WASHINGTON — The classified communications system that keeps the president connected to military forces during a nuclear event is being reviewed amid concerns that the technology is outdated and there is no clear plan to modernize it.
“Discussions are taking place at the secretary of defense and chairman levels,” said Gen. Robin Rand, commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command.
Global Strike Command currently is in charge of the Air Force’s portion of the nuclear command, control and communications system, or NC3. The Air Force today is responsible for about 70 percent of the 62 air, space and ground systems that make up the NC3 and collectively provide secure, survivable and resilient communications for the president to issue nuclear orders.
What, if any, changes will be made to the NC3 organization is still unknown. During an Air Force Association event on Wednesday, Rand said he is not “completely privy” to the details of the ongoing review.
The effort is led by the director of operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Strategic Command. “STRATCOM will have a heavy role,” Rand said.
As of today, he said, “I continue to work within the governance that we have right now.” Rand is scheduled to retire this summer after more than 39 years of service.
The Air Force management of the NC3 has come under criticism. In a report last summer, the Government Accountability Office said the Air Force was making upgrades to the system “but it has not yet focused on long-term NC3 needs.”
The issue caught the attention of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. In the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review Mattis called for a review of the governance structure of the NC3 program and directed the Joint Staff to submit by May 1 a “plan to reform NC3 governance to ensure its effective functioning and modernization.”
Joint Staff spokesman Maj. Will Powell said the review is proceeding on schedule. “The Joint Staff is leading a planning team consisting of DoD NC3 subject matter experts and stakeholders in an effort to review and make recommendations on improvements to NC3 governance,” Powell said in a statement to SpaceNews. “Current planning efforts are on track to provide recommendations to the Secretary of Defense by May 1.”
The Nuclear Posture Review raised alarms about the state of the NC3 system. 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 said. “Of particular concern are expanding threats in space and cyber space.”
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 NPR said many of these systems use antiquated technology that has not been modernized in almost three decades.
Ensuring the security of satellites that support classified nuclear communications and missile warning is a major concern because they are also used by the military in day-to-day operations. Some are specific to the nuclear mission, but most support both nuclear and conventional missions.
“Space is no longer a sanctuary and orbital space is increasingly congested, competitive and contested,” the NPR said. “A number of countries, particularly China and Russia, have developed the means to disrupt, disable, and destroy U.S. assets in space.”
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that modernizing the NC3 will cost $58 billion over 10 years.
The commander of U.S. Strategic Command Gen. John Hyten told SpaceNews in a interview last month that he is spending a lot of time dealing with the future of NC3.
“This is an old system,” he said. But by virtue of being old and of being a “closed network” it’s also less vulnerable to cyber attacks than modern digital systems that are connected to the internet.
“It’s very resilient against threats, and I’m very confident it can handle anything today,” Hyten said. The problem is what happens a decade from now when the Defense Department starts rolling out the next generation of nuclear bombers, missiles and submarines. “They all are going to come in with a new command-and-control architecture” and will not be compatible with a communications network designed in the 1960s. “They will have modern technology and have to plug into the new NC3 architecture,” Hyten said. “I’m spending a lot of time now to make sure we understand, as we move into this new architecture, what it needs to do and can it still be cyber secure?”
Mattis has shown high interest in this program. When he visited Hyten in September at STRATCOM headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, “we probably spent half a day talking NC3,” Hyten said. “We’re going to have a plan this year.”