Exclusive: Interview with Gen. Robin Rand, Head of Air Force Global Strike Command
Photo: Air Force
SHREVEPORT, La. — When the Air Force chief of staff told Gen. Robin Rand that he was going to lead Global Strike Command and that this job would include oversight of NC3, he didn’t immediately know what the acronym meant.
“I didn’t know how to spell NC3. I didn’t tell him that. ... Now I dream about it,” he said Nov. 14 in a speech at the Air Force Global Strike Command Innovation and Technology Symposium, sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association.
He dreams about nuclear command, control and communications now because parts of the system of systems that allows the president to send orders to nuclear forces have become outdated, he said at the event in Shreveport, Louisiana. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was a turning point, he said.
“This is a very difficult challenge we have as we have allowed this system of systems to atrophy,” he said. In April, the command established the Nuclear Command, Control and Communications Center at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, to serve as a single point of contact and to advocate for modernization of the system.
“A resurgent Russia made us look at some things differently and served as a wake-up call,” Rand told National Defense in an exclusive interview after the speech. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. You mentioned in your speech the nuclear command and control were not up to standards. Can you expand on that a little bit?
A. NC3 weapon systems is made up of multiple different types of weapon systems, everything from [military satellite communications systems] to the command post terminals ... There are a huge number — 107 different systems to get our hands around. And I will be honest with you, the system atrophied for a lot of different reasons. We have been gainfully employed in a lot of areas, doing a lot of things. I think frankly we — I want to be careful because I don't want to overstate it — maybe let our guard down going back to when the Cold War ended. Our focus shifted to some other areas. We kind of had a wake-up call back in 2014, 2015. And we had to figure out really what was the status of these different pieces that make up NC3, and that is what we have been doing. And some of it we need to replace. Some of that we need to continue to invest and sustain it. And this is a work in progress.
But this is important because this is the ability for the president to communicate anywhere, anytime potentially on our nation’s worst day. ... We call it the nuclear command and control and communications but we can throw out the word “nuclear” because it could be for any kind of cataclysmic situation. Whether it is a 9-11 kind of event, his ability to communicate quickly and clearly is critical. It is a big focus. The Air Force is not where we want to be, but we are a lot better off than we were because we have made it a weapon system. And we have it under Air Force Global Strike and we are doing the things I think to address this. And there is more to it than just the Air Force. There is the Navy and the Department of Defense, but we have the bulk of that.
Q. And 107 different systems, that is a lot. Is there anything you want to highlight?
A. I don’t really want to highlight any one thing. .... It’s 107 different things but we have bundled it into 13 different categories. There is just some need for some modernization.
Q. Are these software or hardware issues?
A. It’s a combination of both. Our ability to do extremely high frequency — advanced EHF. We have what we call Global ASNT, replacing the radios we have in our command posts. These are the things we are working closely with Space Command.
Q. Two major development programs being discussed at the symposium are the ground-based strategic deterrent and the B-21 bomber. Obviously, you get updates on their progress. Are you happy so far with the development timeline they are on?
A. I wouldn’t say happy. I am grateful that we are now very serious about pursuing the acquisition for the replacement of the Minuteman III. I am grateful that we have source selected already and we are proceeding to build the bomber, but I don't call it “just in time” — I call it “late to need.” But it beats the alternative, and the alternative is if we didn’t have anything on the drawing board. There is a commitment in the Department of Defense to proceed with the long-range stand off [LRSO cruise missile] and the procurement of a new UH-1N replacement, the helicopter that is important for the security of our missile fields. Those are four programs that we are moving out on and I am grateful for that because they are overdue.
Q. What are the consequences if there is any schedule slippages due to technology development or budget reasons?
A. These are important for deterrence. Remember the whole premise to deter is the people you are trying to deter have to believe that you have the capability that they can’t stop. And you have to have the ability — [to show] that the weapons you use are reliable. We get to control that. The enemy gets a vote on the survivable piece. Then you have to have the will. It gets to a point with anything that it becomes harder and harder with reliability, but our guys and gals are pretty ingenious in that area. But I am more concerned about what the enemy is being able to do — and continue to do — that I think will continue to make legacy systems less capable. Those are the consequences. That is obviously why we need to modernize.
Q. There are two elements of that. There is the technology development and the budget. Are you concerned about one more than the other?
A. Here is what I do: I articulate what it is as a force we need. We help articulate the requirements for the things we need. We spend a lot of time on that. And then we try to articulate the consequences of what will happen if these things don’t get procured. I give my best military advice. I have stated that it is very important that we stay on track with the systems. We have an air-launched cruise missile system that will be 40 years old in 2020 — 50 years old before we potentially field LRSO. I think by any stretch of the imagination that is a long time. And so we’re not making this up. Others will decide on the [nuclear] triad, but if we’re going to have a triad there is a time in every system you have to reacquire and replace. Otherwise, we would still be flying B-17s from World War II, right? ... We are not being greedy in our requirements. We have gotten good use out of the systems we have but to some degree they all need to be replaced because of the survivability and reliability angle.
Q. What are some technology requirements that you need industry to fulfill?
A. It is really important that we get the B-21 on time, on cost. I am engaging frequently with Northrop Grumman to make sure we have a good relationship and that we are teamed well. We are continuing to message that hard. We still have to make sure we are doing things with the B-52. The B-52 is going to continue to be a workhorse for decades. We have made substantial improvements to the B-52 and we have to continue to do that. I am very, very passionate about trying to re-engine the B-52 and I want to make sure that we replace the current radar we have with a new radar. We are working that. ... These are requirements that we have vetted. The B-1 and the B-2, we are continuing to do the right things with those two platforms to keep them worthy and be able to do the things we need to do.
Q. And the reports you are getting from Northrop Grumman on the B-21, they seem to be on track?
A. At this stage of the journey — and it is still in its infancy stage — I am thrilled. I believe ... we have the opportunity with the B-21 to be a benchmark acquisition program with us and Northrop. And I say that because we have been partners for the last 30 years on stealth, low observable [technologies], so we already have a track record. And we have the benefit to draw the lessons learned on what went well and didn’t go so well with the B-2 and apply those to this. We also have the benefit of learning from the F-22 and the F-35. And I think there is really a neat opportunity that we can be on time and on cost and deliver this incredibly lethal platform that we are going to need to get us well into the 21st century.
Q. Where do you personally stand on the manned versus unmanned issue for the B-21?
A. It doesn’t matter where I stand. Initially it is going to be a manned bomber.
Q. Do you see any goodness in an unmanned version?
A. Of course, manpower is not cheap, but I also see a lot of goodness in it being manned. That is the decision and where we are at. That is something that will be debated after I am long gone. ... I am radically agnostic on the issue.
Topics: Strategic Weapons