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 by James J. Wirtz and Jeffrey A. Larsen. Georgetown University Press, 2022, 248 pp. 

Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications begins as a history book that moves from the nuclear command, control, and communications systems (NC3) of the past to the modern NC3. The book informs readers on the modernization of these systems from the 1980s and introduces vulnerabilities that come with new technology.

James J. Wirtz has a doctorate in political science from Columbia University and is a professor in the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) Department of National Security Affairs. He is also the author of Understanding Intelligence Failure: Warning, Response and Deterrence (2017) and The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War (2nd edition, 1994) and has served as a co-editor for multiple books, including Strategy in the Contemporary World (7th edition, 2022).

Jeffrey A. Larsen has a doctorate in politics from Princeton University and is a research professor in the NPS Department of National Security Affairs. He has written or contributed to more than 150 books, monographs, chapters, and journal articles. Larsen has served as a director of the research division at the NATO Defense College, a senior policy analyst with Science Applications International Corporation, and a US Air Force command pilot.

The authors explain the role of NC3 as one of ensuring deterrence. Accessibility to the weapons and the ability to use them without actually using them encompass this method. Deterrence is a war prevention strategy, and when dealing with nuclear weapons, it allows opponents to believe we have a credible threat. This system involves numerous trained personnel, in areas including logistics and maintenance infrastructure, security, missile operation, and more. These individuals must be trained and motivated to maintain the credibility of the nuclear deterrence strategy because the activation of these forces is detrimental.

In their historical account of the NC3 system, the authors describe an incident that occurred in 1958 in rural Mars Bluff, South Carolina. A bomber accidentally deployed an unsecured Mark 6 nuclear weapon on a civilian family farm, destroying the home and injuring the family. This event led to the development of NC3 and created the five mission-essential functions of NC2: force management, planning, maintaining situational awareness, decision making, and force direction. These five functions are used to attempt to maintain positive control and negative control. Negative control, which is the prevention of accidents such as the Mars Bluff incident, or any other unauthorized use of nuclear weapons, is a method to maintain credibility, which is essential for deterrence. If enemy opponents were aware of mistakes, credibility of the effect of our nuclear weapons decreases rapidly. The consistent monitoring of the five functions mentioned above are critical in the main role of NC3, deterrence, and developments are a necessity to keep up with technology.

In correspondence with the strategy of deterrence, the “always/never” term was applied for technological advancements within NC3 (146). Always be available; never be used mistakenly, accidentally, or by unauthorized individuals. This process is much easier to say than to accomplish in modern day due to the major developments made to monitor the NC2 mission-essential  five functions. Technological advancements are ongoing, and constant exploration of new threats to our systems is imperative.

The goal is to identify vulnerabilities and devise solutions to maintain deterrence and safety. On June 3, 1980, there was a false alarm that the Pentagon was under Soviet missile attack, and the US missileers were to fire a counterstrike. Although the missileers identified it was a false alarm, similar incidents occurred after this, and an investigation revealed it was due to a defective computer chip and shortcomings of safety requirements. This one defective chip could have had catastrophic consequences and is a prime example of why we need to be up to date with technological advancements and the upkeep of our systems. Upkeep must include renovations to the information technologies to mitigate potential threats such as malicious intrusion or hacking. Cyberthreats are one focus for renovation so that we have a full spectrum of defense against such threats. Cyberthreats may be made against computers, communication hardware, software, and databases. Unauthorized access to any of these systems leaves room for enemies to obtain information or implant new software which could be detrimental to the cybersecurity of the system and safety of people.

The modernization of the NC3 is imperative but also comes with risks. Fixing a system that others are not supposed to see is difficult; the infrastructure of US nuclear weapons is classified and must remain hidden. Additionally, technology is continuously advancing, so it is difficult to keep up with our own developments, as well as our adversaries’. It is implied here that although the system needs to be upgraded, it is impossible to make it perfect. Threats can be minimized, but not eliminated.  

 The limitations of this book pertain to the chapter outlining space architecture for NC3. This chapter details the history of the nuclear program and the science behind detecting a nuclear weapon attack from space. The historical element includes the development of nuclear fission by Albert Einstein and how objects circle the earth via Newton’s cannonball. Along with the history element, the book explains at length subjects such as low- and medium-earth orbit, geosynchronous and geostationary orbits, highly-elliptical orbits, and the electromagnetic spectrum. This information is important but too detailed to be relevant for the book’s thesis. The information given is highly scientific and may be included due to Larsen’s background with NATO and space research. There are elements in this chapter that are relevant to the thesis, such as communication methods and ways that our informational systems may be infiltrated, but it would be more useful to the reader to explain in detail what encompasses a nuclear weapon rather than what the science is behind topics such as the electromagnetic spectrum.

Still, this book is worth the time and effort, especially if the reader is interested in the modernization of NC3, and how that affects the people who control it. This is the first book to offer public information about NC3 from the 1980s until the present and would be most beneficial and interesting to those who are going into a nuclear career field or who have an interest in chemistry.   

Jordan E. Pershin

"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."