Air University Review, September-October 1984

The Danger of Nuclear Diplomatic Decapitation

Dr. Howard Tamashiro

PERHAPS the most dramatic element of President Reagan's strategic FY 1983-87 five-year program involves the upgrading of U.S. command, control, and communications (C3) capability. Key military leaders fear that command, control, and communications in a nuclar war may be the Achilles' heel of U.S. strategic forces.1 Recent reports on strategic false alarms and the dangerously obsolete North American Air Defense (NORAD) and Worldwide Military Command and Control System (WWMCCS)2--the core of our strategic defense C3) architecture--have heightened these fears.

To meet this threat, the Reagan administration plans to spend about $20 billion on C3 upgrading. Besides replacing obsolete systems, this massive C3 spending is part of a larger, retailoring program designed to give the United States the capability to, in Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger's words, "conduct a prolonged nuclear exchange over a protracted period."3

However, there is deeply disturbing asymmetry about this new C3 interest. All talk centers on military uses--i.e., battlefield intelligence, target acquisition, strategic systems control, electronic warfare, satellite defense, etc. Little attention is directed toward diplomatic C3 needs, which are at least as important as military ones. Outside the context of a total war, negotiations in some form are inevitable following the outbreak of war, and such negotiating assumes a survivable, diplomatic C3 system, which U.S. planners appear to be ignoring. This oversight is especially puzzling for an administration that covets a limited nuclear war-waging capability.4

Believers in limited nuclear war assumes that political gains in such a setting are achievable, which implies that combatants will be able to stop nuclear fighting in a timely fashion. And this, in turn, assumes survivable C3 links for negotiating and truce implementing. Moreover, continuous communications between combatants may provide strong incentives to control escalation pressures, a necessary ingredient in all limited war scenarios. As former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger observed in 1974 Senate hearings:

If we were to maintain continued communications with the Soviet leaders during the war, and if we were to describe precisely and meticulously the limited nature of our actions, including the desire to avoid attacking their urban industrial base, . . . political leaders on both sides will be under powerful pressure to continue to be sensible.5

But one need not be a believer in limited nuclear war in order to see the need for diplomatic C3. If any nuclear war erupts, it is vital that fighting stop as soon as possible before all control is lost, which again requires a survivable, diplomatic C3 capability.

HOW vulnerable are our diplomatic C3 links in nuclear war? While much of the literature in this area is classified, the public material is not reassuring. To assess this vulnerability, we must consider at least two levels of diplomatic communication: leader-to-leader links and leader-to-subordinate links.

The major leader-to-leader link between the superpowers is the telecommunications hot line (MOLINK) joining Washington and Moscow. It is the most conspicuous, official effort to date for coping with the problem of war termination. But while it has proved invaluable for handling international crises, MOLINK's survival in a nuclear context is doubtful for two basic reasons. First, both the Washington and Moscow areas will be high-priority targets. Second, the long-range communication elements in MOLINK are fragile and easily could become incidental victims of nuclear strikes aimed at other nearby targets, The four ground stations, terminals, and telephone cables for MOLIN K are all unhardened. The system's large dish antennas at Fort Detrick, Maryland, would probably collapse if exposed to as little as 5 pounds per square inch (psi) blast overpressure. MOLINK's satellites are unhardened and could be knocked out easily by exoatmospheric explosions. In short, as noted by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 1977, "the system is not designed to survive a direct attack."6

Leader-to-subordinate links are no less vulnerable to nuclear effects. In the United States, the Worldwide Military Command and Control System is the command and control system used, either directly or indirectly, by all government departments in a crisis. However, failures in the WWMCCS have cast serious doubts about its reliability. These failures center on (but are not confined to) the Honeywell 6000-series computers, which are the heart of the WWMCCS currently. For example, in a 1977 exercise, Prime Target, the WWMCCS computers were linked to computers of the U.S. Atlantic Command (LANTCOM), European Command (EUCOM), Readiness Command (REDCOM), Tactical Air Command (TAC), and the National Military Command Center (NMCC). EUCOM tried to get or send data through the computer network 124 times but failed 54 times because of "abnormal" computer shutdowns; LANTCOM tried 295 times, with 132 failures; TAC tried 63 times, with 44 failures; and REDCOM tried 290 times, with 247 failures (i.e., a success rate of 15 percent). Overall, the WWMCCS worked only 38 percent of the time.7 Bad planning and the procurement of incompatible data processing equipment are the main reasons for these problems. The military is now trying to correct and upgrade the WWMCCS.

Compounding these design problems is the danger posed by electromagnetic pulse (EMP). EMP refers to electromagnetic disturbances produced by a nuclear blast, which can destroy electronic components and circuits.8 Some military C3 links are now being EMP-shielded, but the process will not be completed for many years. Moreover, experts themselves disagree on the effectiveness of shielding.9

Other radiation effects from nuclear blasts that could disrupt C3 links include both atmoshperic ionization and transient radiation effects on electronics (TREE). Ionization can interfere with certain very-low-frequency transmissions. TREE, which refers to the impact of x-rays, gamma rays, and neutrons, can destroy solid-state devices and circuits.10 These threats render military C3 capabilities highly problematical in a nuclear context.

The effects of EMP, TREE, etc., have produced much concern within military circles. The literature in this area focuses almost exclusively on the problem of preserving military leader-to-subordinate links, however. Unfortunately, the vulnerabilities of diplomatic C3 links are far more acute than those of the military.

In a nuclear context, the Department of State will need to depend on the trouble-plagued WWMCCS, in part because State's non-WWMCCS communications are even more fragile than the military's systems. Much of State's telecommunications depends on civil systems that are largely unprotected and, hence, TREE- and EMP-vulnerable. Some hardening of existing telephone lines and circuits is now going on, but U.S. diplomatic communications are still extremely delicate.

Perhaps the worst problem facing the Department of State comes from the direct, physical damage produced by nuclear blast. Most of the 235 U.S. embassies and missions worldwide are located in vulnerable, urban areas. Given the Soviet Union's present military doctrine, which calls for immediate C3 targeting,11 the survival time for Department of State telecommunications is problematical. Hardening alone will not give us a survivable, diplomatic C3 network. When one considers that survivability in a protracted, nuclear war means surviving not just one strike, but multiple strikes, then hardening as a complete solution seems futile.

Neither does satellite technology now in place offer a viable answer to C3 vulnerability. Certainly, satellites are playing an increasingly crucial role in command and control. They provide the most important communications mode between Moscow and Washington (the hot line), and they link national command authorities with their respective military forces. But satellites, together with their ground stations, are very vulnerable to attack or jamming.

Because of payload limits for launch vehicles, satellites are made of light materials and have little shielding. This "softness" makes them easy marks. Moreover, both superpowers are developing weapons (missiles, lasers, etc.) for destroying satellites. It has been estimated that merely two U.S. laser-armed platforms could destroy all Soviet low-orbit satellites in less than twenty-four hours.12 The Soviets, on the other hand, using exploding-interceptor satellites might be able to hit all U.S. low-orbit satellites in less than two hours. Shielding, warning sensors, reserve "in-orbit" satellites, emergency-launch capabilities for replacing satellites, and smaller satellite radar cross sections are protective countermeasures that are being studied. With present technology, it is doubtful that satellites can survive a dedicated antisatellite attack.

Satellite communications can be neutralized also by severing their links with ground control and receiving facilities. Jamming is one possibility; another is hitting the extremely vulnerable tracking, control, and communications relay facilities on the ground. These ground stations are all "soft" and could not resist more than 5 psi blast overpressure. Moreover, because of technical factors and financial limitations, these stations cannot be hardened or put in a mobile mode. Thus, successful military or diplomatic satellite communications, in a nuclear context, is a highly doubtful enterprise.

Given the high vulnerability of present C3 links, it is clear that current unilateral attempts to safeguard communication links will not be adequate. Maintaining reliable C3 capabilities will require increased efforts in both the technical realm and the diplomatic sphere.

In the technical area, hardening, redundancy, and dispersal are needed. Improvements have been realized but more are necessary.

Unfortunately, technological safeguards alone cannot provide a survivable diplomatic C3 capability in a nuclear context. We also must seek options and safeguards at the political level. The following are offered as illustrative possibilities:

CURRENTLY, most U.S. efforts in C3 are designed to preserve as many military options for as long as possible after the onset of a nuclear attack. However, it seems equally important to preserve negotiating options for as long as possible too. The suggestions I have outlined here are not necessarily a solution to the problem of preserving a diplomatic C3 capability: the real solution is to avoid nuclear war altogether. Nevertheless, these suggested measures might go some distance toward redressing the imbalance between our military and diplomatic C3 efforts.

In the theory of deterrence, a secure second-strike capability, with the associated C3 backup, is important. But for actual nuclear combat, Bernard Brodie's counsel to "terminate the strategic exchange as quickly as possible, with the least amount of damage possible on both sides" is paramount. It follows, therefore, that a "secure second-chance" negotiating capability and the necessary C3 support to make such termination possible deserves our deepest consideration.

University of Oklahoma, Norman


1. Air Force Chief of Staff General Lew Allen testified in early 1981:

In the strategic field, my No. 1 worry is the fragility of our command and control . . . . Our present network of automated command, control, and communications systems [was] conceived for the most part in the late 1950's. In peacetime, these systems are reliable and effective, in wartime they are highly vulnerable to attack.

(Armed Forces Journal International, September 1981, p. 28).

More recently, General Bennie Davis, Commander in Chief, Strategic Air Command, echoed these concerns: "It's [C3 survivability) my number-one priority, my number-one worry, and my number one concern--because there are certain vulnerabilities that we have not yet solved." (Armed Forces Journal International, June 1981, p. 30).

2. In the eighteen months starting in January 1979, the U.S. defense system produced 147 "major" and 3703 lesser false alarms. See John Prados, The Soviet Estimate (New York: Dial Press, 1982), p. 290.

For a brief description of the WWMCCS, we Richard Head, Frisco Short, and Robert McFarlane, Crisis Resolution: Presidential Decision Making in the Mayaguez and Korean Confrontations (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1978), pp. 85-99.

Information on the crippling problems of the WWMCCS is voluminous. See, for example, James North, " 'Hello Central, Get Me NATO': The Computer That Can't," Washington Monthly, July/August 1979, pp. 48-52; William Broad, Science, 14 March 1980, pp. 1184,1186-87; Harold Brown, Secretaryof Defense, House Appropriations Committee Hearings, January 1979, p. 256; Richard Gutman, Director of the Government Accounting Office, House Armed Services Committee Hearings on Military Posture, March 1979, p. 3223; "Federal Signals," SIGNAL, May/June 1982, p. 8.

For a dissenting view arguing that the WWMCCS works well, see Perry Nuhn, "WWMCCS and the Computer That Can," Parameters, September 1980, pp. 16-21.

3. Benjamin Schemmer, "Reagan Okays M-X, New Bomber Force, C3 Improvements; Defens M-X Basing, " Armed Forces Journal International, November 1981, p. 32.

4. Present C3 imbalances between the military and diplomatic services, unfortunately, extend beyond nuclear scenarios. The State Department, for example, has always lagged behind the Defense Department in crisis management facilities and staff support. See Head et al., pp. 68-69.

5. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, US-USSR Strategic Policies, 4 March 1974, p. 13.

6. Donald Rumsfeld, Annual Defense Department Report FY 1978, 17 January 1977, p. 146.

7. North, pp. 48-49.

8. For a brief, lucid treatment of EMP, see Janet Raloff, "EMP, A Sleeping Electronic Dragon," Science News, 9 and 16 May 1981; pp. 300-03, 314-15.

9. Deborah Kyle and Benjamin Schemmer, "Interview with Commander-in-Chief, SAC, General Bennie Davis," Armed Forces Journal International, June 1982, p. 32.

10. Desmond Ball, "Can Nuclear War Be Controlled?" Adelphi Pappers, No. 169 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, Autumn 1981), pp. 10-11.

11. Fritz Ermarth, "Contrasts in American and Soviet Strategic Thought," International Security, Fall 1978, p. 152.

12. Richard Burt, "New Laser Weaponry Is Expected to Change Warfare in the 1980s," New York Times, 10 February 1980, p. 54.

13. Ball, p. 17.

14. Ibid.

15. " Modified E-4 Project Calls for 6 Aircraft," Aviation Week and Space Technology, 10 May 1976, pp. 59-61.

16. The State Department seems to be moving on this issue. See Stuart Branch, "A Diplomatic Challenge: Provide More--Protecting More," SIGNAL, May/June 1982, pp. 22-23.


Howard Y. Tamashiro (B.A., University of Hawaii; Ph.D., Ohio State University) is Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Oklahoma. He has served in the U.S. Army infantry and is a contributor to Foreign Policy Decision-Making: Perception, Cognition, and Artificial Intelligence edited by D. Sylvan and S. Chan (forthcoming).


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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