Nuclear strategy raises new questions about the security of critical communications networks

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The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review strikes an alarming tone on the state of the technology that makes up the nuclear command, control and communications system, known as NC3.

WASHINGTON — It’s a question that lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been asking the Pentagon for years: Are the command-and-control systems between the president and the nation’s nuclear forces totally secure and defendable from cyber or electronic attacks?

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review the Pentagon released on Friday says systems today remain “assured and effective” but the report warns of growing risks. The nuclear command and control networks that were on the cutting edge in the 1970s are now “subject to challenges from both aging system components and new, growing 21st century threats,” the NPR says. “Of particular concern are expanding threats in space and cyber space.”

The NPR strikes an alarming tone on the state of the technology that makes up the nuclear command, control and communications system, known as NC3.

The NC3 is a hodgepodge of hardware and software — warning satellites and radars; communications satellites, aircraft, and ground stations; fixed and mobile command posts; and the control centers for nuclear systems. The NPR says many of these systems use antiquated technology that has not been modernized in almost three decades.

Like other parts of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the NC3 networks have not kept up with the times. “The world looks different since the last NPR in 2010,” Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Friday at a Pentagon news conference. The nation’s nuclear deterrent has to be updated to meet a “challenging and dynamic security environment,” he said.

The commander of U.S. Strategic Command Gen. John Hyten has spoken about the urgency of the situation. “We have to modernize the entire architecture,” he said. “We need a 21st century information architecture.”

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that modernizing the NC3 will cost $58 billion over 10 years.

Any future actions to update the NC3 likely will have major implications for DoD satellite programs such as the Space Based Infrared System used for missile warning and communications systems such as the Military Strategic and Tactical Relay satellites and its replacement, the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites.

“Space is no longer a sanctuary and orbital space is increasingly congested, competitive and contested,” the NPR says. “A number of countries, particularly China and Russia, have developed the means to disrupt, disable, and destroy U.S. assets in space.”

In response to cyber threats, the United States will protect NC3 components and “ensure the continuing availability of U.S.-produced information technology necessary for the NC3 system,” the NPR says.

The report also calls for a review of the governance structure of the NC3 program, which is now managed by the U.S. Air Force.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will lead this review and will deliver to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis no later than May 1, 2018, a “plan to reform NC3 governance to ensure its effective functioning and modernization,” the NPR says.

The Air Force Global Strike Command now oversees the NC3 program, and the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center serves as the integrator of NC3 systems and manages acquisition programs.

Congressional auditors have watched this program for years. The Government Accountability Office has produced several reports pointing out a lack of progress in the modernization of NC3.

The commander of Global Strike Command Gen. Robin Rand in a November interview with the National Defense Industrial Association’s National Defense Magazine said NC3 is a “work in progress.” And it is a “very difficult challenge we have as we have allowed this system of systems to atrophy.”