America’s nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) system comprises many component systems that were designed and fielded during the Cold War — a period when nuclear missiles were set to launch from deep within Soviet territory, giving the United States sufficient time to react. That era is over. Today, Russian and Chinese nuclear modernization is rapidly compressing the time U.S. leaders will have to detect a nuclear launch, decide on a course of action, and direct a response.
Technologies such as hypersonic weapons, stealthy nuclear-armed cruise missiles, and weaponized artificial intelligence mean America’s legacy NC3 system may be too slow for the president to make a considered decision and transmit orders. The challenges of attack-time compression present a destabilizing risk to America’s deterrence strategy. Any potential for failure in the detection or assessment of an attack, or any reduction of decision and response time, is inherently dangerous and destabilizing.
If the ultimate purpose of the NC3 system is to ensure America’s senior leadership has the information and time needed to command and control nuclear forces, then the penultimate purpose of a reliable NC3 system is to reinforce the desired deterrent effect. To maintain the deterrent value of America’s strategic forces, the United States may need to develop something that might seem unfathomable — an automated strategic response system based on artificial intelligence.
Admittedly, such a suggestion will generate comparisons to Dr. Strangelove’s doomsday machine, War Games’ War Operation Plan Response, and the Terminator’s Skynet, but the prophetic imagery of these science fiction films is quickly becoming reality. A rational look at the NC3 modernization problem finds that it is compounded by technical threats that are likely to impact strategic forces. Time compression has placed America’s senior leadership in a situation where the existing NC3 system may not act rapidly enough. Thus, it may be necessary to develop a system based on artificial intelligence, with predetermined response decisions, that detects, decides, and directs strategic forces with such speed that the attack-time compression challenge does not place the United States in an impossible position.
Threats Are the Problem
The compression of detection and decision time is not a new phenomenon. In the 1950s, Soviet bombers would take hours to reach the United States. With the advent of the missile age, that time was compressed to about 30 minutes for a land-based intercontinental ballistic missile and about 15 minutes for a submarine-launched ballistic missile. These technologies fostered the development of both space-based and underwater detection and communication, as well as advanced over-the-horizon radar. Despite this attack-time compression, U.S. officials remained confident that America’s senior leaders could act in sufficient time. The United States believed the Soviets would be deterred by its ability to do so.
However, over the past decade Russia has vigorously modernized its nuclear arsenal, with a particular emphasis on developing capabilities that are difficult to detect because of their shapes, their materials, and the flight patterns they will take to U.S. targets. Examples of the systems include the Kaliber-M and Kh-102 cruise missiles, Poseidon Ocean Multipurpose System Status-6 unmanned underwater vehicle, and the Avangard Objekt 4202 hypersonic weapon, which all have the potential to negate the United States’ NC3 system before it can respond. This compression of time is at the heart of the problem. The United States has always expected to have enough time to detect, decide, and direct. Time to act can no longer be taken for granted, nor can it be assumed that the Russians or Chinese, for that matter, will act tactically or strategically in the manner expected by the United States. In fact, policymakers should expect adversaries to act unpredictably. Neither the American intelligence community nor Beltway intellectuals predicted the Russian invasion of Crimea, among other recent Russian acts of aggression. The Russians, to their credit, are adept at surprising the United States on a regular basis.
These new technologies are shrinking America’s senior-leader decision time to such a narrow window that it may soon be impossible to effectively detect, decide, and direct nuclear force in time. In the wake of a nuclear attack, confusion and paralysis by information and misinformation could occur when the NC3 system is in a degraded state. Understanding the new technologies that are reshaping strategic deterrence is instructive.
Two types of nuclear-armed hypersonic weapons have emerged: hypersonic glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles. Rich Moore, RAND Corporation senior engineer, notes, “Hypersonic cruise missiles are powered all the way to their targets using an advanced propulsion system called a SCRAMJET. These are very, very, fast. You may have six minutes from the time it’s launched until the time it strikes.” Hypersonic cruise missiles can fly at speeds of Mach 5 and at altitudes up to 100,000 feet.
Hypersonic glide vehicles are launched from an intercontinental ballistic missile and then glide through the atmosphere using aerodynamic forces to maintain stability, flying at speeds near Mach 20. Unlike ballistic missiles, glide vehicles can maneuver around defenses and to avoid detection if necessary, disguising their intended target until the last few seconds of flight — a necessary capability as nations seek to develop ever better defenses against hypersonic weapons. Richard Speier, also of RAND Corporation, states:
"We don’t currently have effective defenses against hypersonic weapons because of the way they fly. They’re maneuverable and fly at an altitude our current defense systems are not designed to operate; our whole defensive system is based on the assumption that you’re going to intercept a ballistic object."
In addition to the hypersonic cruise missile threat, there is the proliferation of offensively postured, nuclear-armed, low-observable cruise missiles. Whereas the hypersonic cruise missile threat is looming because adversary systems are still in the developmental stage, low-observable cruise missiles are here and the Russians understand how to employ these weapons on flight paths that are hard to track, which makes them hard to target. According to the 2019 Missile Defense Review, “Russia and China are developing advanced cruise missiles and hypersonic missile capabilities that can travel at exceptional speeds with unpredictable flight paths that challenge our existing defensive systems.” And finally, Russia has threatened nuclear first use strikes against U.S. allies and partners. Land-attack cruise missiles can be launched from any platform, including aircraft, ships, submarines, or ground-based launchers.
Land-attack cruise missiles are a challenge for today’s detection and air defense systems. Cruise missiles can fly at low altitudes, use terrain features, and fly circuitous routes to a target, avoiding radar detection, interception, or target identification. Improved defensive capabilities and flight paths have made low-observable or land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) even less visible. They can also be launched in a salvo to approach a target simultaneously from different directions.
According to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center:
"The Club-K cruise missile “container launcher” weapon system, produced and marketed by a Russian firm, looks like a standard shipping container. The company claims the system can launch cruise missiles from cargo ships, trains, or commercial trucks. Beginning in fall 2015, Russia fired LACMs from surface ships, submarines, and aircraft in support of ongoing military operations in Syria."
The analysis went on to add, “The cruise missile threat to US forces is increasing. The majority of LACMs are subsonic, but supersonic and hypersonic missile will be deployed in the future. LACMs also have increased survivability by minimizing radar signature and/or the use of chaff and decoys.” The newest generation of these missiles poses a real threat, specifically to the U.S. NC3 system, and they may be used as precursor attack weapons to disable or destroy critical nodes within that system.
An Automated Solution
The use of automation in the NC3 system is not entirely new. In fact, beginning in the 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union pursued the development of automated systems within the areas of threat detection, logistical planning, message traffic, and weapon-system guidance. Sometime in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union developed and deployed the Perimeter system, which, according to David Hoffman’s book, The Dead Hand, became “ultrafast and automated” once Soviet leadership gave the order — launching the remaining Soviet nuclear arsenal. The Perimeter system is believed to remain in operation today. In a recent interview, Colonel General Viktor Yesin, who commanded Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces in the 1990s, described Russia’s Perimeter system as both improved and functioning.
Early on, nuclear-armed states identified the possibilities of not only automation but also artificial intelligence and computer-based intelligent behavior for nuclear deterrence. However, they also saw the limitations of both. SAGE, an early NC3 system fielded and abandoned by the United States, may be called an early effort to incorporate nascent artificial intelligence into what was — six decades ago — one of the most advanced systems in existence. Given the dramatic consequences that a system failure would have, U.S. leadership was reluctant to hand over higher-order assessments and launch decisions to systems based on artificial intelligence. A human had to remain “in the loop.” The Soviet Union was the only country that pursued the development of an automated command and control system for nuclear weapons. However, Perimeter was meant to be activated only in the exceptional case where the Soviet leadership feared its own inability to command and control Soviet nuclear forces. From a Western point of view, this was very unlikely, particularly after the United States became aware of Perimeter’s existence and used its nuclear doctrine to signal to the Soviet Union that the Soviet leadership would not be directly targeted.
Today’s nuclear command, control, and communications system is a collection of activities, infrastructure, and people necessary to ensure the required connectivity and functions to safely and securely employ the nation’s nuclear arsenal. This system of systems, processes, and people must inevitably be capable of detecting launches anywhere in the world and have the ability to launch a nuclear strike against an adversary. The system must work in all hazards, under all stressors, and in a timely manner. In other words, an adversary must believe that the United States will detect a nuclear launch and answer with a devastating response, which should prevent an adversary from ever launching a first strike. This is the essence of American deterrence strategy.
The NC3 system currently works in the following way. In the pre-, trans-, and post-attack environment, continuous communications between decision makers and fielded units (NC3 connectivity) is essential for nuclear response deliberation, nuclear retaliation authorization, and nuclear war termination. The system requires a graceful degradation of connectivity in the aftermath of kinetic (blast) and non-kinetic (electromagnetic pulse and cyber) attack upon the architecture. In other words, in a pre-attack environment, the NC3 “thick line” includes the full range of communication systems upon which command and control rely. However, in a trans- or post-attack environment, the NC3 “thin line” will still provide decision makers the ability to communicate, but to a much degraded degree. This expectation of uninterrupted communication from the system is premised on assumptions about the pre- and post-attack environment that may no longer be accurate.
It is easily conceivable that attack-time compression will reorder this process: the president will decide ahead of time what response will take place for a given action and it will then be left to artificial intelligence to detect an attack, decide which response is appropriate (based on previously approved options), and direct an American response. Such a system would differ significantly from the Russian Perimeter system since it would be far more than an automated “dead man” switch — the system itself would determine the response based on its own assessment of the inbound threat.
Options for Escaping the Dilemma
There are three primary options we see for escaping the dilemma presented. First, the United States can refocus its nuclear modernization effort to field a much more robust second-strike capability that allows the United States to absorb an unexpected first strike before deciding on a response. This option would pose a myriad of ethical and political challenges, including accepting the deaths of many Americans in the first strike, the possible decapitation of U.S. leadership, and the likely degradation of the United States’ nuclear arsenal and NC3 capability. However, a second-strike-focused nuclear deterrent could also deter an adversary from thinking that the threats discussed above provide an advantage sufficient to make a first strike worth the risk.
Refocusing the American nuclear modernization effort on improving the second-strike capability would require a rather radical change in the current modernization plan, which is already expected to cost $494 billion over the next decade. For example, rather than replacing the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile with the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent in existing launch facilities (missile silos), the delivery vehicles would, for example, need to be road- and rail-mobile to make a successful first strike against the United States much more difficult. The Russians have already taken this step with their modernization program, which includes replacing aging rail- and road-mobile systems and missile silos, as well as a submarine capability. In short, American modernization would necessarily shift to a focus on survivability and durability, with an expectation that the United States would absorb and respond to a nuclear first strike it did not see coming. There are, of course, other options available for achieving the required effect, all of which require a significant departure from the existing modernization and deployment plan.
Second, nuclear modernization could focus on improvements to pre-launch strategic warning, such as improved surveillance and reconnaissance, as part of a larger preemption strategy. This approach would also require instituting a damage prevention or limitation first-strike policy that allowed the president to launch a nuclear attack based on strategic warning. Such an approach would be controversial, but could deter an adversary from approaching the United States’ perceived red lines.
Refocusing on strategic warning, specifically all-source intelligence that provides indication that an adversary is preparing to attack the United States, would necessarily be accompanied by a policy of preemptive attack by the United States. In essence, once intelligence revealed that the United States was facing an imminent attack, “kill or be killed” would become the new motto of nuclear forces. Absent sufficient time to detect the launch of an adversary’s weapons, decide on a response, and then direct a retaliatory response, preemption may be the only viable policy for saving American lives. This approach to the use of nuclear weapons is antithetical to American values, but if the alternative is the destruction of American society, preemption may be the more acceptable option.
Third, nuclear modernization could focus on compressing the time available to an adversary to detect, decide, and direct. This would be done in an effort to force an adversary to back away from destabilizing actions and come to the negotiating table. Such a strategy is premised on the idea that mutual vulnerability makes the developing strategic environment untenable for both sides and leads to arms control agreements that are specifically designed to force adversaries to back away from fielding first-strike capabilities. The challenge with this approach is that if a single nuclear power (China, for example) refuses to participate, arms control becomes untenable and a race for first-strike dominance ensues.
The United States could impose attack-time compression on an adversary by fielding systems similar to the ground-launched cruise missiles or intermediate-range ballistic missiles near the adversary’s borders or coastlines. The fear of a surprise attack has the potential to be destabilizing, but can also achieve the desired effect. Thus, fielding the long-range stand-off nuclear cruise missile and placing it aboard ships and submarines, in addition to bombers, would also serve as a means of compressing time. This may not have been the purpose of these weapons during the Cold War, but this is no longer an era bound by Cold War rules, norms, or thinking. The strategy behind this focus would be to hold an adversary at similar risk to that facing the United States, driving an adversary to take less risk and potentially seek arms control agreements. In essence, this is how and why the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty was formed.
Admittedly, each of the three options — robust second strike, preemption, and equivalent danger — has drawbacks. Given that U.S. adversaries are unlikely to end their modernization programs and redeploy inferior weapons, the difficult choices facing the United States are unlikely to improve. Rather, they will almost certainly get worse. For China and especially Russia, nuclear weapons are becoming increasingly important.
There is a fourth option. The United States could develop an NC3 system based on artificial intelligence. Such an approach could overcome the attack-time compression challenge.
DARPA’s Knowledge-directed Artificial Intelligence Reasoning Over Schemas program is an example of how an American NC3 system based on artificial intelligence might function. Fusing the contextual and temporal events of a nuclear attack into an analytic-based artificial intelligence capability may ensure rapid comprehension and in turn generate associated and prompt actionable responses. The biggest challenge for such a system is its ability to learn and adapt. Unlike the game of Go, which the current world champion is a supercomputer, Alpha Go Zero, that learned through an iterative process, in nuclear conflict there is no iterative learning process. Thus, a fully empowered “general” artificial intelligence system that learns may be far more difficult to design than a “narrow” artificial intelligence system that engages in limited analysis and decision-making. Artificial intelligence is perhaps best poised to assist humans when it comes to the dimensions of detecting a nuclear attack and deciding which planned option best meets the criteria designed by programmers. Here, artificial intelligence may, to a small degree, mitigate the tyranny of attack-time compression and accelerate wartime decision-making. However, when a president may have, at most, six minutes to make a decision, time compression still poses a fundamental problem.
Artificial intelligence is already being used for target identification, controlling autonomous platforms, pattern recognition, and a number of other wartime tasks. It is capable of processing vast amounts of information very quickly and assessing the pros and cons of alternative actions in a thoroughly unemotional manner. According to Vincent Boulanin:
"Recent advances in artificial intelligence could be leveraged in all aspects of the nuclear enterprise. Machine learning could boost the detection capabilities of extant early warning systems and improve the possibility for human analysts to do a cross-analysis of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) data. Machine learning could be used to enhance the protection of the command and control architecture against cyberattacks and improve the way resources, including human forces, are managed. Machine learning advances could boost the capabilities of non-nuclear means of deterrence: be it conventional (air defence systems), electronic (jamming) or cyber."
However, artificial intelligence is no panacea. Its failures are numerous. And the fact that there is profound concern by well-respected experts in the field that science fiction may become reality, because artificial intelligence designers cannot control their creation, should not be dismissed. For the United States, every option presents significant risk and uncertainty. Reality, however, is progressing to a point where the United States must address the challenge we outlined above. Russia and China are not constrained by the same moral dilemmas that keep Americans awake at night. Rather, they are focused on creating strategic advantage for their countries.
Technology is reducing the minutes available to American senior leadership in a future nuclear attack. The United States can no longer ignore this situation nor wish it away. Whether America builds an NC3 system based on artificial intelligence, pursues one of the other options presented, or takes another path is not our primary concern. The challenge, as we see it, is that neither the current modernization path nor the approach offered by nuclear minimalists adequately accounts for the effects of shrinking decision time.
While the psychology of deterrence has not changed, we believe that time compression is changing the risk-reward calculation of our adversaries. Nuclear deterrence creates stability and depends on an adversary’s perception that it cannot destroy the United States with a surprise attack, prevent a guaranteed retaliatory strike, or prevent the United States from effectively commanding and controlling its nuclear forces. That perception begins with an assured ability to detect, decide, and direct a second strike. In this area, the balance is shifting away from the United States.
While many opponents of nuclear modernization oppose the current plan to field the ground-based strategic deterrent and long-range stand-off cruise missile, we believe these programs, while necessary, do not fundamentally solve the attack-time compression challenge. Rather than simply replacing current systems with a new version, it is time to fundamentally rethink the U.S. approach to nuclear deterrence.
U.S. adversaries are not interested in maintaining the status quo. They are actively working to change it. U.S. adversaries are working on their own fait accompli that will leave the United States in a position where capitulation to a new geostrategic order is its only option. The United States cannot allow that. The United States must re-examine its view of an old concept in light of fundamental technological change. Moving forward as if twentieth-century paradigms are still valid is not an option. It is time both sides of the nuclear arms debate come to that realization.
Dr. Adam Lowther is Director of Research and Education at the Louisiana Tech Research Institute (LTRI) where he teaches deterrence strategy, NC3 History, and Integrated Tactical Warning and Attack Assessment in several nuclear command, control, and communication courses for the U.S. Air Force. He served in several nuclear strategy and policy positions within the federal government and began his career in the U.S. Navy.
Curtis McGiffin is Associate Dean, School of Strategic Force Studies, at the Air Force Institute of Technology and an adjunct professor for Missouri State University’s Department of Defense and Strategic Studies where he teaches strategic nuclear deterrence theory and NC3 education. He is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel with over 26 years of service, including 17 years serving within the nuclear enterprise.
The authors thank Mike Guillot, editor of Strategic Studies Quarterly, for his insights.
The views expressed are those of the authors alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, Missouri State University, or Louisiana Tech University.