Although nuclear weapons have not been used in conflict for decades, the risk of their use persists. Around the world, countries are still building and modernizing nuclear arsenals. Russia, US and China are rapidly upgrading and modernizing their strategic triad. The potential use of nuclear weapons poses the greatest danger to U.S. security. According to the U.S. National Security Strategy, Recently Nuclear threat is rising again due to nuclear arms race in Asia, modernization of nuclear arsenal by Major and regional powers, statement by countries like North Korea to use nuclear weapons, ongoing missile and nuclear proliferation risks in the Middle East and acquiring of Nuclear weapons by terrorists.
North Korea has said that says it is ready to use nuclear weapons against the United States and other foes if they pursue “their reckless hostile policy” toward Kim Jong Un’s regime and that Pyongyang is improving its nuclear weapons arsenal “in quality and quantity.” “If the U.S. and other hostile forces persistently seek their reckless hostile policy towards the DPRK and behave mischievously, the DPRK is fully ready to cope with them with nuclear weapons any time,” the director of the North Korean Atomic Energy Institute said.
“North Korea’s nuclear weapons program made remarkable progress in 2017, increasing risks to North Korea itself, other countries in the region, and the United States. Hyperbolic political rhetoric and provocative actions by both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation,” Rachel Bronson, the president of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said in a statement.
Al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups have explored the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons to be used against their enemies. “The Islamic State has billions of dollars in the bank, so they call on their wilayah (province) in Pakistan to purchase a nuclear device through weapons dealers with links to corrupt officials in the region,” the article, attributed to British photojournalist John Cantlie held hostage by Islamic State for over two years, said. Once the Islamic State buys the bomb in Pakistan, according to the article, it would transport it through Libya and Nigeria to the West.
Nuclear Policy has also enhanced the risk as and both Pakistan and Russia incorporating the early use of nuclear weapons into their war-fighting plans. VLADIMIR Putin recently hit out at at America “and its allies” for plotting against Russia to neutralize its nuclear capabilities and insisted he would respond by developing weapons that would “penetrate any missile defence shield”. Mr Putin said: “References to Iran and North Korea nuclear threats are just a cover for the true purpose (of NATO missile defence).
Rapid advances in cyberspace and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and hypersonic weapons compound the risks of close calls, mishaps and misunderstandings in the nuclear domain.
Nuclear threat is also being enhanced by cyber warfare. CHERNOBYL nuclear power plant was suspended in June 2017 after being hit by ransomware cyber attack, which caused chaos across Europe. The rising cyber threat has put into question the survivability and reliability of Nuclear Command and Control from cyber attack and other accidents.
An even more serious attack in Energy sector is on Nuclear facilities. There have been over 20 known cyber incidents at nuclear facilities since 1990. This number includes relatively minor items such as accidents from software bugs and inadequately tested updates along with deliberate intrusions, but it demonstrates that the nuclear sector is not somehow immune to cyber-related threats. Furthermore, as the digitalization of nuclear reactor instrumentation and control systems increases, so does the potential for malicious and accidental cyber incidents alike to cause harm. The consequences of a cyber-based intrusion at a nuclear power plant could range from loss of confidential employee or business information to potentially causing a reactor shutdown or physical damage.
Iran will retaliate against any country that carries out cyber attacks on its nuclear sites, the head of civilian defence said in July 2020, after a fire at its Natanz plant which some Iranian officials said may have been caused by cyber sabotage. The Natanz uranium-enrichment site, much of which is underground, is one of several Iranian facilities monitored by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog. One of the officials said the attack had targeted a centrifuge assembly building, referring to the delicate cylindrical machines that enrich uranium, and said Iran’s enemies had carried out similar acts in the past. In 2010, the Stuxnet computer virus, which is widely believed to have been developed by the United States and Israel, was discovered after it was used to attack the Natanz facility.
US is also considering nuclear response against cyber warfare against its critical infrastructure. According to the New York Times, The Trump administration plans to change its “Nuclear Posture Review” to allow the first use of nuclear weapons, in response to “attempts to destroy wide-reaching infrastructure, like a country’s power grid or communications, that would be most vulnerable to cyberweapons”. Countries are also contemplating cyber warfare against nuclear threats. It has also been reported that US has been contemplating a cyber attack, to disable an adversary’s nuclear capability.
Nuclear Command and control
Nuclear command and control (NC2) is the activities, processes, and procedures performed by appropriate military commanders and support personnel that, through the chain of command, allow for senior-level decisions on nuclear weapons employment.
The U.S. President has sole authority to authorize the use of U.S. nuclear weapons. This authority is inherent in his constitutional role as Commander in Chief. According to the Nuclear Matters Handbook, published by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for
Nuclear Matters, the elements of the nuclear command and control system (NCCS) “support the President, through his military commanders, in exercising presidential authority over U.S. nuclear weapons operations.”
According to the Congressional Research Service, the Nuclear Command and Control System “collects information on threats to the United Sates, communicates that information through the chain of command to the President, advises the President on options for a response, communicates the President’s chosen response to the forces in the field, and controls the targeting and application of those forces.”
The system relies on “a collection of activities, processes, and procedures performed by appropriate military commanders and support
personnel that, through the chain of command, allow for senior-level decisions on nuclear weapons employment.” Specifically, the NCCS provides the President “with the means to authorize the use of nuclear weapons in a crisis and to prevent unauthorized or accidental use.
If the President did choose to respond with a nuclear attack, he would identify himself to military officials at the Pentagon with codes unique to him. These codes are recorded on an ID card, known as the “biscuit,” that the President carries at all times. He would then transmit the
launch order to the Pentagon and STRATCOM. The Secretary of Defense would possibly contribute the process by confirming that the order came from the President, but this role could also be filled by an officer in the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon. STRATCOM would implement the order by preparing to launch the weapons needed for the selected option. According to Bruce Blair, an expert on U.S. command and control, once the order is “transmitted to the war room, they would execute it in a minute or so.” If an immediate response was selected, “the (land-based) Minuteman missiles will fire in two minutes. The submarines will fire in 15 minutes.” Blair also noted that there is no way to reverse the order.
Threats to Nuclear command and Control
According to open sources, operators at the North American Aerospace Defense Command have less than three minutes to assess and confirm initial indications from early-warning systems of an incoming attack. This compressed decision-making timeframe could put political leaders under intense pressure to make a decision to escalate during a crisis, with incomplete (and possibly false) information about a situation. Therefore, even if nuclear early-warning systems might eventually detect the subversion, heightened levels of uncertainty and tension caused by an alert may impel the respective militaries to put their nuclear weapons on high alert status.
As General Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA noted, the system “is designed for speed and decisiveness. It’s not designed to debate the decision.” Long-range missiles attacking the United States from Russian territory could reach U.S. territory in around 30 minutes; sea-based systems deployed closer to U.S shores might arrive in half that time. If the United States wanted to retaliate before U.S. weapons, or, more importantly, the U.S. command and control system, were degraded by an attack, then the entire process of identifying, assessing, communicating, deciding, and launching would have to take place in less than that amount of time. Given that some time would be needed for mechanical or administrative steps, analysts estimate that the President would have less than 10 minutes to absorb the information, review his options, and make his decision.
The rising Nuclear threat is further compounded by survivability and reliability of Nuclear Command and Control from cyber attack and other accidents. Cyber attacks could manipulate the information decision-makers get to launch nuclear weapons, and interfere with the operation of nuclear weapons themselves.
Command and control systems are the brains of the Nuclear Weapon Infrastructure which provide states to plan the management, deployment, and potential release of nuclear weapons. They allow military and political leaders to ensure with high confidence that the weapons will detonate when their use is ordered, but that they will not do so by accident or without authorization. PBS American Experience documentary suggests that it’s a miracle that we all survived the Cold War. Not because of the Soviet threat, but because there was a good chance that the USA could’ve blown itself up with one of its own nuclear weapons.
One of the threats posed by offensive digital technology is the increased uncertainty that it can introduce into the decision to launch a nuclear weapon. There are a few different cyber operations with the potential to impact nuclear weapon decision-making, including: data manipulation, cyber jamming communications channels or; cyber spoofing. Data manipulation refers to tampering with data in any given system. Cyber jamming refers to disrupting authorized wireless communication. Cyber spoofing describes a device impersonating another to be better positioned to launch attacks. Nuclear command and control refers to the process to order and carry out the launch of a nuclear weapon.
In a 2018 study on cyber security and nuclear weapons, researchers at Chatham House made the assessment that: “The risks of a cyber attack on nuclear weapons systems raise significant doubts about the reliability and integrity of such systems in a time of crisis, regarding the ability to: a) launch a weapon b) prevent an inadvertent attack c) maintain command and control of all military systems d) transmit information and other communications e) maintenance and reliability of such systems.
”Manipulated information in the command and control system could lead decision-makers to launch nuclear weapons. What’s more, decision-makers’ knowledge that information could be manipulated could make them more ready to use nuclear weapons in a time of crisis. The fear of an offensive cyber operation preventing the launch of nuclear weapons may result in nuclear-armed states changing their operational protocols to more easily launch nuclear weapons quickly or without the current checks or authorizations. Such changes compound the risk of unintended launch or detonation as a result of false warnings or a miscalculation. A number of possible scenarios involving cyber operations could lead to escalation and the launch of a nuclear weapon, based on network and system vulnerabilities and deliberate attempts to compromise nuclear-weapon decision making.
One such scenario which was raised during an ICAN-hosted expert workshop on emerging technologies and nuclear weapons, could be that malware is discovered on a computer system that controls nuclear weapons in a time of crisis and leads to considerable escalation. Offensive cyber operations could lead to the use of nuclear weapons, even when the cyber attack is not intended to impact nuclear weapons or related infrastructure. Given the entanglement of some conventional and nuclear systems, an intended attack on a conventional system could be interpreted by the victim as an attack on a nuclear system, leading to unintended escalation. An cyber attack on conventional systems, already a dangerous and destabilizing move, could thus have even more drastic consequences.
The threat to the predictability of nuclear-armed actors posed by possible cyber attacks further undermines the credibility of nuclear deterrence. Although the theory of nuclear deterrence has already been discredited for a number of other factors, these new developments are causing even some deterrence proponents to question its ongoing relevance and validity.
Franz-Stefan Gadysays in his article provides three War Games-like scenarios, “First, sophisticated attackers from cyberspace could spoof U.S. or Russian early warning networks into reporting that nuclear missiles have been launched, which would demand immediate retaliatory strikes according to both nations’ nuclear warfare doctrines. Second, online hackers could manipulate communication systems into issuing unauthorized launch orders to missile crews. Third and last, attackers could directly hack into missile command and control systems launching the weapon or dismantling it on site ( a highly unlikely scenario).
“One-half of their [U.S. and Russian] strategic arsenals are continuously maintained on high alert. Hundreds of missiles carrying nearly 1,800 warheads are ready to fly at a moment’s notice,” a policy report compiled by a study group chaired by the retired U.S. general summarized. The policy report further said, “At the brink of conflict, nuclear command and warning networks around the world may be besieged by electronic intruders whose onslaught degrades the coherence and rationality of nuclear decision-making.”
Future nuclear missiles may be siloed but, unlike their predecessors, they’ll exhibit “some level of connectivity to the rest of the warfighting system,” according to Werner J.A. Dahm, the chair of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. “We have a number of nuclear systems that are in need of recapitalization,” said Dahm, referring to LRSO, ICBMs and the B-21 stealth bomber. In the future, he said, “these systems are going to be quite different from the ones that they may replace. In particular, they will be much more like all systems today, network connected. However increased connectivity also pose nuclear threat because of increased vulnerability from cyber attacks from adversaries and terrorists..
“Nuclear weapons systems are designed so that several things would have to go wrong to result in an accidental or unauthorized missile launch or nuclear explosion. For most of the past incidents, only one or two things went wrong, so that in many cases the incident did not in itself pose a serious risk,” says the report of union of concerned scientists, “Close Calls with Nuclear Weapons”. However, these historical incidents show that system failures occur on a routine—even frequent—basis.
Nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) capability requirements
Nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) provides the links between nuclear forces and presidential authority. It includes early warning satellites, radars, and sensors; facilities to collect and interpret early warning information; fixed and mobile networked command posts; and a communications infrastructure that includes land lines, satellite links, radars, radios, and receiving terminals in ground stations and aboard strike vehicles.
To accomplish all these missions, nuclear command and control reflects a complex concept with numerous critical functions:
- Situation monitoring—including the ability to collect intelligence, assess a threat, provide tactical warning and attack assessment to decision makers, and give them updates on the readiness levels of US forces. This includes gathering and sharing information on friendly forces, adversary forces, and potential targets, as well as global events of interest. The hardware requirements to do all of this are broad and demanding.
- Planning—developing war plans, including the use of nuclear weapons, so as to minimize decision time in a crisis or conflict. This may also entail adaptively planning responses during a crisis.
- Decision-making—senior military and political leaders assessing the situation, consulting through communications conferences, and considering the use of nuclear weapons in certain scenarios.
- Force management—assigning, maintaining, training, and supporting nuclear weapons, nuclear delivery vehicles, and support forces; maintaining force readiness; and ordering the dispersal or deployment of nuclear forces.
- Force direction—NC3 enables NC2 by ensuring the accurate transmission of messages executing lawful strike orders with US strategic nuclear forces or terminating operations at the end of a conflict.
Fundamentally this all boils down to three things: understanding the situation, deciding what to do, and then doing it.
Warning systems include space-based satellites and ground radars that provide early warning of an adversary missile launch or potential attack. These include the legacy Defense Support Program satellite constellation, the newer Space-Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS), US Nuclear Detonation Encryptions System and sensors, and the future Third Generation Infrared Sensors. They also include terrestrial systems such as the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, located in Alaska, Greenland, and Great Britain; over-the-horizon backscatter radars on the three coasts of the mainland USA; Pave Paws radars on the east and west coasts; Cobra Dane in Alaska; the PARCS radar in North Dakota; and the radar elements of the European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense system being deployed in NATO. Together, these provide an overlapping set of networks that can quickly identify and attribute any missile launch directed at North America.
Terrestrial and transport systems are land-based receiving stations for the data provided by satellite networks, the physical and electromagnetic means of delivering that data to the appropriate centers for analysis, and the command posts that provide political decision-makers with recommendations and advice. If necessary, they also provide a secure conduit for orders to US strike forces.
All of these are facilitated by communications transmitters and receivers across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from extremely low-frequency to ultra-high-frequency. Each frequency band has characteristics that make it more or less suitable in different environments. Some bandwidths are easier to jam or spoof, some work (or don’t) in an EMP or scintillation environment, some offer greater fidelity or quantity of real-time data, and so on. As a result, the US Air Force and US Navy have over the decades developed multiple means of receiving data and sending transmissions to their forces so that they can reach the bomber crews, missile crews, and submarines in any scenario.
This requires a multitude of satellite constellations, each designed and deployed to take advantage of a particular capability; it also requires several different terrestrial antennas of varying sizes, including massive extremely low frequency arrays for communicating with submerged submarines. Each frequency requires the proper communications equipment for each transmission and reception. Size and weight limits often constrain how many types of systems a particular strike vehicle can carry. And in the case of submarines, the underwater environment limits which of these will be most effective in reaching the crew.
Warfighting systems comprise the three legs of the triad: bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine launched ballistic missiles. For the United States, the current triad consists of approximately 66 manned strategic bombers (B-2s and B-52s) with gravity bombs and air-launched cruise missiles; 400 Minuteman III single warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM); and 14 Ohio-class fleet ballistic submarines, each carrying some 20 MIRVed submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The US Department of Energy ensures that the services providing these delivery platforms are provided with nuclear warheads for delivery on the orders of the president. These weapons systems form the backbone of US deterrence—but they won’t work without a secure NC3 system in place to get the orders to them. All three legs are scheduled to be replaced with modernized systems in the next 15 to 20 years, requiring new communication links and possibly new NC3 systems to support them and their missions.
Such system failures reduce the number of effective safety measures in the system. System failures also make it more likely that under the time pressure and confusion of a crisis, or under an unexpected confluence of circumstances, safety measures will be eroded to the point that an unintended detonation or launch can occur.
“De-alerting” nuclear arsenals could help reduce the likelihood of a cyberattack causing an accidental nuclear war between the United States and Russia, retired U.S. Gen. James Cartwright recently stated in an Associated Press interview. The threat could also be minimized by up gradation of Nuclear command and control networks, making them hackproof to cyber attacks.
NC3 has three major capability requirements that enable it to accomplish its mission of support to national command and control. First, it must provide assurance and security. This means the capability to operate with certainty to ensure information availability, integrity, authentication, confidentiality, and repudiation.
NC3 system must meet the “always-never” criteria. Just as nuclear weapons must always work when tasked to, and never go off accidentally or without proper authorization, so too must the NC3 system comply with this fundamental law of nuclear operations. NC3 must always be able to execute a legitimate order to employ nuclear force, under all circumstances. This is known as positive control. At the same time, NC3 must under all circumstances never allow the nuclear force to be used accidentally or by an illegitimate authority. This is known as negative control. Both are critical to deterrence.
Second, the system must be reliable. It must have the capability to perform its intended functions at required levels for a specified interval, under stated conditions. Finally, it must show resilience. This is the ability to withstand, operate through, or recover quickly from difficult and unpredictable or adverse situations, conditions, or environments—the most stressful of all being thermonuclear conflict.
NC3 must also be capable of operating in a second-strike mode—in other words, after the nation has absorbed a first strike, possibly without prior warning, and potentially one including nuclear weapons. This is clearly the most demanding scenario, with all the attendant characteristics of a nuclear environment in play. The system must also be able to deal with the blurred lines between conventional and nuclear NC3 systems. For example, it must be able to distinguish between an adversary attack on different parts of the system during a conventional conflict and recognize whether that was part of the conventional campaign or the beginning of escalation to nuclear use. This problem is magnified when NC3 systems are dual-use. This raises questions of potential miscalculation and accidental escalation due to problems of entanglement.
NC3 must also be able to survive “left of launch” efforts to degrade its capabilities. These pre-conflict operations may include cyber attack, electromagnetic pulses generated by a high-altitude nuclear burst, or even direct kinetic attack on ground-based or space-based elements of the network by hypersonic weapons, precision-guided conventional weapons, or anti-satellite weapons. The system must also be resilient enough to withstand possible insider threats, such as espionage or sabotage by disaffected individuals.
Many of the requirements for a next-generation NC3 system were enumerated in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. It listed the initiatives required to modernize the NC3 system, including:
- Strengthening protection against space-based threats by increasing the agility and resilience of US NC3-related space-based assets.
Strengthening protection against cyber threats.
- Enhancing integrated tactical warning and attack assessment by upgrading sensors and satellites that provide this information.
- Improving command posts and communications links by upgrading mobile command posts, ground command centers, and transmitters and terminals.
- Advancing design support technologies to enable better and faster decision-making.
- Integrating planning and operations at the regional combatant commander level.
- Reforming governance of the NC3 system.
Decision-makers today demand ever-increasing amounts of information, including real-time photographic or video downloads from NC3 systems, thus requiring ever-increasing bandwidth capabilities. There will be a need to mate the NC3 systems necessary in the cockpits and command capsules of the future, as the United States fields new delivery platforms across the triad over the next 15 to 20 years. And there is a pressing need to replace lost expertise among the work force that designs, builds, deploys, maintains, and operates NC3 systems.
US NC3 systems today face multiple challenges after more than two decades of neglect of its nuclear forces and NC3 infrastructure. Today, however, the United States is beginning a major modernization effort of all three legs of the nuclear triad, as well as the underlying and critical NC3 systems. Indeed, some analysts call NC3 the “fifth pillar” of the US nuclear deterrent, after the three legs of the Triad and nuclear weapons themselves.
AI could actually improve nuclear security. Several U.S. national security officials believe that AI, used as a force multiplier for both defensive and offensive cyber weapons, will have a transformative impact on cyber security. Recent advances in machine learning have significantly contributed to resolving several technical bottlenecks in several fields of AI, which make significant qualitative improvements to a wide range of autonomous weapon systems.
With this goal in mind, the Defense Department’s Defense Innovation Unit is prototyping an application that leverages AI to decipher high-level strategic questions, map probabilistic chains of events, and develop alternative strategies. This could make Defense Department systems more resilient to AI-augmented cyber attacks and configure and fix errors faster than humans.
Rockwell Collins enhancing E-4B Advanced Airborne Command Post
Rockwell Collins is upgrading the low-frequency transmission system of the US. Military’s E-4B Advanced Airborne Command Post.
“We’re continuing our strong relationship with Boeing by providing reliable, survivable and endurable communications between the President (of the United States) and our nation’s nuclear forces,” said Troy Brunk, vice president and general manager, Airborne Solutions for Rockwell Collins.
The E-4B Advanced Airborne Command Post is designed to be used by the National Command Authority as a survivable command post for control of U.S. forces in all levels of conflict, including nuclear war. It also supports the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency by providing communications following natural disasters
Northrop Grumman up upgrade SATCOM capability for Navy E-6B airborne command post
Northrop Grumman Corp. will build and test advanced SATCOM capability involving the Multi-Role Tactical Common Data Link (MR-TCDL) for the U.S. Navy E-6B Mercury strategic airborne command post and communications relay aircraft under terms of an $12.2 million contract modification. MR-TCDL provides Ku line-of-sight and Ka SATCOM systems for the E6-B. The data link includes two Ku line-of-sight channels and one Ka satellite communications channel. Other equipment includes power conditioning, cooling, electrical, and network distribution.
The E-6B provides command and control of U.S. nuclear forces should ground-based control become inoperable. The plane is based on the four-engine Boeing 707 passenger jetliner.
Russia Upgrades Airborne Command Post
One of Russia’s four Ilyushin Il-80 airborne command posts has been modernized and has passed state acceptance trials.
Both the Il-80 and its larger American equivalent, the Boeing E-4B Advanced Airborne Command Post, are intended to control armed forces in the event of a nuclear war or of all-out conventional war with massive air strikes. The Il-80 carries senior commanders of the Russian armed forces, along with a team of officers from the general headquarters and a group of technical specialists to service the onboard equipment.
According to the United Instrument-building Corporation, the airplane’s staff can execute control over the Land Forces, Navy, Air-and-Space Force and Strategic Missile Nuclear Force. The Il-80 can also be used during the overseas deployment of troops, or when ground-based control infrastructure is not available.
The Il-80 has a gross weight of 208 metric tons (457,000 pounds) and a maximum unrefueled range of 11,000 km (about 6,000 nm). Outwardly, the Il-80 differs from the baseline passenger jet in having a large satcom dome above the front fuselage; an in-flight refueling probe; and two 9.5-m (3 foot)-long underwing pods each carrying a turbine generator that feeds electrical power to onboard systems. There are only a few fuselage windows and hatches, so as to protect the equipment inside from the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. The United Instrument-building Corporation further reports that it has already started work on a third-generation airborne command post. This effort is led by its member company NPP Polyet, based in Nizhny Novgorod
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