Op-ed | COVID-19’s lesson for nuclear detonation warning

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You are driving on the highway when, without warning, there is a bright flash that fills the sky. Thirty seconds later there is a thunderous explosion. Traffic on the highway quickly comes to a standstill. Radio broadcast and cellular communications cease. However, an app in your smartphone immediately informs you of a ground-level nuclear detonation in the city. A short time later, the same app is advising you to set out on foot to avoid radioactive fallout that will arrive at your location in about an hour. You and thousands of others receiving this information are spared radiation poisoning.

Unfortunately, if this scenario played out today, information to those in the path of the fallout would probably be delayed. The consequences of delayed public warnings would be devastating, just as it has been in the case of the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19’s lesson for nuclear detonation warning is that satellite-based nuclear detonation detection broadcasts must be declassified now so that in the future they can be received directly by cellphones in time to save lives.

The real-life nuclear threat

The scenario above is based on a 2016 Department of Homeland Security planning guide, which describes a 10-kiloton improvised nuclear weapon being detonated by terrorists. It assumes that there will be limited operational federal response at the scene for the first 72 hours and that the blast and heat from the detonation will compromise much of the local response capability. But is a nuclear attack realistic?

Data from the Correlates of War Project provides evidence that a war occurs somewhere in the world about every other year and that for each war there is a 20%, 6%, and 1.5% chance that the involved nations will suffer more than 10,000, 100,000, and 1 million deaths, respectively. Nuclear weapons are a means to achieve these levels of violence. Thus, whether it is terrorism or state-sponsored, nuclear attack seems credible.

Don’t try to walk a line

The coronavirus pandemic has amplified three important truths about global disasters.First, emergency response capabilities need to be ready when prevention fails. Second, early detection enables an effective response. During the pandemic, this is often referred to as “testing, testing, testing.” Third, and most important, governments must share detection information with the public. On April 15, The Associated Press reported that “China’s attempt to walk a line between alerting the public and avoiding panic set the stage for a pandemic that has infected more than 2 million people and taken more than 133,000 lives.”

The U.S. Nuclear Detonation (NUDET) Detection System (USNDS) is a space-based system designed to provide unambiguous, timely, accurate, and continuous information of a nuclear attack and situational awareness of high-altitude nuclear explosion impacts to national, defense, civil, and commercial satellites. USNDS sensors onboard GPS satellites flood the Earth’s surface with detection data in the same frequency band as GPS navigation signals. Unlike GPS data, however, USNDS transmissions are encrypted because they are still treated as classified. For the public to receive alerts from USNDS today, they must first be decrypted by military systems and shared with civil warning systems through centralized operations centers.

Unhardened public broadcast systems, however, are likely to be damaged or too overwhelmed to effectively distribute alerts that originate from USNDS during an actual crisis. In 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System conducted the third in a series of nationwide Emergency Alert System Tests. Participants of the test reported overall that only 41.9% of the messages were received “due to the traffic load approaching or exceeding the maximum load capacity of one of the FEMA data centers.” If this is the result during an exercise, imagine how poorly the system might perform during an actual nuclear attack. It may be the intent to promptly share USNDS detection information with the public during an attack, but it seems likely that there will not actually be the means to do so. Gambling that the system will work, despite signs that it won’t, is also going to look like an attempt to walk a line if and when there is an actual nuclear detonation.

Half measures will not be enough

Because USNDS data is still classified, the telecommunications industry has not yet had an opportunity to miniaturize the components to fit within handheld devices like it has done for GPS. That process takes years. What should fit on a tiny chip inside a cellphone, USNDS receivers are tractor-trailer sized — so big they barely fit in the nation’s largest transport aircraft — cost millions of dollars each and are few in number. According to a USAF Acquisition Annual Report, the program only just delivered ground systems 2 through 4 in fiscal year 2018.

Slow delivery of expensive and outdated technology is a symptom of a much more serious problem. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Defense Department released its 2018 Inspector General report about the USNDS space segment. The redacted report concludes that a “lack of an established and empowered governance body contribute to the risk of potential mission failure.” This finding parallels that of a redacted 2015 DoD IG report about the Integrated Tactical Warning and Attack Assessment’s mobile ground system, which includes the USNDS ground trailers. Lack of governance in these cases is not random. It is the systematic result of there being almost no incentive for the responsible agencies to work with each other to manage a system that is expensive, difficult to procure, classified, and does not actively do anything for anyone except create false alarms. Failures will continue unless this issue is addressed. The only way forward is to apply the GPS model.

Most people do not know that just like USNDS, GPS was originally a classified military system. It was not until the shooting down of Korean Air flight 007 in 1983, after it inadvertently strayed into Soviet airspace, that the Reagan administration first authorized limited public access to GPS telemetry. Later, the Clinton administration declassified all GPS navigation data. With open access to GPS telemetry, the telecommunications industry made possible everyday use of the system by reducing the cost, size, and power needs of receivers. Years later, virtually every cellphone is equipped with a GPS receiver. And because it now serves the public, the management of GPS is under greater scrutiny to assure that the capability is maintained and improved. While it was counterintuitive at the time, these decisions also led to GPS having a higher military utility.

Nuclear detonation detection information from the USNDS is continuously broadcast to the entire surface of the Earth from GPS satellites, just like navigation data that is received by your smartphone. However, USNDS data remains encrypted because the U.S. government still considers the information classified, which was the case for GPS navigation data before 1983. Credit: Lockheed Martin artist’s concept

Peacetime use of USNDS telemetry will also put pressure on the responsible agencies to manage it properly. If made public, USNDS could provide life-saving information during different types of emergencies, not just nuclear attack. The electromagnetic pulses emitted by certain types of lightning strikes can be detected by USNDS to determine the exact position and strength of a thunderstorm, supercell, or eye of a hurricane. We can track hurricanes today, but because direct transmissions from USNDS satellites are all-weather and globally available, anyone in the world would have immediate and unfettered access to this information even when public power and communications are out and in the most remote or impoverished locations. Another peacetime application of USNDS sensors is monitoring the space environment. These sensors can warn of conditions dangerous to commercial satellites or capable of bringing down parts of the electrical grid. Just as it happened for GPS, a new industry will be created from companies competing to make the best cellphone applications using these data.

Priorities for the new U.S. Space Force

Daniel Baker, the director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, reminded us recently of the devastating effects that a 1962 high-altitude nuclear tests had on satellites at the time and warned that the impact could be more severe today due to the greater number of satellites and their reliance on “soft” technology. What prompted his remarks were interagency disagreement amid reassessments of requirements that for the first time in 50 years might cause the U.S. to “not have the eyes in the sky to monitor such threatening nuclear events.” Preserving these capabilities is linked to White House and congressional priorities and ought to be priorities for the new U.S. Space Force.

One priority is described in an Executive Order about the nation’s resilience to Electromagnetic Pulse. EMP accompanying a high-altitude nuclear strike will test the survivability of networked communications. The military may continue to operate with hardened systems, those built to withstand nuclear effects, but unhardened networks that are too congested or destroyed will maroon the public and private sectors. During peacetime, these capabilities can help discern manmade EMP from geomagnetic disturbances, which can also cause power and communications outages. Whether the source is natural or manmade, open access to USNDS can provide a high degree of resiliency to the effects of EMP that are not limited to military systems.

The other priority arises from the 2018 false alarm in Hawaii, which prompted concerns about how federal, state, and local authorities work together to inform the public about possible attack. Section 1756 of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act affirms that “the authority to originate an alert warning the public of a missile launch directed against a State using the public alert and warning system shall reside primarily with the Federal Government” but asked the Department of Homeland Security to examine how to do this while concurrently alerting a states so that it may activate related protective action plans. One way to do this would be for the Space Force to deliver warnings directly to citizens and state officials simultaneously. After cellphones start incorporating USNDS data, Space Force could work with DHS to provide a smartphone application that minimize false alarms and that operates in concert with state and local systems.

The Space Force will need to be creative if it is to succeed in maintaining USNDS capabilities it inherited from Space Command and that it needs for its important mission. Improper classification of data that should otherwise be public is both a drain on the government and a loss of a potential resource. Space Force Vice Commander Lt. Gen. David Thompson put it this way: “Part of the culture that we grew up with that we need to change was that desire to deeply hold and deeply protect secrets related to space.” He said that a “new much more transparent era” and “need to move out in a coalition environment” are reasons to retool existing classification regimes for the force going forward. The COVID-19 crisis points to at least one other reason: saving lives.

The bottom line

What coronavirus is teaching us, more than anything, is that rapid public release of detection data is critical to mitigating a global disaster. Nuclear detonation detection information from the USNDS is continuously broadcast to the entire surface of the Earth from GPS satellites, just like navigation data that is received by your smartphone. However, USNDS data remains encrypted because the U.S. government still considers the information classified, which was the case for GPS navigation data before 1983. The U.S. government should do exactly what it did for GPS, declassify the information and stop encrypting broadcast telemetry so that cellphone makers can, in the service of their own interests and at virtually no cost to the government, begin to incorporate specialized electronics in cellphones to receive and process the data. Doing so will save lives, not just as a result of a nuclear attack, but also resulting from other natural disasters associated with a loss of power and communications or in places that are remote or impoverished.


Vaughn H. Standley is the Department of Energy faculty chair at the National Defense University. The author’s opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Defense Department or any other agency of the U.S. Federal Government.

This article originally appeared in the May 11, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.