Reviving Cold War Doomsday Devices Could Patch America’s Broken Nuclear Controls
We need nuclear backups
This story originally appeared on Feb. 22, 2017. It’s the third article in a three-part series on how limited foreign attacks could endanger America’s fragile command and control over nuclear weapons. Read parts one and two.
As the aging command and control network over U.S. nuclear forces has become increasingly vulnerable to limited attacks and hobbled by years of institutional neglect, some defense experts are calling on the Pentagon to reinstitute a number of doomsday backup systems decades after they were discarded as Cold War relics.
These could include aircraft or rockets that broadcast emergency orders to nuclear forces if all other modes of communication have been silenced. Some say the White House might even consider pre-delegating authority for ordering or calling off nuclear strikes down the chain of command, in the event that top political leaders can no longer be found.
The U.S. president holds unique authority to authorize nuclear missions or call them off. But that key facet of nuclear deterrence could be jeopardized by communications equipment prone to failure.
A conventional or “hybrid” attack on key U.S. military satellites, transmissions nodes or radio signals could endanger already fragile links that connect the commander in chief with bomber aircraft and ballistic missiles deployed at sea and in underground silos.
Heightened risks from major nuclear powers including Russia and China — combined with clunky U.S. command and control links that require years more work before they are modernized — are prompting new thinking about potential patches and workarounds.
Milstar and Advanced Extremely High Frequency, or “AEHF,” military satellites essential for conveying White House nuclear orders use highly sophisticated communications technologies, but could be suddenly disabled by sabotage or anti-satellite weapons.
A U.S. Navy E-6 Mercury. Navy photo
Back on Earth, some U.S. bomber aircraft can receive via very low frequency/low frequency signals any nuclear orders from the president to carry out or call off a nuclear strike, while others don’t have VLF/LF capacity. Even if very low frequency transmissions can be received, they are notoriously unreliable, raising the risk of garbled messages and a failure to authenticate orders.
For at least a half-dozen years, no U.S. bomber will have the capacity to receive AEHF signals, which would make communications faster and more secure compared to Milstar. But even if bombers today could receive an emergency presidential message via the aging Milstar’s UHF messaging, these satellites might just disappear faster than you can say, “Hey, what’s that bright light?”
While bomber communications may be the weakest link, the other two legs of the nuclear triad also have their own command and control limitations.
For nuclear-armed submarines — believed the most survivable leg of the triad — the Navy has shore-based VLF transmission stations. But some experts worry these relatively basic facilities may be vulnerable to cruise missile or even small-arms attacks. The submarines are expected to rely more upon E-6 “Tacamo” communications planes, yet these can remain airborne only so long.
“You lose the Tacamo when the engine oil runs out, within about 24 hours,” said a former strategic war planner, requesting anonymity to discuss sensitive nuclear operations. “How do you get an order to the submarines when we no longer have Tacamo in the air?”
The Navy has told Congress that its nuclear-armed vessels won’t be able to receive AEHF satellite communications until 2022 at the earliest.
The triad leg widely seen as most vulnerable to attack — ground-based ballistic missiles — ironically might have the best chance of retaining a wartime link to the commander in chief. All Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles launch control centers are fitted with Milstar EHF and UHF receivers. They can even send verification messages back, said Guy Michael, who heads Air Force Global Strike Command’s ICBM nuclear command and control office.
Minuteman III launch controllers can’t yet receive the more robust AEHF signals, however. The ground-based missile launch posts are to begin getting AEHF receivers next year, Michael said, and will become fully AEHF-operable in 2020, according to a recent news report.
If satellite communications disappear, airborne command posts on E-4 “doomsday” aircraft or Tacamo E-6 planes could at least temporarily allow VLF/LF connectivity with surviving ballistic-missile launch control facilities by flying in the vicinity. Commanders aboard these “flying headquarters” can potentially use ultra high frequency, line-of-sight radio to launch the intercontinental rockets directly out of their underground silos, bypassing any disabled launch centers.
But taken together, lingering vulnerabilities in the U.S. nuclear command and control network create “an incentive for an enemy to attack us,” Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear-weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif., said in an interview.
“They can knock out our command and control structure so that we can’t respond,” he said. “And then a fear that we might be knocked out creates an incentive for the president to act hastily.”
During the Cold War, the risk of leadership “decapitation” led the United States to pre-delegate emergency nuclear launch order responsibility to senior military officers, according to Bruce Blair, author of 1984’s Strategic Command and Control and a former Air Force ballistic missile launch control officer.
We got a primer on that in the 1964 film classic Dr. Strangelove when Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper, the lunatic bomber-wing commander, launched what the film dubbed “Plan R.” George C. Scott, the floor is yours.
“Plan R is an emergency war plan in which a lower-echelon commander may order nuclear retaliation after a sneak attack, if the normal chain of command has been disrupted. You approved it, sir, you must remember,” Gen. Buck Turgidson, the fictional Air Force chief of staff, tells Peter Sellars, playing Pres. Merkin Muffley.
Taking the pre-delegation of human authority to robotic extremes during the actual Cold War, the Kremlin is believed to have built a “Dead Hand” nuclear-control system, which would automatically trigger a ballistic missile response if Russia came under massive attack. Some believe the system — parodied in Dr. Strangelove as the “Doomsday Machine” — may still be functional today.
Given the current risks that the White House may lose connectivity with U.S. nuclear forces, a real-world variation on the “Plan R” scheme might actually be a decent idea, some experts argue.
The U.S. Navy ballistic missile submarine USS Rhode Island. Navy photo
The pre-delegation of authority to the commander of U.S. strategic nuclear forces, in case of loss of the top national command authority, “was rolled back after the end of the Cold War,” said Blair. He thinks its reinstatement, under carefully circumscribed conditions, should be considered, both to help strengthen deterrence and assure that any war could be terminated.
Lewis goes a step further. He suggests the White House contemplate allowing ballistic-missile submarine crews at sea to access launch codes under the most dire circumstances. For example, a crew might be able to automatically access launch authority after a days- or weeks-long waiting period, in the event that the United States has become a charred and empty shell.
But others see that concept as literally playing with fire. Would a submarine crew with last-ditch access to launch codes know which nation has attacked the United States and thus who to retaliate against? And what if the crew misinterpreted lost or spoofed communications as a cue for its usurpation of civilian control?
“I’m worried about the guy starting a war without authorization from the president,” said the former strategic war planner. “The command and control system has to be able to terminate the war.”
The Pentagon might still have a few other tricks up its sleeve.
Potential initiatives could include building a widely dispersed constellation of small and cheap satellites for emergency military communications, said John Harvey, who until 2013 held a variety of senior nuclear oversight positions at the Defense and Energy departments.
It would be more complicated and difficult for an adversary to silence proliferated orbiters — especially if new ones could be easily launched on short notice — than potentially to knock out today’s Milstar and AEHF space assets. These high-technology uber-satellites — which can be counted on just two hands — currently play a unique role in commanding nuclear forces.
The United States could revive the Cold War-era Emergency Rocket Communications System to broadcast recorded messages via high-power UHF over a wide swath of terrain, defense experts say.
Or, it might reassemble the Post-Attack Command and Control System, which kept radiation-hardened aircraft on constant ground alert that, when activated, could relay messages via UHF or other frequencies to all three legs of the nuclear triad.
“Absolutely we should consider returning to a survivable UHF broadcast system,” the former strategist said in an interview. “What is more important than the order to stop a nuclear war?”
There’s also the diplomatic front. Some have called for dialogue between the United States, Russia and China on establishing rules of the road in space, and a negotiated ban on testing or using anti-satellite weapons.
It’s hard to conceive of higher stakes. The original screenplay for Dr. Strangelove includes a scene in the War Room where leaders are desperately trying to call off a massive nuclear attack by U.S. bombers against targets in the Soviet Union. Turgidson, the Air Force chief of staff, tells President Muffley that “it looks like one aircraft, the ‘Leper Colony,’ failed to receive the recall.”
“Have you tried the recall again?” the president snaps. “Yes, sir,” Turgidson replies. “We’re still sending it. But it’s a funny thing we don’t seem to be able to make any contact with the aircraft at all.”
Doomsday follows soon thereafter. At least that’s how the Hollywood version goes.
“If command and control fail, nothing else matters,” Blair said. “And fail it will.”
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.