Next month marks the 70th anniversary of the day in 1949 when U.S. intelligence discovered the Soviet Union had conducted its first successful test of a nuclear weapon. From that day forward, most Americans have understood that nuclear war would likely be the worst fate that could ever befall our republic.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the appearance of new threats, though, the sense of urgency about nuclear security has waned. The infrastructure supporting nuclear deterrence has decayed to a point where all three legs of the strategic “triad”—land-based missiles, sea-based missiles and long-range bombers—need to be replaced. Meanwhile, the architecture used to command and control nuclear forces has changed little since the Reagan era.
Against this backdrop, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force said something curious at a meeting of the Mitchell Institute on June 26. The institute recently produced a report focused on the need to modernize technology for nuclear command and control. General David Goldfein opined that ongoing efforts to network the Air Force were as relevant to control of nuclear forces as conventional forces.
In particular, he mentioned the “rapid and exciting expansion of commercial space” as a trend that might facilitate the creation of resilient links for communicating with nuclear forces. I was unaware of the chief’s comments until I saw a story by Mandy Mayfield of National Defense Magazine entitled, “Air Force Wants To Utilize Commercial Satellites For Nuclear Command, Control.” The Air Force is responsible for most of the 200 systems comprising the nuclear command and control system, so General Goldfein’s thoughts have to be taken seriously even if they are just random musings.
This particular idea is dangerous.
Commercial satellites lack virtually all of the security features that would be necessary to assure control of the nuclear arsenal in a crisis. First of all, they are not survivable against a wide array of threats that China and Russia have begun posing to U.S. orbital assets, ranging from kinetic attacks to electronic jamming to electromagnetic pulse. Second, they are susceptible to cyber intrusion via their ground stations that could impede their performance. Third, they frequently contain foreign components, including in-orbit propulsion technology made in Russia, which might be manipulated in a crisis or simply become unavailable during wartime.
Air Force planners presumably know all this, so why would General Goldfein suggest relying on commercial satellites to execute the military’s most fateful decisions? Perhaps for the same reason that the Army is backing into reliance on commercial satellites for its next-generation battlefield networks. There are so many commercial constellations in operation that it seems unlikely America’s enemies could shut them all down in wartime, and they are a lot cheaper to use than orbiting dedicated military satcoms with the requisite capacity and redundancy.
“Resilience” has become the watchword for modernizing military space activities, and one way of creating resilience is to proliferate the pathways available for vital communications to a point where adversaries can’t keep up with all the possible options available to U.S. commanders. The same logic is leading technologists to propose large numbers of cheap satellites in low-earth orbit as an adjunct to existing military satcoms. These “cheapsats” wouldn’t be anywhere near as capable as the secure communications assets that Washington has placed in geostationary orbits, but there would be so many that links could be sustained even in highly stressed circumstances, such as the “trans-attack” phase of a nuclear war.
Or at least, so the reasoning goes. There’s a lot of technological ferment within the Air Force and Army these days, and it isn’t all high-caliber. Planners understand that command and control networks need to be modernized with an eye to greater resilience and functionality, and that they will have to operate during a new era of great-power military competition. So the threats to their effectiveness likely will be diverse and demanding. Maybe a lot of low-cost nodes could be more resilient than a handful of high-end systems. Maybe.
But the idea of relying on commercial satellites for command and control of nuclear forces takes this reasoning a step too far, because market forces preclude any of the hardening and other protective features that might be required in dedicated military birds. For instance, an adversary might suppress much of the space-based commercial capability by detonating a handful of nuclear weapons in space. There would be only modest blast and heat effects in the vacuum of space, but the resulting electromagnetic pulse would travel thousands of miles until it was captured by conductive material like antennas on commercial satcoms, potentially frying delicate electronic equipment.
Even if this scenario did not unfold, think of all the ways an adversary like China might seek to interfere with commercial satellites through their ground stations and uplinks, such as insertion of malware via hacking and jamming of signals. Military satcoms have been configured to counter these kinds of exploits while withstanding nuclear effects such as scintillation. But it would cost an arm and a leg to build commercial satellites with such features so nobody does. Their reliability in wartime is thus highly suspect.
It isn’t hard to see where General Goldfein might have been coming from with his remarks at the Mitchell Institute. The packet-switching protocol that underpins the Internet was originally conceived, at least in part, to fashion a more resilient way of sustaining connectivity than the traditional circuit-switched telecom system. It would have functioned better in a nuclear war. But the Internet was created under military oversight and today’s commercial satcoms were not. We can’t even guarantee the security of the supply chain from which key components are obtained.
So, let’s not get too carried away with all the fashionable talk about networking the Air Force. Yes, it’s a revolution, but when it comes to command and control of nuclear weapons, we need to be real careful about how we define progress.