Air University Press


Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications: A Primer on US Systems and Future Challenges

  • Published

Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications: A Primer on US Systems and Future Challenges edited by James J. Wirtz and Jeffrey A. Larsen. Georgetown University Press, 2022, 248 pp. 

James Wirtz and Jeffrey Larsen’s Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications: A Primer on US Systems and Future Challenges covers the origin, current and future concepts for nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3).

Wirtz is a professor in the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) Department of National Security Affairs. In March 2016, he was recognized as a distinguished scholar by the International Studies Association’s Intelligence Studies Section. He received his doctorate in political science from Columbia University.

Larsen is a research professor in the Department of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School, and president of Larsen Consulting Group in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was a command pilot in the US Air Force. Dr. Larsen was NATO’s 2005 Manfred Worner Fellow and is the author or editor of more than 150 books, journal articles, chapters, and monographs. He earned a doctorate in politics from Princeton University.

The authors focus on the importance and development of the United States’ NC3 system and its integral role within the DoD’s nuclear enterprise. The work covers the history of NC3 from the origins of nuclear weapons to modern-day NC3 architecture. The authors address the introduction of cyber warfare and integration for NC3 and highlights current and future obstacles.

The opening of the book discusses the initial need and development of controlling nuclear weapons. Although nuclear weapons are at the forefront of the public’s mind, the NC3 network is the backbone for the execution of nuclear forces. This NC3 network must be always available to have credible deterrence for the nation.

The work describes the birth of the modern day NC3 system and how it finds itself at a crossroad with what has been completed before and what is needed to remain relevant. The most challenging part of the NC3 system was the lack of growth after the Cold War ended. The United States struggled to find a reason and direction for the NC3 system without a distinctive enemy to counter. Each NC3 system end user has different requirements and ways to integrate with the network. The diverse nature of each system’s communication led to an NC3 which was fragmented and had no clear vision of unity. The “believably-resilient” network was aging and needed to find a new place for itself in modern warfare.

The modern portion of warfare includes the space portion of NC3. The authors cover the vulnerabilities of such systems. Enemy nuclear attacks could cause high-altitude electromagnetic pulses, which would cut off a portion of the space-based NC3 systems. The space portions of NC3 are vulnerable to space anomalies such as solar flares. Having an established space-borne NC3 is considered a sunk cost as these aging systems are facing creeping obsolescence with no way to refresh the systems.

The core argument of the book is the introduction of cyber warfare into the NC3 system. The work highlights and outlines the vulnerabilities of the current system and how NC3 is important for nuclear deterrence. Cyber operations differ from nuclear employment due to their unique need of being prepared in advance of employment. A cyber operation must be preplanned and hidden from the enemy actor. These operations may lay dormant for decades without the user knowing they have been infiltrated. Further, the low cost of cyber operations allows many non-nuclear nations and nonstate actors to have the ability to participate in such activities. Cyber introduces a new threat to NC3 capabilities and the full extent of potential threats to NC3 have not been explored or developed.

The challenges to NC3 will be the ability to create a common identity and to modernize and adapt to meet a changing technological and strategic environment. The example the authors provide is the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite program of the early 2000s. The program was designed to adopt a common communication architecture and node for the current nuclear enterprise. It took more than two decades for all AEHF satellites to be launched, but the terminals required to communicate with them are bedeviled by software problems. Currently, some NC3 systems are not designed or projected to be able to interface with the satellite constellation. This lag in the NC3 development and implementation is a failure to rapidly adapt to the modernization capabilities of the system. As we press forward into the future threats and employment of the NC3 architecture, the United States must adapt quickly to remain relevant.

This book is worth reading to any nuclear professional or individuals who wish to have a deeper understanding of the communication backbone of US nuclear deterrence strategy. The insight into the NC3 world is enlightening and provides the reader with a strong understanding of the system. The concept of cyber integration, both offensive and defensive, allows the reader to understand future directions for US funding and policies. The greatest value is the way the authors demonstrate the capabilities of cyber through their hypothetical scenario and relevance to today’s strategic battlefield. This primer sets the stage for our current system and provides insight for future capabilities. 

Captain Thomas J. Urbanek, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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