It’s Not Just ‘Strangelove’ —Today’s Bombers Rely on America’s Weakest Nuclear Links
Yes, a B-52 crew could find itself … on its own
by ELAINE GROSSMAN
The original screenplay for the 1964 classic film Dr. Strangelove includes a scene in which the “Leper Colony” B-90 bomber crew is en route to its Soviet target when Lt. Terry Toejam realizes all their communications gear has gone “kaput.” He tells the pilot, Slim Pickens’ Maj. “King” Kong, “I guess we’re on our own.”
Many have noted the technical accuracy and strategic insight of Stanley Kubrick’s portrayal, but few realize how vulnerable today’s bombers are to a similarly cataclysmic communications outage.
Of a U.S. president’s communications links to the land, sea and air legs of the U.S. nuclear triad, connections with bomber aircraft today are the “most precarious,” in the words of longtime command and control expert Bruce Blair.
The nation’s 44 B-52 and 16 B-2 nuclear-tasked strategic bombers are often termed the most “flexible” leg of the nuclear triad. In theory at least, a pilot could be ordered to return to base instead of nuking a target. By contrast, a nuclear-tipped, sea- or ground-launched ballistic missile is limited to a one-way journey that invariably ends in a mushroom cloud.
The bombers’ visibility and flexibility also allow them to serve as international signaling devices. A president’s decision to raise their alert status, redeploy them to staging bases, or send them to hotspot regions for training missions can telegraph messages that deter Washington’s enemies and reassure its friends.
The risk of losing connectivity with the bombers is so profound that one nuclear expert — among several who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive nuclear operations — called it “reckless” for any president to assume the bombers could be recalled after giving them a nuclear go-ahead. In a word, any presidential execution order conveyed to the bombers may effectively be the same as for ballistic missiles. Irreversible.
The predicament begins in space. “Satellite links [to planes and missiles] are weak,” said Bruce Blair, a strategic command-and-control expert at Princeton University. Making matters worse, “critical U.S. satellites [themselves] are becoming vulnerable to attack,” he said in a series of email exchanges.
In at least one recent Defense Department war game, civilian leaders were stunned to discover that with virtually no warning, the White House and Pentagon could lose their primary modes of control over the strategic nuclear triad — space-based communications systems, War Is Boring has learned.
Russia and China have been honing an ability to launch massive electronic attacks against even the most robust computer networks, potentially including cyber sabotage of key communications nodes in space, according to James Clapper, who until January was Pres. Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence.
These potential adversaries are also believed capable of hitting U.S. satellites in the highest orbits via conventional strike. It’s not a stretch to imagine Moscow or Beijing someday using an antisatellite rocket to target the prized Milstar and Advanced Extremely High Frequency or “AEHF” satellites, the ones key to conveying nuclear orders swiftly and securely. Their coordinates are widely known, 25,000 miles above Earth in geosynchronous orbit.
“Conventional attacks on tactical communications — for example, an attack on the AEHF satellite — could degrade nuclear communications provided by that satellite,” John Harvey, who served the government most recently as a Defense Department principal deputy for nuclear matters, said in a September 2014 speech.
If the satellites remain intact, their extremely high frequency radio transmissions could still function in the midst of a nuclear war, unlike many other radio signals. That’s what could make these orbiters that relay the presidential messages especially tempting targets for Russia or China to take out in a sobering warning strike, perhaps in the early stages of a major conflict.
The Pentagon currently has three AEHF satellites in space. Eventually the AEHF satellites, estimated to cost $13.3 billion, are expected to replace a constellation of five Cold War-era Milstars in the nuclear command-and-control role. The new satellites’ advanced capability is intended to make it harder for an enemy to jam crucial targeting data.
If they are effectively immune to jamming, though, one way an adversary might sever the White House from its space-based links to the nuclear arsenal might be to employ lethal droids. China, for example, “may seek to place killer satellites on orbit and ‘wake them up’ in a conflict to attack ours in geosynchronous orbit,” Harvey said in an interview.
“It’s pretty easy to maneuver a satellite,” another military expert told War Is Boring. “All you have to do then is [mechanically] reach up and snip the electrical connection. If they did it in the dark, we may not see it happen.”
Such a strike may not leave any traceable markers, making it difficult to impossible to know what’s happened or who’s responsible.
“It’s very difficult to figure out when an attack has really occurred,” Douglas Loverro, then-deputy assistant secretary of Defense for space policy, said in October, following a government war game. “We’re all arguing about what does an attack in space really look like? We don’t even know.”
Government agencies and Congress are just beginning to take stock of the stunning implications. That space-based communications links vital for any U.S. president’s control over the nation’s strategic nuclear weapons could suddenly — and perhaps inexplicably — become inaccessible.
But even if the modern AEHF satellites remained intact and performed perfectly during a nuclear crisis, the Air Force and Navy still may be unable to connect to them. The two services haven’t yet fielded all the relay nodes and terminals their nuclear units need for receiving AEHF signals.
“People assume there are receivers [already fielded], when there are not,” one former strategic war-planner said.
The Air Force has no receivers in either its B-2 or B-52 nuclear-capable bomber aircraft that would allow them to hear EHF transmissions, according to Maj. Tracy Highnote, deputy chief for command and control at Air Force Global Strike Command’s intelligence operations division. For now, said Keith Keen, the command’s B-2 requirements manager, the bombers rely on the aging Milstar satellites and only for UHF transmissions, which are less robust than EHF signals.
The B-2 bomber is expected to gain an initial capacity to receive EHF signals from AEHF satellites in 2023 and a full capacity in 2025, according to Maj. Brian Stiles, who heads the command’s B-2 requirements team. That’s two to four years after Pres. Donald Trump’s current term in office ends.
“We [put] this multibillion dollar satellite up in the air, but we didn’t have the terminals to communicate with it,” Harvey said. “That’s scandalous.”
It’s not the only loose end. A ground-based relay technology intended to securely convey a president’s nuclear orders from AEHF or Milstar satellites to bomber wing command posts won’t begin operating until mid-2019 or achieve full capability until 2021, according to Denise Williams, the Air Force initiative’s program manager.
Asked about the implications for leaving nuclear-armed bomber crews without this relay-node capacity, Williams said, “The Air Force is not at liberty to discuss specific nuclear C3 [command, control and communications] limitations.”
In fact, say others, the implications are pretty far-reaching. “If you think the adversary might take out these satellite systems for nuclear command and control, you have to worry about the [entire] ability to command your nuclear weapons,” one former defense official said.
Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif., explained the dilemma. “A satellite in space is not survivable,” he said. The “crux of the problem” for command and control over the nuclear arsenal, he said, is that the United States also “can’t find a more survivable platform.”
As a matter of policy, for each leg of the nuclear triad, the Pentagon intends to have at least one fallback system in place if satellite communications become unavailable. Optimally, Harvey said, “you’d want two different physical means of communication with forces.”
But these backup systems also are fraught with problems.
High-frequency radio “is highly unreliable,” and its signals to bombers would be patchy as they fly to targets over the polar region, Blair said. UHF radio operates only within line of sight and is not considered fully survivable, according to Harvey.
The B-52 workhorse bomber also carries very low frequency/low frequency receivers, dubbed VLF/LF. But it’s equipped only for one-way messages transmitted to the B-52 from E-6B command-and-control planes or the E-4B presidential airborne command center, said Highnote.
The more modern of the two bomber aircraft — the stealthy B-2 — today doesn’t even carry VLF/LF receivers. The Air Force is developing a new VLF/LF receiver for bombers, and an initial version is to begin installation on the B-2 in March, according to Stiles.
Even so, low frequencies can be vulnerable to Russian jamming, which could carry a serious cost. “The weakened signals cause garbled misspellings of the launch-message characters,” said Blair, who early in his career was an Air Force ballistic missile control officer. “The rules for deciding the validity of the message may easily result in the recipient rejecting the message.”
To keep the president’s crisis-response options open in a crisis, “you’d want both VLF and EHF usable aboard nuclear-armed bombers,” Harvey said. Terminals for both frequencies also would be needed at mobile command sites after the bombers have been dispersed, the former war planner said.
At least for now, those capacities remain tenuous or missing. Trump on Jan. 27 signed a new directive for the Pentagon to perform a yearlong Nuclear Posture Review, which could help identify and address any command and control weaknesses.
Elaine Grossman is an investigative reporter who writes about national security and foreign affairs. This article was independently reported with partial funding support from a Ploughshares Fund journalism grant.