• An unarmed Minuteman III launches during a developmental test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, last year. The U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) is modernizing both its weapon systems and their accompanying Nuclear Command, Control and Communications (NC3). Credit: Air Force photo
     An unarmed Minuteman III launches during a developmental test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, last year. The U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) is modernizing both its weapon systems and their accompanying Nuclear Command, Control and Communications (NC3). Credit: Air Force photo

Nuclear C3 Looms Vital to Strategic Modernization

January 7, 2021
By Robert K. Ackerman
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New weapon systems need greatly improved command and control.


The U.S. Nuclear Command, Control and Communications (NC3) system needs be to upgraded as greatly as the weapons that have underpinned U.S. strategic deterrence for 75 years, says the head of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM). Adm. Charles R. Richard, USN, STRATCOM commander, told a media briefing, “The NC3 is as important to the strategic deterrence mission as the delivery systems and the weapons complex. And, we are in equal need to recapitalize it alongside the delivery systems.”

This is not to say that the current system is lacking, he emphasized. “I have complete confidence in the NC3 system that we have today, and that includes its cybersecurity,” he declared. It held up during the pandemic as the command continued its mission with an inherent ability to handle unexpected challenges and operate in distributed, redundant and separate configurations.

The existing NC3 system already is transforming, the admiral noted. Several guidestars point the way for the modernization, one of which is a mission needs statement. A third capabilities programming guidance has been issued for the investments necessary for the next-generation NC3. And, operations orders with uniform standards of performance and the ability to execute are all under a single authority.

Increment one, which the admiral said is defined in broad terms, includes improving space posture along with better hardness to emerging cyber and cryptographic threats. It also provides for the ability to dynamically reconfigure command and control (C2) by “de-legacying” existing C2. Four more increments will permit NC3 evolution, which will progress as new strategic deterrent systems are introduced into the force.

The admiral noted that the NC3 Enterprise Center (NEC), created in 2018, actually is a separate organization from STRATCOM. It comprises a complex system of more than 200 systems. “Think of the NEC as the conductor of a big orchestra,” he analogized. “She is the place that pulls all the effort together of all the other players inside the department and the NC3.”

Weapons systems that constitute the strategic deterrent have their own C2, and the modernization of the Minuteman III missile force with the ground-based strategic deterrent (GBSD) will include its own C2. Adm. Richards said the U.S. Air Force is “doing some pretty revolutionary” work in the GBSD. And, the need to modernize these weapons systems is matched by the requirements for upgrading their NC3.

“You cannot life-extend Minuteman III,” he stated. “It is getting past the point where it’s not cost effective. … You’re quickly getting to the point where you can’t do it at all.”

And one of the biggest advantages GBSD NC3 provides is cyber resilience, the admiral continued. “We will replace what is basically a 60-year-old circuit switch system with a modern cyber-defendable up-to-current-standards command and control system.” The GBSD would be a necessary step forward just on the cyber threat alone, he added.

This threat is far different from that of the Cold War, when the United States was in a great-power competition with the Soviet Union, the admiral pointed out. Now, the United States faces the prospect of two peer nuclear-capable adversaries that must be deterred differently, and actions to deter one have an impact on the other. “This is way more complicated than it used to be,” he said. “This is an example of a capability we’re going to have to have to address threats like that.”

The admiral related that “Russia and others” are a threat to the nation, including the NC3. “We think very hard about how you deter different adversaries differently,” the admiral stated. “They have different decision-making processes. They have different goals and aspirations. Putin makes decisions differently than Xi, and you have to take that into account when you provide the input to that that causes them to choose the benefit of restraint over the benefit of action.”

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Thank you very much for publishing this article. Most always articles on weapons systems are printed everyday. ADM Richard makes the point very clear while weapons systems modernization is extremely important to extended deterrence, without NC3 modernization their ability is at risk. If you are going to spend the billions of dollars on weapons system upgrades, you have to modenrize the C2 that is the very critical enabeling devise.

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