Report: Updating the military’s nuclear communications systems a complex and expensive challenge

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Early warning and communications satellites that support the NC3 system are vulnerable to electronic attacks and interference.

WASHINGTON — A new report released on Thursday on Capitol Hill makes the case for billions of dollars in investments in the nation’s nuclear command, control and communications network known as NC3.

The report was co-produced by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute and the MITRE Corporation. It cautions that while the United States is investing in a new generation of nuclear missiles, submarines and bombers, it will lack a “credible nuclear deterrent if it does not also possess a nuclear command and control system that provides ‘no fail’ communications to nuclear forces in a future environment that will include unique threats and challenges.”

MITRE senior vice president William LaPlante, one of the authors of the report, said the NC3 system today works fine but it needs to transition to a new architecture so it can be integrated with the cutting-edge nuclear platforms that the Pentagon is developing such as the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine and the B-21 stealth bomber. The problem essentially is that these are 21st century weapon systems whereas NC3 still uses technology from the 1970s.

The NC3 system includes warning satellites and radars; communications satellites, aircraft, and ground stations; fixed and mobile command posts; and the control centers for nuclear systems.

The report says the early warning and communications satellites that support the NC3 system are vulnerable to electronic attacks and interference. Satellite constellations such as the Space Based Infrared System and the Defense Support System are the basic tactical warning systems of the NC3 enterprise. The 1970s-vintage DSP satellites will be out of service in a few years. The newer SBIRS satellites are more advanced but the Pentagon worries that they could be targeted with counterspace weapons.

When SBIRS was conceived, the thinking was that satellites in higher geosynchronous orbits were off limits to attack. “Today, however, space, even in the geosynchronous realm, is no longer a sanctuary,” the report cautions. “Space congestion increasingly puts U.S. national security space assets at risk and has the potential to create radio interference for data transmitted to and from these assets. But most disturbing and profound is the end of space as a sanctuary domain — space is likely to be a battleground.”

The same concerns apply to communications satellites. The defense satellite communications system (DSCS) and the advanced extremely high frequency satellite system (AEHF) operate in geosynchronous orbit. “This is a new threat to NC3 that did not exist during the Cold War, and that the legacy NC3 system did not account for in its design,” the report said. “The next-generation NC3 system will have to mitigate, either with countermeasures or replacements, the threats to NC3-related satellite constellations such as SBIRS, AEHF, and DSCS.”

The Mitchell Institute and MITRE wrote the report in an effort to help build support for the massive investments that would be needed to bring NC3 up to date. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the Pentagon will need to spend $77 billion from 2019 to 2028 to maintain and update NC3 — about $19 billion more than the 2017 estimate. CBO further cautioned that the $77 billion estimate is probably conservative because much remains unknown about the Pentagon’s plans to acquire new satellites and airborne command centers.

LaPlante said Congress will have to find the money to pay for this. “We don’t have a choice as a country,” he said. The NC3 system “has been studied a lot, its life has been extended as long as we could, and that’s where we are.”

The responsibility to figure out how to move forward with NC3 falls on U.S. Strategic Command. STRATCOM Commander Gen. John Hyten said he wants to see fresh ideas on how to create a NC3 enterprise architecture. LaPlante calls this a project of unprecedented complexity. NC3 is made up of more than 100 acquisition programs across the military services and the Defense Department.

Hyten in July took over responsibilities for NC3 modernization that used to belong to the Air Force Global Strike Command. He was expected to attend the rollout of the report but had a scheduling conflict. In his place was Maj. Gen. Stephen Davis, STRATCOM’s director of global operations. Hyten has made NC3 a top priority and wants to get the nation’s best minds to work on a plan for what comes next, Davis said. STRATCOM will create an “NC3 Enterprise Center” to coordinate efforts.

This project could get complicated for STRATCOM. As a combatant command, STRATCOM has authority over requirements, so it can put forth an NC3 wish list. But combatant commands have limited influence over budgets and acquisition programs. “Hyten needs somebody to do that for him,” said LaPlante. “For NC3, you need an overall systems architecture. And this is a huge systems engineering challenge.”