Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Defense: Declassified Pentagon History Provides Hair-Raising Scenarios of U.S. Vulnerabilities to Nuclear Attack through 1970s

 "National Emergency Airborne Command Post internal configuration." Caption from Department of Defense photograph, 5 April 1976, Source: National Archives, Still Pictures Branch, Record Group 342-B, box 731 (Color)

These materials are reproduced from with the permission of the National Security Archive
  • Declassified Pentagon History Provides Hair-Raising Scenarios of U.S. Vulnerabilities to Nuclear Attack through 1970s
  • Study Specifically Addresses U.S. Strategic Command-Control-and-Communications [C3] Systems
  • President Could Try to Survive Attack by Escaping or Try to Command U.S. Forces - But Not Both, According to One Report
  • Reagan Spent Billions on C3 Upgrades But Kept Secret Its Top Priority
  • National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 403
  • Edited by William Burr
For decades, U.S. command-control-and-communications (C3) systems were deeply vulnerable to nuclear attack, according to a recently declassified Pentagon study. The document, a top secret internal history of the highly complex procedures that connected the White House and senior civilian and military leaders with local commanders awaiting orders to launch bombers and missiles, details sometimes harrowing reports about systemic weaknesses that could have jeopardized U.S. readiness to respond to a nuclear attack.

According to the report, A Historical Study of Strategic Connectivity 1950-1981, prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff Historical Division, earlier top-secret analyses had concluded that despite the presence of counter-measures installed over the years, high altitude bursts and electromagnetic pulses could still paralyze communications links and cut warning time of an attack to as little as seven minutes. Furthermore, nuclear detonations could destroy presidential helicopters along with the vital National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP), putting in question whether the U.S. would be capable of delivering a nuclear response - the essence of deterrence.

A 1978 Defense Science Board report cited by the JCS history found that the "provisions for National Command Authority survival were critically deficient." If the President happened to be in Washington, D.C. at the time of a nuclear attack, "it would be possible … for the President either to command the forces until the attack hit Washington and he was killed or to try to escape and survive, but not both."

The National Security Archive obtained this JCS historical study through a Freedom of Information Act appeal to the Defense Department. The Pentagon had previously released the document but in massively excised form. This briefing book is one of a series of occasional postings aimed at disseminating new documentation on a variety of nuclear issues as it becomes available through U.S. government declassification processes.

Invented in the late 1970s, the concept of "strategic connectivity" described a system that had been in place for years: the "facilities, systems, and procedures" that linked top civilian authorities (the President and Secretary of Defense), the National Military Command Center, top military commanders with nuclear responsibilities, "nuclear executing commanders," and NORAD warning systems, and all the "links and nodes that interconnect[ed] those facilities with the executing commanders" of the bombers, ICBM launch control centers, and ballistic missile submarines that carried out the SIOP, the nuclear war plan.

During the Carter and Reagan administrations, both presidents made improvements in strategic command and control a top priority in response to such frightening reports. When Ronald Reagan became president in January 1981, his predecessor Jimmy Carter had already increased budgets for command-control and communication by $1.3 billion raising the total amount of new spending for Fiscal Year 1982 to $11.2 billion. Later in 1981, when Reagan publicly announced decisions on strategic weapons modernization, he included improvements in the survivability of command-control-communications as the fourth item on a list of changes; according to the declassified study, he "gave no indication that he had assigned this area the highest priority among the programs." The total command-control-communications program in Reagan's FY 1983 budget exceeded $14.74 billion.

Among the disclosures in this history are the following:
  • A 1971 report by the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group found that the Worldwide Military Command and Control System was "highly vulnerable and can be rendered inoperative by a small portion of the Soviet weapon inventory." Therefore, it "cannot assure" to the president "the availability of information of warning assessment, attack assessment, and status of forces."
  • A Strategic Air Command study concluded that the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon "would not survive a nuclear attack; even the [NEACP] was vulnerable to electromagnetic pulse and did not provide an assured survivable mode for emergency action message transmission" from the president and secretary of defense to military commanders.
  • Information on President Carter's Presidential Directive [PD]-58 on "Continuity of Government," signed in June 1980 (just before PD 59 on "Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy"]. PD 58 remains classified, but according to the strategic connectivity history, "it recognized the need to insure the survival of the Presidency under 'the most stressing conditions' (including nuclear attack)" by providing "connectivity between the National Command Authorities and the strategic and other forces appropriate for flexible execution of retaliatory strikes during and after an enemy nuclear attack."
  • One improvement in warning systems during the period was that Defense Support Program satellites increased the percentage of missile launch detections (e.g., of missile tests) from about 60 percent in 1978 to 96 percent in 1980.
  • In 1981, seventy percent of Strategic Air Command bombers were equipped with satellite communications capabilities in order to improve links between command authorities and nuclear forces.
  • A major Pentagon study in the early Reagan administration found that "current command, control, and communications would not provide assured support for an effective initial response to a nuclear attack on the United States." Tactical warning and attack assessment systems were "vulnerable to disruption and destruction from electromagnetic pulse, other high altitude nuclear effects, electronic warfare, sabotage, or physical attack." Proposed improvements would cost over $14 billion dollars.
  • A 1981 Joint Chiefs study on "launch-under-attack" called for the Reagan administration to make improvements in C3 systems to make it possible to respond quickly to warning information. One of the findings of the study was that if an adversary used early or "precursor" attacks to degrade C3 systems, the probability of "assured execution of launch under attack options" would be "low" for bombers, ICBMs, and missile-launching submarines. [1]
As The Historical Study of Connectivity indicates, concern about the vulnerability of the "links and nodes" to nuclear attack and the problem of getting strategic warning information in time to civilian authorities had been an enduring feature of strategic planning years before the Carter and Reagan administrations. For example, a highly secret report in 1960 by the Pentagon's Weapons System Evaluation Group concluded that U.S. command and control was "fragmented, inelastic, fragile, and highly vulnerable to a surprise nuclear attack." Ten years later, the Blue Ribbon Defense Panel reported on the difficulty of providing warning information to the president: "it is possible that no President could be sure ... that an attack was in progress or that retaliation was justified," unless confirmation of nuclear detonations was already available.

The earlier studies are quoted at length in an Institute for Defense Analyses study from the mid-1970s, The Evolution of U.S. Strategic Command and Control and Warning declassified by the Pentagon in the early 1990s in response to a National Security Archive Freedom of Information Act request. The IDA study was prepared as supporting material for the Defense Department's top secret History of the Strategic Arms Competition, 1945-1972 by Ernest May, Thomas Wolfe, and John Steinbrunner. The IDA study is an invaluable one that includes the broadest historical context for the command-control-communications problem, along with fascinating detail on nuclear war plans from the 1940s through the late 1960s, initial deployments of nuclear weapons, nuclear stockpile numbers, warning systems from the Dew Line to the Defense Support Program, and the first studies on C3 vulnerabilities, among other issues. For the convenience of readers, the IDA study appears with this posting.

The strategic connectivity history posted today concludes at the end of the first year of the Reagan administration. How the Reagan administration spent the billions of dollars and to what degree the new programs and procedures were effective in reducing the vulnerability of strategic "links and nodes" and whether important vulnerabilities remained are chapters of a story that remain to be told.

Another story that needs to be explored is whether the claims about Soviet capabilities to destroy or at least paralyze the U.S. National Command Authority and the C3 networks were exaggerated or unduly alarmist. While little is known about actual Soviet targeting plans, questions have been raised about Moscow's ability to launch preemptive strikes; moreover, Soviet missile-launching submarines operating in the Atlantic were vulnerable to U.S. antisubmarine warfare operations. Certainly, Soviet fears about the vulnerability of their own command-and control systems mirror-imaged the U.S. apprehensions detailed in the Pentagon history. Interviews with former Soviet military leaders and defense officials in a BDM study and major studies by Steven Zaloga and David Hoffman show that the Soviets were deeply worried about the vulnerability of their C3 systems to a U.S. first strike and went to dangerous lengths by creating a Doomsday-machine-like system to preserve a retaliatory capability. [2]


Document 1: Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Secretariat, Historical Division, Joint Chiefs of Staff Special Historical Study, A Historical Study of Strategic Connectivity, 1950-1981 July 1982, Top Secret
Source: FOIA appeal to the Department of Defense
Note: The annexes listed at the end of the table of contents were not included in the Defense Department's FOIA release. A separate request was filed for them and they will be posted here if/when they are declassified.
Document 2: L. Wainstein et al., The Evolution of U.S. Strategic Command and Control and Warning, 1945-1972, Institute for Defense Analyses, June 1975, Top Secret
Source: FOIA request; also in National Security Archive published collection, U.S. Nuclear History: Nuclear Weapons and Politics in the Missile Era, 1955-68, Washington, D.C., 1998) , available on Digital National Security Archive


[1] For background on launch-under-attack and launch-on-warning, see National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book 43, Launch on Warning: The Development of U.S. Capabilities 1959-1972, April 2001.
[2] . See David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (New York: Doubleday, 2009): 152-154, 422-423. For Zaloga's findings on weaknesses in Soviet strategic forces and the command-and-control problem, see Kremlin's Nuclear Sword: The Rise and Fall of Russia's Strategic Nuclear Forces, 1945-2000 (Washington, 2002), 153-154. 177, and 197-200.