bush at the table are White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, left, and Adm. Richard Mies. Air Force One, carrying President Bush, leaves Offutt Air Force Base after a stop during the terrorist crisis of Sept.
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