U.S. Nuclear Modernization Urgently Needed to Advance Capabilities

August 2021
Topics: Command and Control, Strategic Planning, Military Planning, Missile Defense
For decades the United States emphasized the need for a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear force to deter adversaries and defend U.S. interests. MITRE’s Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications strategy takes on multi-domain, full-spectrum threats.
B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber

Since the early days of the Cold War, a nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) network has been a key component of the U.S. strategy of nuclear deterrence—the credible threat of retaliation to forestall an enemy attack. It worked; nuclear war was prevented, and the Cold War ended. But today, the NC3 network faces a new set of challenges.

Russia began aggressively modernizing its nuclear forces more than a decade ago—an effort that, according to U.S. Navy Adm. Charles A. Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), is now roughly 80 percent complete. China also continues to invest heavily in its nuclear capabilities. Its strategic dyad will soon become a triad with the completion of a nuclear-capable long-range bomber. The U.S. also faces challenges from asymmetric attacks that can produce widespread disruption (e.g., the Colonial Pipeline attack), civilian casualties, or considerable environmental damage while avoiding direct military encounters.

In an April 2021 statement to the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Adm. Richard outlined three priorities for his command: first, to provide strategic deterrence for the nation and assurance of the same to allies and partners; second, if deterrence fails, deliver a decisive response; and third, do this with a modern resilient, equipped, and trained combat-ready force.

In the face of such challenges, the U.S. needs an effective NC3 strategy that will connect current and future delivery systems to national leaders and command posts, adapt to threats that arise and develop ever more quickly, and plan for future technologies and usage models to stay ahead of threats. In addition to the Department of Defense’s (DoD) NC3 work, MITRE is investing significant internal research and development resources to ensure that the nation will have the strategies and capabilities needed to anticipate threats.

Adm. Richard, who is the combatant commander responsible for nuclear operations, says, “The nation’s nuclear delivery systems, consisting of intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear-armed submarines, and strategic aircraft, will be ill-equipped to address future threats if NC3 capabilities are not prioritized.”

The Stakes: Defense Against an Array of Threats

NC3 is a fundamental component of nuclear deterrence, which itself is a fundamental component of overall strategic deterrence. NC3 allows the U.S. to employ nuclear weapons in all possible scenarios, ensures positive control over those weapons, and enables a host of conventional day-to-day operations around the world. The NC3 architecture includes warning satellites and radars; communications satellites, aircraft, and ground stations; fixed and mobile command posts; and control centers for nuclear systems.

Threat warning in a modern NC3 system comes from terrestrial and space-based sensors that monitor the globe for full-spectrum threats. The NC3 communications architecture must quickly and reliably transmit relevant and accurate data to decision makers. Additionally, command-and-control support systems must provide reliable analyses of threats and response options while ensuring weapon systems, and their operators, remain connected to decision-makers.

MITRE has developed and demonstrated three prototypes of note (with more in development). These will help our nation’s nuclear enterprise burn down technical risk and accelerate capability development through technology transfer to industry, and smooth final development and fielding to advance the future NC3 architecture. As it is deployed, the NC3 network will continue to ensure reliable communication between the sensors, the weapon delivery platforms, and decision-makers.

MITRE prototypes include a Very Low Frequency (VLF) waveform that can be implemented into legacy terminals, a robust message delivery prototype, and a new resilient conferencing capability. These advancements, combined with extremely high frequency communications, provide B-52 and B-2 bombers with beyond line-of-sight connectivity throughout the spectrum of conflict.

First, MITRE led a team to successfully develop a modernized, cost-effective, high-performance VLF waveform for government-off-the-shelf radios. By eliminating the need to develop a new receiver and instead installing the new VLF waveform on legacy receivers, the government may achieve $200 million in cost avoidance. The high-performance prototype was transitioned to industry and, thanks to this initiative, allows fielding three to four years sooner than originally planned.

Second, our robust message delivery prototype is the foundation for a new NC3 capability. The new capability was demonstrated during an Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) exercise to improve the way nuclear forces are directed. ABMS is the future of Air Force command, control, and decision superiority and will integrate into the Joint All-Domain Command and Control concept to digitally connect all its platforms, as needed, in all domains.

Finally, MITRE developed a new resilient conferencing prototype, also demonstrated during an ABMS exercise, that increases decision-making resilience.

The prototypes above prove out core architectural concepts to improve our nation’s nuclear deterrent posture and are being inserted into future United States NC3 planning for acquisition and fielding. Additionally, this work has directly impacted the vision for a future NC3 capability to meet the threats.

Upgrading Modeling and Simulation

In addition to the prototypes, MITRE is developing a novel, enterprise-wide Nuclear Command and Control (NC2)/NC3 modeling capability. This capability takes strategic NC2 processes used to direct a nuclear response and simulates potential NC3 architectures under the stressed conditions of nuclear war.

The modeling and simulation capability eliminates dependence upon pre-existing notions of how current systems can be used, offering more freedom to experiment and evaluate how to best deploy and use assets.

In the February 2021 issue of the United States Naval Institute’s Proceedings Magazine, Adm. Richard said the DoD must reframe how it prioritizes procurement to ensure future capabilities map to an overarching strategy.

“We must acknowledge the foundational nature of our nation’s strategic nuclear forces because they create the ‘maneuver space’ for us to project conventional military power and remain agile in our development,” he says.

MITRE Helps Ensure NC3 Future Capability

A modernized NC3 system ensures the U.S. will retain a resilient and robust command and control architecture, fundamental for an effective deterrent. The U.S. must advance its NC3 strategy as a key part of the overall nuclear force recapitalization: the nuclear triad (nuclear missiles, nuclear-missile-armed submarines, and strategic aircraft with nuclear bombs and missiles). MITRE’s contributions will continue to advance NC3 by exploring conventional and nuclear integration and exploring how machine learning can advance capabilities across the domain.

This backbone of deterrence must always be available for today’s challenges and be ready to address tomorrow’s changing threats. MITRE’s work goes beyond USSTRATCOM and helps ensure the DoD and the nation continue to meet today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.

by Aishia Caryn Freeman

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