Time to Update NC3

Gen. John Hyten (r) gives a command and control update to John Bolton, national security advisor, at Offutt AFB, Neb. Photo: Mass. Comm. Spc. Julie Matyascik/USN

For more than five decades, the forces of America’s nuclear triad have prevented the use of nuclear weapons. Today, however, the average age of aircraft in the air leg is about 50 years, the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile is also approaching 50, and the Navy’s Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines are approaching 40 years in service. Urgency is building among policymakers and in Congress to modernize these systems and sustain the nuclear triad. At the same time, Russia and China are actively fielding new nuclear-capable systems—including new land-based strategic missiles, ballistic missile submarines, sea-based strategic missiles, and improved air-launched nuclear weapons, along with tactical nuclear weapons.

While modernizing the triad’s weapon systems is now planned and under debate, a critical underpinning system that enables their success tends to get less attention: the nuclear command, control, and communications enterprise (known as “NC3” in Pentagon parlance). This system allows the no-fail control of nuclear weapon systems in peacetime and, if necessary, in combat. The NC3 enterprise combines all the activities, processes, and procedures performed by military commanders and support personnel that ensure that decisions on the employment of nuclear weapons can be made under the direst of circumstances.

The highly classified nature of these activities means that little has been written about what, exactly, the NC3 architecture is, or what it does. The Mitchell Institute’s latest study, Modernizing US Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications, explains this system in an unclassified manner in order to convey the criticality of modernizing it. Only with a modern NC3 system can the US retain a resilient and robust command and control architecture that will guarantee the fundamental effectiveness of the nuclear triad and nuclear deterrence. In this regard, NC3 represents the critical “fifth pillar” of the United States’ nuclear modernization program, which also includes the triad’s three main weapon systems (land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers) and the nuclear warhead stockpile.

SrA. Scott Fowler (r) and SrA. Paul Gallegos (l) move the re-entry system of an LGM-30 Minuteman III missile onto a guidance set. The missiles are almost 50 years old. Photo: TSgt. Fernando Serna


Although NC3 is the least-expensive of these five elements of the nuclear modernization program, in many ways, it is the most critical. The Department of Defense is now moving out on a long overdue effort to recapitalize and modernize all three weapon systems of the nuclear triad today. Development and acquisition of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (the Air Force’s Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD, which will replace the Minuteman III), a new fleet ballistic missile submarine (the Navy’s Columbia-class nuclear submarine, which will replace the Ohio-class), a new stealthy long-range bomber (the Air Force’s B-21 Raider, which will eventually replace the B-2 fleet in full), a new nuclear-armed cruise missile (the Long-Range Standoff weapon, or LRSO, will replace the AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile), and the refurbishment of the nuclear warheads for these systems have understandably received great attention from Congress and policymakers. But these new weapons and platforms, as modern as they will be, cannot provide convincing deterrence unless the US also possesses an effective and robust NC3 enterprise that ties them all together. The existence of such a system is critical to convince potential adversaries that any attempted nuclear aggression will fail and be answered by a devastating response.

An effective NC3 enterprise performs five key functions:

  • Provides current information on the status and readiness of all nuclear forces Allows prompt decision-making during a crisis and provides the basis for adjusting war plans as a crisis evolves
  • Collects information from sensors, warning systems, and intelligence sources to provide comprehensive situational awareness to policymakers and commanders
  • Provides the President and his subordinates with the ability to organize real-time conferences from disparate locations in the midst of a crisis
  • Provides for the positive authorized control of nuclear weapons in peacetime and, if necessary, the employment of those arms in war

A modern NC3 system includes terrestrial, airborne, and space-based sensors that monitor the globe for threats; a communications architecture that reliably transmits (under any conditions) relevant and accurate data to decision makers; command and control support systems that provide decision makers with reliable analyses of threats and response options; and robust connectivity to ensure that weapon systems and operators are always connected to authorized decision makers, all the way up to the President. This NC3 system must always reliably transmit the President’s orders through the chain of command to nuclear forces, such that those orders are always executed without fail. Yet, at the same time, the NC3 system must also ensure that nuclear weapons are never employed without proper authorization.

Inside a launch control center in the 90th Missile Wing complex, 2nd Lt. Teah Heidern participates in a simulated Minuteman test. The site communication gear dates from the 1980s. Photo: SrA. Breanna Carter


The currently operational NC3 system was first designed decades ago, in response to the threat posed by the Soviet Union’s bombers, at first, and later its land- and submarine-based ballistic missiles. The US NC3 architecture received its last major upgrade in the 1980s in the waning years of the Cold War when the Soviet ballistic missile threat was reaching peak intensity.

Since then, however, the character and dispersion of nuclear threats to the US have only grown more complex. Advances in military technology, and the will of potential adversaries to employ it, have created threats to the NC3 system that were not present during the Cold War. Today’s adversaries have the ability to attack early warning and communications satellites connected to the NC3 system, launch offensive cyber attacks on NC3 architecture, and employ potential nuclear weapons effects on modern NC3 support systems.

Perhaps the most pronounced difference is the increasing vulnerability of US space assets to attack or disruption. During the Cold War, both the US and the Soviet Union tacitly recognized that designating geosynchronous orbit as off-limits to attack would enhance mutual deterrence. That understanding has now largely disappeared. The number of state and nonstate actors capable of space access and operations continues to grow, and the number of orbital objects expands every year. China and Russia have both declared they are pursuing counterspace weapons to threaten assets in geosynchronous orbit, with the Chinese carrying out widely publicized tests of anti-satellite weapons in 2007, 2013, and 2014. These capabilities place major space-based components of the US NC3 architecture at risk, including the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), which monitors satellites, and NC3-related communications satellites like the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF), a secure communications constellation.

Another profound factor to consider is how cyber security must be taken into account with any NC3 modernization effort. Much of the current NC3 system predates the internet era, when internet-protocol (IP) packet transmission became the dominant method of data communication.

But today’s new equipment is built on IP-based subsystems, and as those systems are acquired and attached to command and control networks, the NC3 system must adapt to accommodate and support those characteristics without jeopardizing security. This introduces cyber risks to a system that was built before the modern cyber era. Other elements of NC3 infrastructure may also rely on support services, such as electrical power, water, fuel, and human support, any of which an adversary might attempt to disrupt through cyber attacks in order to affect NC3 performance.

Modern nuclear exchanges could also be different than the scenarios forecasted during the Cold War. American NC3 was initially designed to function through all phases of a nuclear attack and was upgraded in the 1980s to sustain operations through a prolonged nuclear war lasting as long as several months. But current threats are more complex. For example, Russia conducts training exercises displaying the limited use of theater nuclear weapons as a means of achieving decisive leverage during potential regional crises. Russian doctrine presumes that opponents will capitulate after a limited theater nuclear attack. The current NC3 systems of both the US and its allies protected by extended deterrence may come under stress from such limited theater employment of nuclear weapons, whether by Russia or another nuclear-capable adversary. In these scenarios, nuclear effects could potentially impair the theater elements of NC3 systems, inhibiting early warning, sensors, multinational leadership conferencing, and prospective orders to theater-based forces.

Finally, the legacy NC3 system is aging. It has not received a comprehensive upgrade since the 1980s and many of its components can be described as “vintage.” It is difficult to maintain today and soon must be reliably connected to the new generation of nuclear weapon platforms described above when they enter service in the coming decade. Ensuring reliable communications between these new platforms and a half-century-old NC3 system will likely entail dangerous risks.

The USS Pennsylvania, an Ohio-class nuclear submarine, moves through the Hood Canal in Washington state following a strategic-deterrent patrol. Photo: PO1 Amanda Gray/USN


In July 2018, in recognition of NC3’s importance, the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff designated the commander of US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) as the “NC3 enterprise lead.” The STRATCOM commander now has responsibility for the system’s operations, modernization, design requirements, engineering, and integration—a change DOD leadership made to consolidate the committee-like management structure that had previously governed NC3 matters. With the new designation, the Department of Defense now has a single four-star general and combatant commander in charge of efforts to modernize the NC3 enterprise.

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) has already indicated some areas of focus that NC3 modernization should address. These include:

  • Strengthening protection against space-based threats by increasing the agility and resilience of NC3-related space assets
  • Improving protection against cyber threats
  • Enhancing integrated tactical warning and attack assessment capabilities by upgrading the SBIRS constellation, ground-based missile warning radars, and nuclear detonation sensors, and also improving the integration of data from these systems
  • Improving command posts and communications links by upgrading mobile command posts—such as the Air Force’s E-4B National Airborne Operations Center and the Navy’s E-6B Mercury—ground-based command hubs and data links, and transmitters and terminals across the NC3 enterprise
  • Advancing decision support technology, such as data-analysis tools and information displays, to assist presidential decision-making
  • Integrating planning and operations at the regional command level to allow commanders to better coordinate prospective nuclear and non-nuclear military operations, thus enhancing overall deterrence
  • Reforming governance of the overall NC3 enterprise

These are all important focus areas, and DOD has already moved out on some of these initiatives (consolidating NC3 management under the STRATCOM commander being the highest-profile move thus far). But modernization must also take care to address the threat posed by counterspace weapons: Any next-generation NC3 system will have to mitigate threats to space-based NC3 assets with countermeasures, rapid replacement, or both.

Several lines of effort should be pursued to address these threats, including advancing diplomatic dialogue with China, Russia, and others to establish norms of behavior and to reiterate the US view that it reserves the right to retaliate with nuclear weapons if an adversary were to launch a significant attack on NC3 or warning and attack assessment capabilities. Other avenues to address counterspace threats include increasing the dispersion of space assets, utilizing commercial and multinational space platforms to add redundancy and increase the targeting problem for potential adversaries, and building the capability to rapidly replace NC3 space assets by expanding inventories of replacement satellites and having launchers capable of placing them quickly into orbit. Finally, DOD needs to formulate operational concepts that attack adversary counterspace assets, such as launch facilities, space command and control nodes, ground-based weapon facilities, and other infrastructure.

Finally, the US must be vigilant about cyber threats to NC3. All new weapon systems associated with the nuclear triad, from the B-21 to the Columbia-class submarine and the LRSO cruise missile, will be designed to modern technology standards. The President and senior leaders will have to use the NC3 system to communicate and maintain command and control of both conventional and non-nuclear crises, requiring the NC3 system to interface outside its once closed, segregated operational environment. This will assuredly raise new cyber vulnerabilities.

Designers of the future system must adopt the most advanced cyber defense best practices, many of which are not yet widely used across the US military.

This will require STRATCOM to collaborate with commercial entities and federally funded research and development centers, which have superior expertise in cyber resilience.

Modernization of NC3 will be an open-ended process that will likely intensify over the coming decade. STRATCOM and DOD planners will have to refine a modernized NC3 system design that responds to the future threat environment, secures the cooperation of stakeholders across the US government, incorporates best practices, and obtains institutional and funding support from Congress.


The 2018 NPR discusses the aging legacy NC3 system, the challenges posed by the emerging threat environment, and the need for modernization. The current STRATCOM commander, Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, has termed the NC3 system his greatest concern and highest priority, and the US Air Force, which is responsible for about 75 percent of the NC3 architecture, is now moving out on a modernization effort.

The commander of STRATCOM now has the mission and necessary authorities to organize, plan, and lead a holistic modernization effort of NC3.

When successful, this program will result in a future architecture that will guarantee connectivity between the president and US nuclear forces in even the most challenging scenario.

Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula USAF (Ret.) is dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Dr. William A. LaPlante, a former assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, is senior vice president and general manager of the MITRE Corp.’s national security sector. Robert Haddick is a visiting senior fellow at the Mitchell Institute. This article is adapted from the Mitchell research study, “Modernizing US Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications.” Download it in its entirety at: www.mitchellaerospacepower.org.