House Strategic Forces Panel Warns Plan For Airborne Control Of Nuclear Weapons In Wartime Is Lagging

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Anybody who follows media coverage of the U.S. military will see periodic reports about plans to modernize the nation’s strategic nuclear weapons.

What they won’t see is coverage of plans to upgrade the system for controlling those weapons in wartime.

That system, known collectively as nuclear command, control and communications (NC3), is something of a black hole for reporters: little light escapes from the highly technical and secret programs involved to illuminate their progress—at least, for those of us who lack clearances.

The lack of information is a problem, because the whole structure of our strategic posture for deterring nuclear war depends on the NC3 system. As NC3 expert Bruce Blair observed in a seminal 1985 study, “if command and control fail, nothing else matters.”

The NC3 system consists first and foremost of secure communications links that connect the president to military operators in charge of the nuclear “triad”—bombers, land-based missiles, and sea-based missiles aboard Ohio-class submarines.

Because the chief executive has sole authority to order the launch of these weapons, if the links aren’t reliable then the U.S. ability to retaliate would be impaired and the credibility of the deterrent undermined.

That could make Russia or China more likely to attack in a crisis.

Of course, there is much more to the system than that—everything from satellites for detecting threats to planning tools for selecting retaliatory options—but fundamentally, the whole system depends on resilient communications that work even in the midst of nuclear war.

Earlier this month, the Strategic Force Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee released a report on the Biden administration’s fiscal 2023 budget request raising doubts about whether the Air Force in particular is doing enough to sustain the links in the NC3 network.

Specifically, it said plans to replace an aging fleet of four “Nightwatch” aircraft that would be used by the president and members of the military hierarchy in nuclear war are lagging.

The Air Force has acknowledged that the planes need to be replaced by more advanced aircraft under a program known as the Survivable Airborne Operations Center, but it has done virtually nothing to get that effort moving.

In fact, the service has waited so long to come up with a plan that it has missed the opportunity to acquire new Boeing
BA
747 airframes before production ceases, meaning it will instead have to install classified command, control and communications equipment on used 747s originally intended for other purposes.

As efforts to modernize Air Force One have already demonstrated, it is a lot easier to install special equipment on aircraft when they are first being built than after they have been in service.

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The Air Force has missed that window of opportunity for the future Nightwatch aircraft, and its plans for replacing a larger fleet of E-6B Mercury flying command posts are also unclear.

The 16 Mercury aircraft that operate out of Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma are designed to communicate with both ballistic-missile submarines and land-based Minuteman III missiles in wartime, using heavily modified Boeing 707s.

The Navy had the good sense to develop a plan for replacing E-6Bs in the sea-launched portion of the deterrence mission years ago. It will buy EC-130J turboprops built by Lockheed Martin
LMT
to staying in contact with strategic subs (Lockheed, like Boeing, contributes to my think thank).

The Air Force’s plans for replacing the E-6B in airborne command of land-based ICBMs, like its plans for replacing the E-4B, are not public and may not exist.

That’s important for the deterrence mission because with only one E-4B on alert at any given time, the president might never make it into the air in a nuclear crisis. It only takes a dozen minutes for Russian missiles launched from a submarine in the mid-Atlantic to reach the nation’s capital.

If that scenario were to unfold, the task of directing the use of U.S. land-based ICBMs would likely devolve to officers on the E-6B, whose aircraft could remain functioning even after ground-based command posts are wiped out. The 400 Minuteman missiles sitting in silos scattered across the upper Midwest can be launched directly from the Mercury aircraft.

However, that depends on the E-6Bs being available when war breaks out, and their future reliability is at risk due to their age. The E-6Bs were the last Boeing 707s to be modified for military missions before the first-generation jetliners were abandoned by the world’s airlines decades ago.

The Navy is moving to get ahead of this problem for its ballistic-missile subs, which carry 70% of the nation’s long-range nuclear warheads. What the Air Force’s plan is for the Mercury fleet remains to be seen.

The Strategic Force Subcommittee didn’t bring up the E-6B in its report on the 2023 budget, but it clearly isn’t happy with the pace at which the Air Force is advancing development of a next-generation presidential command post in the air.

In fact, it directed Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall to brief the committee on its plans for modernizing the E-4B not later than April 1 of next year.

Airborne command posts might be the only piece of the nuclear command-and-control system that remains intact after the initial wave of attacks in a nuclear war. An E-4B can remain in the air for up to a week with aerial refueling.

Without a survivable, resilient system for communicating with and commanding nuclear forces in a crisis, the whole structure of deterrence is undermined. So the subcommittee is right to be concerned.

I am indebted to Theresa Hitchens of Breaking Defense for calling my attention to the subcommittee’s report in a June 8 article.

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