U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) formally declared initial operational capability of its new Nuclear Command, Control and Communications Enterprise Center (NEC) April 3, which will lay the groundwork for the command to lead efforts to revamp the Pentagon’s NC3 architecture for future operations.

Last year, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis assigned the role of NC3 operational commander to the STRATCOM commander, recognizing the need to emphasize the department’s system of sensors, communications capabilities and command-and-control facilities that enable the president and senior leaders to exercise authority over the U.S. military’s nuclear arsenal of bombers, submarines and missiles.

Air Force Gen. John Hyten, U.S. Strategic Command commander, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Feb. 26, 2019. Image: C-SPAN

Mattis directed STRATCOM to develop the NC3 Governance Improvement Implementation Plan, which would help direct the NEC’s mission, establish program roles and offer direction to other government agencies, according to the command. The NEC, located at STRATCOM’s headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, will serve as the heart of the NC3 enterprise, and help to restructure situation-monitoring, decision-making, force direction, force management and planning for NC3.

“The center was created to help break down stovepipes in NC3 operations across the Defense Department,” said Elizabeth Durham-Ruiz, USSTRATCOM NC3 Enterprise Center director in a Wednesday statement. “We want to bring a whole-of-government approach to NC3 as we focus on operations, requirements, systems engineering and integration, and analytics for the entire enterprise.”

U.S. Strategic Command Commander Air Force Gen. John Hyten has frequently expressed concern over the aging legacy NC3 system, and called its modernization his highest priority in testimony before Congress. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review notes that it has been three decades since the system has been comprehensively modernized.

Nuclear command, control and communications modernization should be viewed as “the fifth pillar” of the U.S. nuclear modernization effort, said a recent report by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute in partnership with the Mitre Corp.

“The United States will lack a credible nuclear deterrent if it does not also possess a nuclear command and control system that provides ‘no fail’ communications to nuclear forces in a future environment that will include unique threats and challenges,” said the report, titled “Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Command, Control and Communications.”

It recommends the Air Force – which controls 75 percent of the Pentagon’s NC3 enterprise – focus on upgrading and replacing legacy components such as satellite receive-transmit terminals and developing new capabilities such as very low frequency (VLF) receiver terminals.