NC3 Modernization: A Future Defined by Advanced Sensors and Open Systems

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Tech. Sgt. Robert D. Gonzalez operates a Strategic Automated Command Control system at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., Sept. 9, 2020. Barksdale's command post is responsible for providing nuclear command and control for military forces. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jacob B. Wrightsman)

Ever since their invention in the Second World War, nuclear weapons have maintained an essential role in U.S. national security and deterrence of major conflict.   The recently released 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and Nuclear Posture Review, once again reaffirmed the critical need for a secure and effective nuclear deterrent.  Ongoing global events demonstrate the threat of nuclear weapon employment persists, therefore a continued need for a credible nuclear deterrent capability remains a top priority for the Department of Defense and the Nation.

The NDS went on to explain that, “to maintain credible and effective deterrence of both large-scale and limited nuclear attacks from a range of adversaries, the Department (of Defense) will modernize nuclear forces, nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3), and the nuclear weapon production enterprise, and strengthen extended deterrence.”

“…how do we leverage more from open systems, how do we ensure that we are really keeping pace with threats as they evolve? Those are questions that we are really hoping we can help the military answer.” – Elaine Bitonti

The United States’ nuclear enterprise, including nuclear-capable naval fleets, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), and airborne squadrons, is arguably the best in the world.   In recent years though, potential adversaries of the United States have been rapidly growing and modernizing their nuclear forces, weapons, and support capabilities.

The United States is in the process of modernizing its legacy nuclear forces and modernizing NC3 systems to counter growing threats, including space-based and cyber threats. Industry partners, including Collins Aerospace, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics, recently took to the stage during the AFA’s Air Space Cyber 2022 event to share how they see their teams supporting a future-focused and, most importantly, modernized nuclear command and control.

“From the Collins perspective, we are really focused on how we can help speed up the modernization process,” Elaine Bitonti, Vice President of JADC2 Experimentation & Demonstration, and Business Development at Collins Aerospace began. “How do we leverage more from commercial spaces, how do we leverage more from open systems, how do we ensure that we are really keeping pace with threats as they evolve? Those are questions that we are really hoping we can help the military answer.”

Bitonti was joined by Northrop Grumman’s Vice President of Government Programs, Lt. Gen. James “Jim” Kowalski, USAF (Ret.), and General Dynamic’s Vice President of Strategic Missions Systems, Michael Beltrani, who both agreed that adversaries have shown signs of picking up the pace with their modernization efforts. “As those threats evolve,” Bitonti continued, “we need to make sure we are creating and utilizing advanced systems and sensors so that we can properly detect what’s happening on the adversary side and plan accordingly.”

The Modern Battlespace has written about the benefits and potential for next-generation sensors and systems as well as how connectivity can provide crucial information from across the battlefield. However, Bitonti went a step further, calling for the industry to continue investing in more advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities. “We are going to integrate AI into the decision-making process because it will provide a critical service,” she said.

“In other areas, we have open standards, avionics, mission systems, etcetera. But I would encourage the industry and our government and military partners to work on that. There is a major benefit to its use…” – Elaine Bitonti

Bitonti continued, “…humans are only able to process data so fast, and they can only remember so much. If communications go down, having a system in place that can assess a situation and provide tactical recommendations based on all the available information would make our forces best positioned to address anything that may come up.”

While the integration of advanced sensors and AI will have a tremendous impact on the capabilities of strategic weapons command and control, Bitonti and Kowalski noted that both are run on software. “Like Jim [Kowalski] just noted, there is a question about how we can keep these systems updated,” she said.

“This is where open systems can really make a difference. Let’s take the hypothetical that there is an emerging threat, and we see indications that a particular platform or system isn’t effective. In that situation, we need to know how quickly we can change to a different platform. We must be able to answer from an industry perspective to be truly agile.” Bitonti continued, noting that the use of open systems would allow for updates to get applied and integrated faster, ideally at the speed of battlefield changes.

Bitonti added that the unique nature of the NC3 ecosystem means there is no open standard. “In other areas, we have open standards, avionics, mission systems, etcetera. But I would encourage the industry and our government and military partners to work on that. There is a major benefit to its use,” Bitonti said. “When the government is clear about the standard, and industry can develop to that, we can all field capability faster, we can understand what’s going to be needed from a certification perspective, and we can work on how to isolate the needed aspect for certification to make that process go quickly, while not losing the ability to bring in new capabilities.”

“As those threats evolve we need to make sure we are creating and utilizing advanced systems and sensors so that we can properly detect what’s happening on the adversary side and plan accordingly.” – Elaine Bitonti

In the final round of questions, Lt Gen Dawkins asked Bitonti about the future of HF and “What is the next big innovation?”   Bitonti noted that there have been significant advantages in HF and what we have today and in the future “isn’t your grandfather’s HF.”   Bitonti elaborated that digital HF offers many advantages and opportunities to increase data throughput, speed of connections, and automatic link establishment.   She further explained the need and advantages of a diversity of links in the NC3 mission area.

Before concluding, the panel noted that while every aspect of DoD doctrine can benefit from modernization, NC3 is unique in its ability to be made far more efficient with modern technology. It is just up to the industry and military partners to enable its creation and all three panelists urged everyone to consider the benefits of a truly modern NC3 while warning that the risks may be too great to even consider.

To learn more about how Collins Aerospace is working with industry and government partners to bring modernization and open systems to NC3, click HERE.