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Nuclear C3 Goes All Domain: Gen. Hyten « Breaking Defense

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This is the third story from our interview with Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about All Domain Operations. After this, we will publish the entire interview. You can read all the Hyten interview stories by clicking here. This is part of our series about the future of the American way of war and a concept now known as All-Domain Operations. It’s a vision of a computer-coordinated fight across land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace, with forces from satellites to foot soldiers to submarines sharing battle data at machine-to-machine speed. We hope this series will help educate Capitol Hill, the public, our allies, and much of the US military itself on an idea that’s increasingly important, but is still poorly understood. Read on! The Editor.

PENTAGON: The football is the traditional name for the case containing nuclear codes. An officer carries it at all times so the president, if needed, can order the use of American nuclear weapons.

But the hard part isn’t carrying and opening the football; it’s creating a reliable and secure system that can verify the president really is the president, and move that information from wherever the president may be to the bombers, bunkers and submarines that deliver the weapons.

That is the job of the Nuclear Command, Control and Communications system, known as NC3. America is building an entirely new NC3 system, which Gen. John Hyten, now vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, got underway during his tenure as head of Strategic Command.

Gen. Hyten

Hyten sent then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joe Dunford, the operational requirements for NC3 two years ago after Jim Mattis named Hyten the point person for the effort, streamlining what had been an unwieldy set of committees. We will never know much about NC3 as details of how it operates are among the most highly classified in the American military portfolio. In an interview in his E-ring office here, the Air Force general offered new details about NC3, noting that the Pentagon’s embrace of All Domain Operations will shape NC3, and vice versa.

How do we know this? I asked him if NC3 was going to inform the new conventional forces Joint All Domain Command and Control system (JADC2), or the other way around?

Yes. The answer is yes,” Hyten told me, “but it’s important to realize that JADC2 and NC3 are intertwined because, well, NC3 will operate in elements of JADC2.”

The current NC3 system is largely analog, though not entirely. Portions of it have been upgraded in recent years. For example, during a recent visit to Vandenberg AFB for a testing of a Minuteman III, this is what Theresa noted on entering the command center:

“The age of the equipment, especially anything IT related, is one of the first things that strikes you when touring the facilities used in the months-long testing process for the ICBM arsenal. While the command centers for both the test site here and the three operational Minuteman III bases — F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming; Malmstrom AFB, Montana; and Minot AFB, North Dakota — no longer use the larger-sized black floppy disks (8 inch and 5.25 inch), some systems still rely on the 3.5 inch ones first introduced in 1986.”

Since the Internet barely existed then, NC3 was not designed with it in mind. But All Domain Operations provide a global model for much better data sharing around the world. The primary sources of nuclear warning and indications, aside from human sources and signals intelligence, are the infrared satellites known as DSP and SBIRS. They detect the flash from missile launches and feed that information to Strategic Command, which, together with Northern Command, analyzes the risk to the homeland and then makes a recommendation to the White House for a proportional and effective response. But those systems are, for the most part, highly protected and separate from conventional military data flows. That will change with JADC2 and the new NC3, Hyten said.

“NC3 will also operate in things that are separate from JADC2 because of the unique nature of the nuclear business, but it will operate in significant elements of JADC2. Therefore, NC3 has to inform JADC2 and JADC2 has to inform NC3. You have to have that interface back and forth, and that’s been recognized,” he said. “The chairman, as we were going through the budget process, made a significant point to the secretary that we have to make sure we get JADC2 and NC3 correct. And those will be continuing challenges as we go forward. We have to get those correct. It’s critically important and they have to be priorities for the department to figure out how we do that.”

Indeed, one of the goals as the Air Force evolves technology to underpin JADC2 via the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) family of systems is to enable classified and unclassified data to populate the same networks, so that as much data and information can be shared as widely as possible as quickly as possible.

For example, the “dataONE” storage library is being designed to that users will all levels of clearances can get access to the data, both classified and unclassified, stored there — but in a manner that matches their individual clearance levels. Similarly, “crossdomainONE” will move data “seamlessly and securely move data up and down security classification boundaries.”

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