JUST IN: Stratcom Revitalizing Nuclear Command, Control Systems
Photos: Defense Dept.U.S. Strategic Command — which is charge of the nation’s nuclear forces — is working to bolster its aging nuclear command, control and communications, or NC3, systems, the commander of the organization said Jan. 5.
NC3 is what Adm. Charles Richard called “a very complex system of systems,” made up over 204 individual platforms.
Responsibility for NC3’s operations, requirements and systems falls under the NC3 Enterprise Center, which was stood up in 2018 under the direction of then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Acquisition and programming sits with the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, currently Ellen Lord.
While the legacy NC3 system has been performing reliably — particularly in the face of unexpected challenges such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — there is a need to transform it, Richard said during a phone call with reporters hosted by George Washington University’s Project for Media and National Security.
This upgrade, known as NC3-Next Generation, or NC3 Next, is being approached differently than the more high-profile modernization programs of the nuclear triad, he noted. All three legs are undergoing replacements, with the Navy purchasing the Columbia-class boat and the Air Force developing both the B-21 Raider and the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent for its two legs of the triad.
“A key thing to remember about NC3 Next-Gen is that it's not a thing,” Richard said. “There will be a day when a Columbia shows up on the pier … and we're going to operate Columbia for 42 years. Or there will be the day the B-21 is sitting out there on the ramp and, again, we'll all be standing around admiring the thing and we'll fly it for decades. Command and control doesn't work that way.”
Strategic Command and the NC3 Enterprise Center are embarking on an iterative approach to upgrade the command-and-control system. The incremental approach “will be an evolutionary thing,” he added. There will be five total increments, he added.
Increment one has already been defined and is featured in the Defense Department’s program objective memorandum, or POM. It improves the military’s posture in space as well as hardens the NC3 system to cyber and cryptographic threats, he said. It also “de-legacies” much of the existing system which will allow users to “dynamically reconfigure” the platform.
Officials are currently running experiments that will define increment two and “we will iteratively move our way forward at a much faster update rate than you do with delivery platforms,” Richard said.
Rear Adm. Ronald Fritzemeier, director of the NC3 Enterprise Center, which is helping lead the effort, said the organization can be thought of as an orchestra conductor that coordinates the various systems that make up the enterprise. Those systems are provided by different agencies throughout the Defense Department.
“The center was created with the very intent of saying ‘I'm not a program office, I'm not going to be acquiring NC3,’ but I am providing the oversight in terms of … ensuring that the operational requirements as we look into the future — as well as the enterprise-level system engineering — is done in such a way that all of those actors that we have producing capabilities for NC3 … produce enterprise-level effect,” he said.
The challenge officials are facing is that the threat environment is evolving and there is a need to ensure that there are no critical gaps or mismatches between the various components of the NC3 enterprise, he said.
“How do you ensure ... the synchronization of all of the activities so that your modernization produces truly NC3 enterprise-level effect?” he said.