Nuclear Fail: Is START in Trouble?

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Senate Republicans plan to seize on the news that a squadron of ICBMs controlled at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming went on the blink Saturday morning to delay or even block ratification of the new strategic arms reduction treaty (START).

"The recent failure reinforces the need for the United States to maintain 450 ICBMs to ensure a strong nuclear defense," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY). "If new START had been in place on Sunday, we would have immediately been below an acceptable level to deter threats from our enemies.  Before ratifying this treaty, the Senate must ensure we modernize our own nuclear weapons and strengthen our national security."

Barrasso, Sen. Jon Kyl, and others have demanded additional funds for nuclear weapons laboratories to ensure that U.S. nuclear warheads, the actual bombs themselves, are fully functional and reliable.  There has been considerable attention paid to the delivery systems, like the missiles, subs, and aircraft carrying the warheads. Propulsion systems on rocket boosters were swapped out recently, and a targeting system called REACT replaced 40-year-old hardware in the 1990s. The Pentagon plans to spend billions on refurbishment over the next several years.

But there's been almost no public and Congressional attention paid to the command and control systems that allow the President of the United States, known in this capacity as the "National Command Authority" (NCA), to communicate an order to launch a nuclear strike. These systems are often buried deep within the classified budget annexes to military appropriations bills, and members of Congress often have no time or interest in oversight.

"The Air Force's official line will probably be 'we upgrade our missiles and systems as necessary,' because they prefer funding requests go through proper channels," predicts John Noonan, a former ICBM launch officer. "But honestly, we're in bad need of a new system."

The primary communication system used by the missileers is still dubbed "SACDIN," which stands for Strategic Air Command Defense Information Network. That name dates it to the early 1990s, because the Strategic Air Command no longer exists as an entity. There are different cultures at different launch sites; others call the system "SACCS," which is a more modern name. But as of April, 2010, floppy disks were still being used to reboot the system when it crashed.

Whether command and control -- "C2" -- systems failed on Saturday is a subject of debate.    Air Force officials said that a communication circuit failed, which caused all of the launch facilities in one of Warren's missile squadrons to report a faulty status.

Several Defense officials told me that if the President needed to use these missiles, depending on what exactly the communication circuit problem was, the 'downed' ICBMs probably could have still been targeted, armed and launched by the ALCS -- the Airborne Launch Control System, an E-6B Airborne Command Post aircraft -- upon receipt of proper orders by the NCA.

(This unclassified Air Force instruction goes into plenty of detail about codes, authentication procedures and troubleshooting: procedures.pdf)

If even one missile in their squadron is deemed not to be mission-ready, it could undermine a significant range of targets, because targeters must then reprogram a missile to cover the targets, which, in turn, causes other missiles to be reprogrammed. If 50 missiles go down at once, war plans are compromised.

But administration officials reject this line of thinking.

"We're talking about one hour, and 50 missiles from one part of our triad. Even if we go down to START levels, we're talking about 1550 deployed weapons," a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.  "And nothing in START prevents us from upgrading that part of the nuclear deterrent -- something DoD has already said they plan to do. If folks on the other side are saying it affects START, they're just playing politics with this."

It's true -- the treaty has zero impact on U.S. command and control systems. But it DOES reflect -- or has as a baseline -- the understanding that the U.S. nuclear fleet, from weapons to command and control systems, works.

The U.S. can upgrade them at will. Maybe it needs to ... now.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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