Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications (NC3) Modernization

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December 8, 2020
Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications (NC3)

The U.S. military is currently recapitalizing its nuclear
Figure 1. PAVE PAWS Radar at Cape Cod, MA
arsenal; one effort in this regard is the replacement of many
of the systems that make up its nuclear command, control,
and communications (NC3) architecture. According to the
2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the “NC3 system
performs five crucial functions: detection, warning, and
attack characterization; adaptive nuclear planning; decision-
making conferencing; receiving Presidential orders; and
enabling the management and direction of forces.” NC3
relies on a number of systems that enable the national
command authority—the chain of command running from
the President through the Secretary of Defense and the Joint
Staff to U.S. Strategic Command—to issue orders to
strategic forces. These systems must operate at all times to

transmit orders from the President and communicate with
bombers in the air, ballistic submarines underwater, and
intercontinental ballistic missiles dispersed throughout the
United States. (For a more detailed discussion, see CRS In
Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS)
Focus IF10521, Defense Primer: Command and Control of
The Space-Based Infrared System is a series of 10 satellites
Nuclear Forces, by Amy F. Woolf.)
designed to detect the launch of adversary missiles to
provide early warning. These satellites operate in both
The Department of Defense (DOD) has identified a number
geosynchronous and highly elliptical orbits that are
of expanding threats that might challenge current NC3
designed to observe missile launches globally. During its
systems and thus create a need to procure new systems. The
development, SBIRS struggled with a number of cost
NPR states that China and Russia have developed
overruns, resulting in a series of budget overruns, ultimately
capabilities that could potentially threaten space-based
reducing the number of satellites that DOD procured. The
systems; in addition, the introduction of modern
Air Force is designing the Next Generation Overhead
information technologies poses potential cyber
Persistent Infrared (OPIR) program to replace SBIRS.
vulnerability, which “has created new challenges and
According to DOD budget documents, the first
potential vulnerabilities for the NC3 system.” Moreover,
geosynchronous satellites are required by FY2025 to begin
many NC3 systems entered service in the 1970s, so some,
replacing satellites reaching the end of their service life, and
like the Strategic Automated Command and Control
the first polar satellites are scheduled to enter the force by
System, are reaching the end of their life or are facing parts
FY2027. DOD intends to have Block 0 satellites
obsolescence. This makes maintenance either impractical or
operational by FY2029, with Block 1 ready to launch
extremely expensive. According to some experts, the NC3
satellites to orbit beginning in FY2030.
architecture is composed of up to 160 individual systems;
the following discussion highlights select NC3 systems that
Advanced Extremely High Frequency
the Pentagon might consider replacing in the near term.
The Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF)
constellation is a group of communications satellites that
Early Warning Radars
provides both tactical communications (i.e., for
DOD employs a number of long-range early warning radars
conventional forces like Army brigade combat teams) and
to detect potential incoming missiles. One example of these
strategic communications (i.e., for nuclear forces). AEHF,
radars is the Precision Acquisition Vehicle Entry Phased
first launched in August 2010, replaced the Miltstar
Array Warning System (PAVE PAWS), located in
constellation from the 1980s. Paired with the Family of
Massachusetts (see Figure 1), California, and Alaska.
Beyond Line-Of-Sight Terminals (FAB-T), AEHF provides
These radars are designed to detect potential submarine-
assured communications to nuclear forces like the
launched ballistic missiles. The Air Force plans to replace
Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, the B-2
PAVE PAWS radars with the new Solid State Phased Array
Spirit, and the E-4B National Airborne Operations Center.
Radar System.
The Space Force has begun developing a new series of
communications satellites called the Evolved Strategic
Satellite (ESS) program. This program originally
envisioned procuring new satellites capable of providing
both tactical and strategic communications, essentially

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Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications (NC3) Modernization
replacing the current AEHF system. However, the FY2021
Cost of Modernizing NC3
budget created two separate programs instead.
According to a 2019 Mitchell Institute report on NC3
modernization, DOD spends approximately $4 billion
E-4B National Airborne Operations
annually to operate, maintain, and upgrade NC3 systems. In
Center (NAOC)
FY2021, DOD requested funding to develop replacements
The E-4B National Airborne Operations Center (Figure 2)
for many of the NC3 systems discussed above. The Space
is designed to be a highly survivable command center for
Force requested $2.3 billion to develop a follow-on system
the President and Secretary of Defense (or their successors)
to replace SBIRS (program element 1206442SF) and $71
in the event of a “national emergency or destruction of
million to develop the ESS Communications program
ground command and control centers.” The E-4B, a heavily
(program element 1206855SF)—an AEHF replacement.
modified 747, was first delivered to the Air Force in the
The Air Force requested $76 million for the E-4B
1980s and serves as the Secretary of Defense’s primary
recapitalization (program element 0604288F). All of these
mode of transportation when flying. According to the Air
programs are projected to increase funding in subsequent
Force, at least one E-4B is always on alert and ready to fly
fiscal years through FY2026, which is the final year
to support the national command authority. The Joint Staff
projected. Finally, the Space Force requested $66 million
performed a study on the system from 2014 through 2016.
for procurement of the Family of Beyond Line-of-Sight
This study recommended recapitalizing both E-4B NAOC
terminal program.
and the E-6 Mercury with a single platform called the
Survivable Airborne Operations Center.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that
plans to replace legacy NC3 systems will cost $77 billion
Figure 2. E-4B NAOC
from 2019 through 2028. According to CBO, this is an
increase of nearly $17 billion from its previous estimate in
2017. The increase is attributed largely to changes in the
Air Force’s approach to the E-4B NAOC program.
Potential Questions for Congress
 How would changes to nuclear strategy—such as the
possible elimination of a leg of the nuclear triad—affect
NC3 systems?
 How does DOD plan to mitigate potential cyber
vulnerabilities as it incorporates modern technologies?
 Would NC3 modernization, as currently planned,

leverage developments from the Joint All Domain
Command and Control (JADC2) concept?
 The Defense Science Board identifies potential benefits
E-6B Mercury
of fifth generation (5G) communication technologies for
The E-6B Mercury (Figure 3), operated by the Navy, is a
NC3. How would the department leverage 5G
modified Boeing 707 designed to facilitate communication
technologies to modernize NC3?
between the national command authority and naval nuclear
 Are NC3 modernization efforts meeting their schedule,
forces (i.e., ballistic submarines). This aircraft is designed
to support the “Take Charge and Move Out” (TACAMO)
performance, and budget metrics? How might an
increase in budget requirements for NC3 affect other
mission, utilizing a 5-mile long antenna communicating
DOD priorities?
with submarines on very low frequencies. It is also able to
serve as an airborne launch control system. These aircraft
Related CRS Products
were originally delivered to the Navy in 1989 and were
CRS In Focus IF10521, Defense Primer: Command and Control of
updated to the E-6B in 1998.
Nuclear Forces, by Amy F. Woolf
Figure 3. E-6B Mercury
CRS Report RL33640, U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background,
Developments, and Issues
, by Amy F. Woolf

John R. Hoehn, Analyst in Military Capabilities and


Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications (NC3) Modernization

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