WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers are pushing for a clearer catalog of spending on nuclear command, control and communications, the means through which the devastating arsenal is readied, coordinated and potentially used.
Members of the House strategic forces panel included in a draft of fiscal 2024 defense legislation a provision to establish a major force program for NC3, a highly guarded topic. The proposal was shared June 12, alongside additional National Defense Authorization Act input from other subcommittees.
Major force programs are featured in Pentagon budgets as collections of related programs and resources; they are one of several lenses that can be applied to analyze national security investments. Already existing filters include research and development, support of other nations, special operations forces and more.
A grouping specifically for NC3 would help “aggregate and better track sustainment and modernization efforts,” according to the draft language. The Congressional Budget Office previously estimated plans to replace aging NC3 systems would cost $77 billion between 2019 and 2028.
The Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, published last year, pledged to strengthen nuclear command and control, including further insulation from cyber, space-based and electromagnetic attack. Different nuclear weapon types face different risks, as well, in part because of their age and lack of ingrained information technologies. Newer nuclear weaponry is expected to enter the stockpile after 2030 — and with it, the potential for more-modern systems.
“You have to assume adversaries are probing it all the time,” said Greg Mello with the Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog that monitors nuclear programs, namely at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “There’s security in so-called peacetime, but there’s security when the system is stressed and communications are occurring under degraded conditions.”
“This system cannot fail,” he added, “and yet we know that everything made does fail at some point.”
The strategic forces panel is expected to discuss its piece of the annual defense bill Tuesday.
Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.