Don't Count on NORAD's Computers

The Button: The Pentagon's Strategic Command and Control System By Daniel Ford New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985 (About $26 in Canada

By David Horwood (reviewer) | 1985-12-01 12:00:00

Missiles, warheads, and weapons are what reach the headlines. But equally important to the Pentagon are the command and control systems that connect and integrate those weapons.

Using satellites, low- and high-frequency communication, and sophisticated computer software, these systems provide a world-wide net for the Pentagon to try to control a world-wide war. Two books were published last May dealing with these systems. In The Button, Daniel Ford describes his odyssey through the U.S. system, seeing how it works - at least in theory if not in practice. The failings are made clear by widely circulated stories of telephones at NORAD that didn't actually connect to the Pentagon. Ford talked to many people, notably Desmond Ball, John Stembruner, Paul Bracken, and Richard Garwin, whose comments give invaluable insight into the current system. He also talked to many individuals within the military, who present in stark contrast the contradiction between the so-called "declaratory policy" and the reality of actual contingency plans.

The other work, Strategic Command and Control, is a serious, technical contribution by Bruce Blair, formerly with Brookings Institute and now at the Pentagon.

Ford's book received wide press coverage after long sections of it were published in The New Yorker in April. As disturbing as what he said was the fact that it was news to so many people. Blair's book received less attention but we should know about it too.

The most important point is that the communication-command-and control ("C3") systems are extremely vulnerable. In the U.S. system, destroying as few as 50 targets would probably be sufficient to knock it out. These include critical telephone switching centres, as the military depend heavily on leased lines from the commercial telephone network, and several critical command centres such as the "war room and its backnp, Strategic Air Command headquarters and NORAD. Also included would be a limited number of satellite-control centres and relay nodes.

Land-based missiles are controlled by some 100 or so launch control centres (LCCs) in a complicated arrangement intended to ensure both positive and negative control; these are also obvious targets. (Negative control is well known as the so-called fail-safe mechanisms; positive control is there to ensure that weapons can be used when the codes are transmitted to do so. Given these conflicting goals, there is an inevitable tension in the system between the two forms of control.)

The consequences of this extreme vulnerability are twofold. First, since the C3 system is certainly targeted by the Soviets, there is only a negligible chance that it would survive a first strike. The inevitable consequence is that - since there is a commitment built into the forces to a highly coordinated, massive use of weapons -virtually unstoppable pressures would develop within each military establishment to strike first.

Since the pressures are so intense to strike first in the event of war, any hope for stability in periods of crisis are, unfortunately, not very realistic. The urge to preempt on both sides will make any serious crisis extremely dangerous.

Many strategic analysts, who theorize without any real understanding of the actual system, talk of "limited nuclear war." This vulnerability of the C3 system makes that nonsense. One premise for any such war would be a robust, survivable command-control system. but these systems are so vulnerable that they are hardly likely to survive for hours, let alone six months.

Ford explains that both the U.S. and the Soviet systems are set to move rapidly to virtual hair4rigger postures, since their best hope is to strike first before they are devastated. He quotes John Stembruner, a distinguished analyst:

.".... one doesn't like to overdo the set trigger analogy, but to a first approximation that is the way to think about the situation. We have rigged itso there is not a safety catch. There are many safety catches under normal circumstances. We've never taken them all off, and let's hope we never do, because the situation that would obtain would be so volatile I doubt if anybody could control it. It is primed to go - and it would take very little to set it off."

Ford has also ferreted out information from within the military-industrial complex where, out of the public eye, people feel much freer to speak. For instance, he

quotes a highly sensitive memo by Gen. Bruce Holloway, the former head of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). The memo says:

  1. limited nuclear options are not feasible;
  2. striking first would offer a tremendous advantage;
  3. the importance of crippling the Soviet command-control system "assumes extraordinary proportions." And the Soviets see the situation in the same way.

While this view runs counter to the dogma of deterrence, so often evoked as the saving grace of these overwhelmingly-destructive weapons, it is inevitable given the nature of the counterforce weapons (i.e. the MX) that have been built, and the vulnerability of C3 systems.

The system is now largely programmed to hit other missiles before they are launched; the more that one can knock out, the less hideous the destruction wreaked on one's homeland. Simply, both sides feel they must strike first if it looks like the other is preparing to strike. Blair makes a convincing case that "an attack on our command system could drastically reduce or even block retaliation." Each side would be going for broke.

Deterrence, thus, would not really exist when it was most needed; if negative control were largely lifted on both sides during a crisis the situation would be extremely unstable and the overriding fear on both sides would be not of retaliation but of an impending first strike. Using elementary probability theory, it is also easy to show that, if the weapons systems are not dismantled, nuclear war is certain to occur; deterrence (to the extent that it does exist) will fail, ultimately, in a holocaust. This is scientific fact, not open to debate. The only debate can be on how long this would take. Since both systems are set to move to hairtrigger positions, since they are ready to make a preemptive strike on the basis of ambiguous and overwhelming floods of warning/intelligence data, and since they must respond extremely rapidly, the Pentagon's estimates of centuries before deterrence fails seems wildly optimistic.

Blair makes a number of useful proposals to improve the situation, the most important of which he calls "no immediate second use." That means building a C3 system that could, as a first step, move us away from hair trigger postures toward a posture of deterrence. This should not be confused with the Reagan administration's goal of an enhanced command-control system to support war-fighting and war-winning doctrines. Blair distinguishes clearly between the two. He finds the goal of "prevailing in protracted war" very dangerous. There remains, of course, the real danger that the efforts to move the C3 system toward a posture of "delayed response" will be subverted and included in the ongoing attempt (since the 1960s) to make deterrence "credible" by planning for limited nuclear war.

Ford doesn't discuss how Star Wars would fit into the current C3 system. The Pentagon has plans to integrate it directly into current warning/intelligence systems, notably NORAD and the so-called North Warning system, which would be a comprehensive, integrated warning system.

It is well known that the warning time for missile launches for Star Wars would be very short, on the order of 200 seconds. What is not so widely appreciated is that attacks on Star Wars itself or what the Pentagon calls "critical space assets" (satellites) would allow virtually no time at all to damp out false alarms, and the proposed system would effectively be on launch-on-warning (a reflex response to a computer-generated perception of an attack). Since there are currently over 200 false alarms a year at NORAD, the prospects are grim indeed. Moreover, the Pentagon intends to lower thresholds during crises when the situation would be most critical.

What can we do? This knowledge demands strenuous action: The survival of our species, perhaps life itself, bangs in the balance, Ford's book is an excellent primer on the US command-control system. Blair's work, while more demanding, points the way to decreasing the danger. Those, like Blair, inside the system, can work for a C3 system that would permit deterrence to become a reality. This is, of course, only a short4erm goal; ultimately - and as rapidly as possible - these horrifying weapons systems must be dismanfled if humanity is to have a future. Those of us outside the system must strive with renewed vigor to prevent the weaponization of space.

Peace Magazine December 1985

Peace Magazine December 1985, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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