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How reliable and secure is the command and control of U.S. strategic ballistic missile nuclear submarines (SSBNs)? The answer to this question is crucial since the ability to employ submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), which comprise the most invulnerable leg of the strategic nuclear TRIAD in a responsive and effective manner, is a fundamental requirement for stable deterrence.

Now that the U.S. Soviet INF Treaty is signed, the START Treaty is in the limelight. A strategic nuclear arms control regime with radically reduced force levels will raise complex questions that intimately affect each side’s security calculus. For the United States, one of the more immediate questions concerns future force structure. How many of each type of ballistic missile and bomber weapon should the United States deploy?

In assessing the relative abilities of each TRIAD leg to accomplish U.S. deterrence and policy objectives in light of the Soviet Union’s evolving strategic forces and target base, a number of myths persist about SSBN command and control (C2). These erroneous views, if not rebutted, could have a most detrimental effect upon U.S. security. Proponents of these views would have the United States reduce the number of SLBMs relative to those of increasingly vuln
erable fiXedsite ICBMs, more expensive mobile ICBMs, and non time sensitive bombers which will confront increasingly numerous and capable Soviet air defenses. The result of such reductions would undermine deterrence in a crisis, if our adversary perceived the majority of our forces could not endure, and our own National Command Authority (NCA) felt impelled to use or lose the bulk of our strategic forces.

Specifically, these myths assert that SSBN communications are slow and unreliable and that sufficient safeguards do not exist to preclude the unauthorized or accidental use of Navy strategic weapons. Let us examine each of these myths.

Myth No.1:
SSBN Communications Are Few, Fragile and One-Way

This myth suggests uncertain Emergency Action Message (EAM) receipt by an SSBN and questions the NCA’s ability to employ SLBMs if required. Poor communications, it is alleged, make the SSBN little more than a blind behemoth whose survivable and enduring weapons cannot support deterrence, cannot be employed within carefully integrated and coordinated strategic war plans and, therefore, are useless in enhancing escalation control and war termination prospects.

The Facts:
Submarine Communications are Redundant

SSBN communications are not few, fragile or one-way. If the EAM is transmitted from Washington, it will get to the SSBNs. This confidence is due to the redundant nature of space-, air-, land- and sea-based SSBN communications which span the radio spectrum (UHF, HF, VLF and ELF).

An EAM directing strategic force execution would be transmitted by the National Emergency Airborne Command Post, the Navy-dedicated TACAMO aircraft which are continuously airborne (one each over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans), several CINC airborne command posts, a number of land-based fvced and mobile HF, LF, VLF and ELF transmitters, and numerous ships in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. While electro-magnetic pulses (EMP) from early detonating warheads would undoubtedly disrupt some communications, EMP does not disrupt communication across the entire radio spectrum, and numerous EAM dissemination modes are EMP hardened. If nuclear strikes were preceded by a period of crisis, additional communications assets would be generated and dispersed to insure prompt EAM transmission and receipt by strategic forces.

Submarine Communicotions are Robust

The Administration’s Strategic Modernization Program, which places highest emphasis upon command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I), continues to improve the reliability of prompt and secure communications to strategic forces. The ELF communications systems for SSBNs have greatly increased the depth and patrol speed at which an SSBN can maintain connectivity to the NCA and the CINCs; the newly developed E-6A follow-on to the TACAMO aircraft will increase connectivity throughout SSBN patrol areas in which EAMs can be received (further complicating Soviet ASW requirements); and the survivable and redundant MILST AR satellite communications system, which “will ensure survivable, effective and continuous control of strategic forces both during and after” an attack, is planned to be in place in the early 1990s. Beyond this, a satellite to submarine bluegreen laser communications system is being developed and shows much promise.

NCA Assurance of SSBN Mission Accomplishment

If SSBNs do not communicate freely, how will the NCA know an Emergency Action Message was received and acted upon? First, alert SSBNs maintain continuous connectivity with the redundant communications systems and on the many frequency bands described above. Alert boats continuously copy a variety of communications traffic. They also participate in numerous command and control exercises while on patrol to assess connectivity and EAM handling/validation procedures. The communications performance of each SSBN patrol is evaluated by an independent (non-Navy) agency. These analyses verify that connectivity to alert SSBNs over the last two decades has been virtually unbroken. Those boats at sea and survivable but not in alert patrol status, regularly monitor shore- and air-based communications with the same high standard of connectivity.

Weapons System Reliability Tests and SLBM Operational Tests similarly assure the NCA of successful weapons system performance should an EAM be disseminated. TRIDENT submarines have completed more than ten ship-years at sea without a single day of degradation in assigned target coverage. All the factors of putting a weapon on target are calculated in advance. A very low probability of failure is calculated into warplans and appropriate redundancy measures are incorporated accordingly. Hence, the NCA has high assurance of the SSBNs fulfilling all required responsibilities.

SSBNs maintain radio silence. Continuous SSBN connectivity and their high weapon system reliability assures the President of a reliable mission execution and performance.SSBNs can, if required, issue post-launch reports. When on patrol, the SSBN’s principal mission is to remain survivable. Its radio transmissions would not advance this mission. Hence, EMCON (Emission Control) is observed. Upon receiving an EAM, the SSBN’s primary mission would be to fire its missile(s). Acknowledging EAMs before launch would not serve this mission, nor is acknowledgement necessary. It would not tell the NCA if the target were destroyed, since defense attrition, actual accuracy and weapon performance, and a host of other post-launch variables would remain unknown to the NCA SSBN EMCON does not mean that once given a launch order, the SSBN could not be “turned ofr’ since the NCA could issue such an order which the SSBN would receive with high assurance. While a submarine skipper prefers to maintain EMCON, issuing a launch report would not endanger SSBN survivability for the reasons already described. A quick post-launch transmission, if required, could be sent safely. Hence, the NCA is able to determine SSBN force status shortly after force execution.

Myth No.2:
SLBM Release Procedures Are IIUideqiUlle to Prevent Accidental or Unauthorized Launch.
The Facts:

This criticism, completely false, is best refuted by an actual September 27, 1984, unclassified CNO memo on this subject: Under no circumstances is an American submarine commander empowered to ann and fve nuclear weapons wiJhout specifzc authorization from the National Command Authority. Launch authorization must come from the President (or his successor to national command if the President is dead or incapaciJated). The presidential authorization to release nuclear weapons is separately verifred by several of[zcers other than the commanding of[zcer. The various keys necessary to complete the [uing circuiJ are secured in the custody of several different offzcers and are safeguarded in ways that prevent unauthorized individuals from obtaining access. Numerous procedural safeguards also exist. All personnel who are involved in the U.S. Navy nuclear weapons program are carefully screened before entry, rigorously trained, and continuously monitored to insure high and reliable performance.

A July 11, 1986, unclassified memo further elaborated on the stringent use-control measures and safeguards attending missile release procedures which prevent a single individual or group of individuals from releasing a nuclear weapon. These use control measures include: 1) the personnel reliability program; 2) locking the missile fire control system (only a twoman control team has access to the keys), the missile launcher system (only the commanding officer has access to the keys), and the tactical firing key (controlled only by the weapons officer); 3) simultaneous and independent verification and authentication of EAMs by a two-man team as well as the CO and executive officer; 4) concurrent target verification based on a two-man control team determining the specific missiles to be released by an EAM (with the CO and XO providing independent verification) and missile fire control target assignment verified by the CO and the weapons officer; and 5) independent launch authorizations (in specific format) to the crew required from the CO and XO, and the CO retains the ability to stop the system anytime during the launch procedure.

Myth No.3:
An SSBN Can be Lost W”llhout the NCA Knowing the Fads.
(The Case of the Lost SSBN)

Much has been said about the so-called one way communications to SSBNs. For instance, it is alleged that an SSBN might disappear during conventional hostilities unbeknownst to the NCA, thus leaving a gigantic hole in U.S. war plans. Some also question how the NCA would know whether an SSBN received an EAM or that the boat had been able to launch its missiles.

A discussion about an SSBN being lost begs the obvious question about SSBN survivability in an age of increasingly capable Soviet SSN and other ASW assets. Suffice it to say that 1) the TRIDENT SSBN is faster and many times quieter than POSEIDON-class boats (which the Soviets are still unable to localize and track after 25 years of service); 2) faster and stealthier Soviet SSNs, such as the AKULA class, while becoming more difficult for other submarines to detect and track, continue to be limited against U.S. SSBNs by the Soviets’ inferior signal processing and passive acoustics capabilities; 3) a principal mission of Soviet SSNs is to protect their SSBNs, not pursue U.S. SSBNs, and 4) the Soviet SSNs that survive early attrition by forward-based allied ASW forces will have to search for these quieter, faster and more survivable TRIDENT SSBNs patrolling in 2 million square miles of ocean.

In the unlikely event that an SSBN were lost, the submarine emergency communications transmitter buoy which is carried on all U.S. SSBNs would automatically and quickly inform the submarine operational authorities through a global network of receiver nodes of the boat’s disappearance, and if this were due to accident or a hostile act.

Communications to the SSBN force are secure and reliable and are becoming even more so with continuing modernization. The connectivity of SSBNs and the reliability of their weapons assure the NCA that the seabased TRIAD leg can and should be relied on to maintain the deterrent balance in any arms control regime.

Dr. John M. Weinstein

{Tite author is chief, Policy & Programs at the U.S. Nuclear Command and Control System Suppo11 Staff. At the time he authored this article, he was special assistant to the director for Requirements Capabilities, Strategic and Theater Nuclear Warfare Division, Department of the Navy.]

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