Can commercial satellites revolutionize nuclear command and control?

The rapid growth of commercial space makes the use of non-government satellites for nuclear command and control increasingly tempting, according to one official.

During a speech June 26, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said that the service — which oversees both the United States’ ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as strategic bombers capable of delivering nuclear warheads — was open to the idea of using private sector satellites.

“Whether it’s Silicon Valley or commercial space, there’s unlimited opportunities ahead right now for us in terms of how we think differently on things like nuclear command and control,” said Goldfien. “I, for one, am pretty excited about it.”

The military has increasingly turned to the commercial sector to expand its capabilities more cost efficiently. For instance, the National Reconnaissance Office — the agency in charge of the nation’s spy satellites — announced that it was looking to expand the amount of satellite imagery it buys from commercial companies. The Air Force has also expressed interest in developing a hybrid architecture for satellite communications, which would see war fighters able to switch between commercial and military satellites as they move through coverage areas.

According to Goldfein, there’s no reason that commercial capabilities could not similarly be applied to nuclear C2.

“The work that we’re doing in connecting the force and building a network force around the services in the conventional side has equal applications to the nuclear command and control side, because at the end of the day what we need is resilient capable architecture that keeps the commander in chief connected,” said Goldfien.

“So one of the areas that I think we’re going to be able to leverage significantly is the rapid and exciting expansion of commercial space in bringing low-Earth orbit capabilities that will allow us to have resilient pathways to communicate.”

Currently, the military relies primarily on the Advanced Extremely High Frequency System for the nuclear sector. With four satellites in orbit and a fifth to be launched later this month, AEHF provides highly secure, anti-jamming communications for the military and national leaders like the commander in chief. It wasn’t clear in Goldfein’s comments whether he was interested in using commercial capabilities to augment, replace or work as a backup to AEHF and other military satellite systems. He did note that the sheer volume of satellites in some commercial constellations provides increased survivability for the network.

“We want to get to a point both in conventional and unconventional, or conventional and nuclear, where if some portion of the network is taken out, our answer ought to be, ‘Peh, I’ve got five other pathways. And you want to take out 1,000 satellites of my constellation, of which I have five? Knock yourself out.’ That’s what I see is going to be a significant way that we’re going to be able to leverage,” said Goldfein.

The possibility of lowering costs is another major incentive to turning to the commercial sector to begin providing the communications necessary.

“What we want to eventually get to is the reversal of the cost curve. Right now it actually costs us more to defend than it takes to shoot. And we want to reverse that so it actually costs them more to shoot than it takes for us to defend,” explained Goldfien.

Goldfein pointed to commercial launches as an area where competition had helped drive down costs.

“Increased access to affordable launch and smaller payloads that are more capable has caused this rapid expansion of commercial capabilities in space,” he said.

“That may be one of the most exciting developments that we have going forward, because industry is going to help us solve many of these problems.”

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