A B-2A Spirit bomber, one of the systems that has received the Family of Advanced Beyond Line-of-Sight Terminals

A B-2A Spirit bomber, one of the systems that has received the Family of Advanced Beyond Line-of-Sight Terminals U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

Congress Wants Pentagon to Upgrade Nuclear Command and Control

A provision in the NDAA requires the Defense Department to create a special council overseeing nuclear communications technology. By Rachel Oswald

Congress is getting set to tell the Pentagon to create a new body to oversee technologies that facilitate U.S. leaders' communications during nuclear crises.

A provision in the House-Senate compromise on an annual military authorization bill would require the Defense Department to establish a special council with responsibility for "nuclear command, control, and communications," also known as the NC3 system.

This is a "collection of activities, processes, and procedures performed by appropriate military commanders and support personnel that … allow for senior-level decisions on nuclear weapons employment to be made … and subsequently allow for those decisions to be communicated to forces for execution," according to The Nuclear Matters Handbook.

The special council envisioned by the fiscal 2014 defense policy-setting bill would be responsible for identifying and mitigating any potential vulnerabilities in NC3 technology, providing oversight of system-performance assessments, developing the overall system architecture, and ensuring that the program has the resources it needs.

(Related: The U.S. Should Cut Its Nuclear Arsenal Before Sequester Does)

The nuclear network's ongoing development projects include the Family of Advanced Beyond Line-of-Sight Terminals, designed to ensure that senior civilian and military officials have the ability to communicate securely with one another via military satellites.

As this kind of cutting-edge technology can take years to develop, House and Senate Armed Service Committee members felt it was important to "institutional the whole process of acquisition and policy," said a Senate staffer, who was not authorized to speak on the record. This would mean establishing a new Defense body with an explicit mandate to manage the project, the aide said.

The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review noted that the Pentagon aimed to improve the nuclear command-and-control system by "modernizing 'legacy' single-purpose NC3 capabilities to meet current and projected challenges."

Currently, acquisition planning for the nuclear communications system occurs on an "ad hoc" basis that "tends to ebb and flow" depending on who is in charge, the Capitol Hill aide said in a phone interview last week.

Bridge Colby, an analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses, said the bill provision likely was prompted by the recent departure of former Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter and the impending exit of Defense Undersecretary for Policy James Miller. As both men had been focused on nuclear-communications issues, "there's a sense that this important effort could be left to drift," Colby said in an e-mail.

"The [defense bill] provision is a way to try to institutionalize potent and effective advocacy for and oversight of the NC3 system," he added.

Under the legislation, Congress would give the nuclear network a senior focus inside the Pentagon. The measure directs that the council be co-chaired by the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. The body also is to include the undersecretary of Defense for policy; the head of Strategic Command; the director of the National Security Agency; and the Pentagon's chief information officer.

Ploughshares Fund policy analyst Ben Loehrke said he saw the potential creation of the council as a positive.

"U.S. security is only strengthened by improved command and control, which would help decrease the risk of accidents or intrusions and aid in crisis decision-making," Loehrke said in an e-mail. "Hopefully this bureaucratic [change] will help the Pentagon prioritize and resource such improvements."

The House has already approved the 2014 defense authorization measure. The Senate is expected to begin consideration of the bill on Wednesday, according to Politico.

The Defense Department did not respond to requests for comment on the called-for Pentagon body by press time. The agency in the past has said it does not comment on pending legislation.