Congress Moves to Solidify Pentagon Oversight of Nuclear Communications

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A since-mothballed nuclear operations command center located deep within Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, Colorado, as seen in 2002. House-Senate conference legislation would order the Pentagon to create a special council with oversight on the acquisition of nuclear command-and-control technology.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
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Rachel Oswald
Dec. 17, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

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.

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.

This art­icle was pub­lished in Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, which is pro­duced in­de­pend­ently by Na­tion­al Journ­al Group un­der con­tract with the Nuc­le­ar Threat Ini­ti­at­ive. NTI is a non­profit, non­par­tis­an group work­ing to re­duce glob­al threats from nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al, and chem­ic­al weapons.

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