How Putin Might Yank Away Trump’s Control Over America’s Nuclear Weapons
U.S. command and control is weaker than you think
This story originally appeared on Feb. 21, 2017. It’s the first article in a three-part series on how limited enemy attacks could endanger America’s fragile command and control over nuclear weapons. Read parts two and three.
It’s what puts the “love” in Dr. Strangelove. Air Force pilot Maj. “King” Kong, played by Slim Pickens in the 1964 movie masterpiece, is flying his bomber aircraft to strike a target in the Soviet Union, but has lost contact with headquarters. Unaware that his insane commander’s nuclear-attack order has been rescinded, the resourceful officer rides a bomb out of his malfunctioning weapons bay and into global oblivion.
Fast-forward half a century and back into the real world. Here people stare into the milky hearts of their mocha macchiatos, hum along to twenty one pilots’ “Heathens,” and ponder the risk that Donald Trump, as president, might launch nuclear weapons against ISIS terrorists, as he threatened last March, or use one simply because we have them.
Nuclear arms raise the stakes of any international confrontation. Foreign policy hawks tend to believe the greatest risks begin with appeasement. Doves usually worry more about provocation. Trump has elicited concerns about both, in roughly equal measure.
The volatile new president and his senior advisers say they want friendlier ties with Russian president Vladimir Putin. One potential crisis — a growing number of seasoned foreign policy hands, Democrat and Republican alike, fret that sooner or later, Trump must grapple with Putin publicly outflanking him.
Michael Flynn — who served just 24 days as Trump’s national security adviser before resigning amid controversy last week — is now under FBI and congressional investigation for contacts with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign and transition.
Before his abrupt departure, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen even compared Flynn to Dr. Strangelove’s “paranoid ultra-nationalist” bomber-wing commander, Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper, saying “he cannot be the last one to whisper in Trump’s ear about some crisis.”
Trump himself was reportedly surprised to learn from news reports that an executive order he signed gave his incendiary chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, a principal role on the National Security Council. Time magazine has since dubbed Bannon “The Great Manipulator.”
Airmen washing a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber. Air Force photo
Many look to a moderating influence over at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, in hopes he might slow down any ill-considered White House directive. But what’s clear is that only the president — or his successor in the event of death or incapacitation — has the codes to authenticate an order directly to U.S. Strategic Command, which is bound to implement a nuclear “emergency action message” without question.
Remarkably, whether a nuclear Armageddon happens on Trump’s watch may have almost as much to do with the fragility of the nuclear command-and-control apparatus as it does with his proclivity for impulsive public outbursts.
“Command and control,” in this case, is the authority and direction a U.S. president exerts through the Defense Department, required for military personnel responsible for nuclear arms to carry out assigned missions. The network in place to convey presidential emergency action messages comprises a broad array of communications satellites, transmission stations, ground-based and airborne command centers and radio receivers.
As the Pentagon embarks on Trump’s new directive to undertake a year-long Nuclear Posture Review, defense leaders might consider this — how certain is it that the president could retain connectivity with U.S. nuclear forces in a crisis?
In the near term, anything that separates Trump from the nation’s most powerful weapons may offer some measure of comfort to his harshest critics, who fear the first-time office holder might just nuke any foreign leader who slights him. But it shouldn’t. A frail command-and-control apparatus over the nuclear arsenal virtually invites dangerous tests by unfriendly foreign powers, no matter who is president.
Which brings us back to the linchpin of Stanley Kubrick’s film. Could a technical failure that blocks the president from calling a nuclear bomber back to base really end Earth as we know it?
You may want to sit down.
The newly minted U.S. president’s capacity to communicate with ground-, sea- or air-based nuclear forces during an international crisis is “pathetic” — in terms of both ordering a strike and calling one off, said Bruce Blair, a strategic command-and-control expert at Princeton University.
“Today serious deficiencies and vulnerabilities” in the nuclear-communications network cast doubt on whether “either an ‘execute’ or ‘termination’ order could be successfully transmitted or received by the dispersed strategic forces,” Blair told War Is Boring. These command and control links have become “the Achilles heel of U.S. nuclear strategy,” he said.
By the numbers, Moscow clearly poses the greatest nuclear-armed threat to the United States. The likelihood of a massive bolt-out-of-the-blue attack almost certainly remains low.
But strategy experts are starting to wonder what the Kremlin’s recent embrace of “hybrid warfare” — a mix of conventional and unconventional operations, seasoned with deception — might mean for Moscow’s potential to exploit U.S. nuclear vulnerabilities.
Russia has used unmarked troops to annex Crimea, unleashed cyber attacks and propaganda to intimidate neighbors and undermine Western democracies, sabotaged adversaries’ critical infrastructure and bombed civilians in Syria to crush rebellion against an allied regime. At times, these tactics have been accompanied by thin public denials.
Some say this all may offer a sobering preview of what a future nuclear-related confrontation with the Kremlin could entail.
“A great deal of [command and control] disruption and damage could be inflicted” on the U.S. nuclear infrastructure without firing a single weapon, Blair, a former Air Force ballistic missile launch control officer, said in a series of email exchanges. The possibilities include paralyzing attacks against key military communications satellites, covert action by terrorists or special forces against thinly protected relay nodes, and conventional radio signal-jamming.
The absolute worst-case scenario — all-out Russian nuclear attack — could result in the collapse of the entire U.S. command-and-control system.
A test of a U.S. Air Force Minuteman III ballistic missile. Air Force photo
But less widely contemplated has been that a limited Russian assault could effectively sever a U.S. president from his nation’s ultimate means of defense, at best precipitating a crisis in which White House negotiating leverage has been sucker punched. At worst, actions of this kind could trigger out-of-control escalation into a global existential threat.
China, while a distant second to Russia as a nuclear threat, is also capable of taking out cities across the United States. Its continued nuclear modernization has posed serious concerns.
Of the Pentagon’s air-, land- and sea-based legs of the nuclear triad, several experts describe the B-52 and B-2 bombers as arguably having the most tenuous communications links up the command chain to the White House.
In any serious crisis involving Russia or China, the U.S. commander in chief might rush to get heavy bombers dispersed, so they don’t become sitting ducks for a hostile strike.
But both Moscow and Beijing have a number of tools to disrupt — either overtly or covertly — the communications needed to securely transmit presidential orders to bomber aircraft, regardless of whether they are on the ground or in the air. Similar problems extend to nuclear-armed submarines and ballistic missiles in underground silos.
“The nuclear command and communications network was threadbare during the Cold War and prone to collapse under attack,” said Blair, whose book Strategic Command and Control was published in 1984.
Not much has changed in 30-plus years. “The Pentagon continued to neglect it after the end of the Cold War,” Blair said. “Today, at a time of re-emerging nuclear tensions with Russia, the network is as vulnerable and creaky as ever, and maybe even more so.”
Evidence that nuclear command and control is hobbled by the technological equivalent of geriatric osteoporosis has been hiding for years in plain sight. The Pentagon recently has invested millions of dollars in updating these systems, but insiders worry it has amounted to too little, too late.
In November 2013, as Gen. Robert Kehler wrapped up nearly three years as the nation’s top combatant commander for nuclear operations, he had “high confidence in the ability of the president to communicate his orders.” But Kehler felt the effort to shore up nuclear command and control systems was running out of time.
“We needed to proceed” expeditiously because of long years in which modernization was largely neglected, said the Air Force general, who retired in 2014. At the time, defense leaders “were out of margin” for any additional delays, he told War Is Boring.
Adm. Cecil Haney — who succeeded Kehler as head of U.S. Strategic Command before retiring in November 2016 — acknowledged the problem publicly nearly two years ago. Decades-old nuclear command, control and communications systems were still functioning, he told Congress in March 2015, “but risk to mission success is increasing as key elements of the system age.”
Gen. Buck Turgidson, Kubrick’s fictional and philandering Air Force chief of staff, might have put it more bluntly. Under some circumstances, Mr. President, the technologies you rely on to command the nation’s nuclear forces during a future global crisis, uhhh, might not work.
For a while, Kehler and Haney had reason to think that things were beginning to turn around. When Ash Carter joined the Obama administration in 2009 as the Pentagon’s acquisition undersecretary — and continuing during his ascension up the ranks to Defense secretary — he pumped new priority and resources into improving nuclear command and control.
Carter’s efforts are taking a long while to pay off, though. Responsibility for the sector has become muddled, military insiders say. The office for coordinating nuclear command and control has gotten buried deep inside a Pentagon branch called the Defense Information Systems Agency.
Stovepiped Pentagon bureaucracies contribute to hobbling nuclear command and control. One organization conceptualizes and builds new satellites and transmitters and receivers, while it is left to entirely separate service commands to actually buy and deploy the equipment.
Another problem has been that the highly specialized nuclear command-and-control sector has rarely attracted the military’s most ambitious officers. It’s almost impossible to win medals and climb the ranks by working on relatively obscure programs like these, according to longtime Pentagon-watchers. Uniformed leaders who build bombers and sea vessels have much better chances at promotion to general or flag officer.
Today nuclear command and control remains “the bastard stepchild of nuclear forces. It doesn’t get much attention,” said John Harvey, who retired from civil service in 2013 after serving nearly two decades in senior nuclear-oversight positions at the Defense and Energy departments. While future prospects improved “markedly” under Carter’s watch, “if I had to guess, it’d be that we’re not doing as well as we had hoped,” he said in an interview.
Pending the Trump administration’s update to Pres. Barack Obama’s 2010 nuclear review, the Pentagon plans to spend $1 trillion over 30 years to modernize and replace the triad of submarines, ground-based ballistic missiles and bombers. But only a fraction of that would be funneled into updating nuclear command and control systems, according to government estimates.
“It’s this hot potato,” said one former strategic war-planning officer, requesting anonymity to discuss sensitive nuclear issues. “No one wants to pay the bill.”
Elaine Grossman is an investigative reporter who writes about national security and foreign affairs. This article was independently reported with partial funding support from a Ploughshares Fund journalism grant.