WASHINGTON — The Pentagon projects to spend over a trillion dollars in the coming decade on a new generation of nuclear bombers, submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles that collectively are known as the nuclear triad.
“But the triad is more than a triad,” said Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration.
Everyone talks about the vehicles and the weapons, and it’s easy to forget other “vital” components of nuclear modernization, such as the early warning network, and the communications, command and control systems, Weinstein said on Tuesday at a Mitchell Institute event on Capitol Hill.
All of that is entirely dependent on space, he said. “The triad also means space capability.”
Weinstein elaborated: “We need the capability of early warning satellites to know what is going on. We need an unblinking eye to find out what is going on. That unblinking eye is provided by space. We need the capability of military communications, secure military communications satellites, EMP [radiation] hardened communications.”
The classified communications network that keeps the president connected to military forces during a nuclear event — known as NC3 for nuclear command, control and communications — has not “historically been put in the triad but is vital for our defense,” said Weinstein.
The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review called out NC3 as a system badly in need of modernization, and directed the Joint Staff to consider a new governance structure for the program, now overseen by the Air Force Global Strike Command.
Protecting satellites and signals from jamming or hacking is taking on outsized importance, said the Nuclear Posture Review, as China and Russia are developing means to disrupt and disable U.S. assets in space.
“I can talk all day about the importance of NC3,” said Weinstein. “The president has to communicate with forces. We need command posts that can take over those missions. Then you need the processes and procedures so that crew members know that a message is authentic and valid,” he said. “That is foundational to this nuclear force.”
The Joint Staff review of NC3 was due to be presented to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis May 1. U.S. Strategic Command’s Gen. John Hyten also has been closely involved in the review as he is responsible for defining the requirements of the system.
The NC3 includes warning satellites and radars; communications satellites, aircraft, and ground stations; fixed and mobile command posts; and the control centers for nuclear systems. The Nuclear Posture Review said many of these systems use antiquated technology that has not been modernized in almost three decades.
There are central questions that need to be answered, said Weinstein. “What should that future architecture look like? We are modernizing systems now and need to make sure we have connectivity into AEHF satellites.” AEHF are classified communications satellites that can be used for both conventional and nuclear missions.
The Air Force has programs under way to modernize communications and early-warning satellites. How these future constellations will be integrated with NC3 is one piece of the enormously complex architecture.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that modernizing the NC3 will cost $58 billion over 10 years.
Hyten said modernizing the NC3 is critical because a decade from now the Pentagon will start rolling out the next generation of nuclear bombers, missiles and submarines whose command and control systems most certainly will not be compatible with a network designed in the 1960s.
The future ground-based leg of the triad — known as the ground-based strategic deterrence — will be a network of 400 missile silos that require redundant and assured communications. The current Minuteman 3 nuclear missile silos are spread across three Air Force bases and connected by 30,000 miles of copper wire buried deep beneath the ground. It’s highly reliable but low bandwidth communications.
The contractors that are competing for the potentially $50 billion to $60 billion GBSD program — Boeing and Northrop Grumman — have to come up with options for upgrading communications for cyber security but also to improve Air Force crews’ quality of life in their underground bunkers.
Weinstein said the Air Force is increasing the cyber and space-related portion of the curriculum for officers in the nuclear career field. “We need a next generation of leaders that can talk about this,” he said of the broader policy and technology issues associated with nuclear modernization. “The atrophy that happened a few years ago when we weren’t modernizing the nuclear force, when we did that there was a lack of strategic thinking,” Weinstein said. “Human capital development is more important than when you just talk about things.”
The training of the force is not a concern, he said. “We know how to train people. I’m talking about educating the workforce, civilians too,” he added. “Everyone in the U.S. Air Force needs to understand the value of the nuclear force, just like everyone in the U.S. Air Force needs to understand the value of the space force. … Strategic deterrence in the 21st century is more than just nuclear. It’s space, cyber and conventional.’