What’s Missing in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review

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The NPR is predicated on deterrence, which is about “decisively influencing an adversary’s decision calculus to prevent attack or the escalation of a conflict.” What’s missing in the NPR are substantive new information-related approaches to achieving this goal.  To this end, there is a little-known solution available to policy-makers.  It is to declassify U.S. nuclear detonation detection system (USNDS) telemetry. 

Declassifying USNDS telemetry would allow nuclear detonation information to be available to anyone in the world in near-real time.  Access to this data would reduce the chances of an unprovoked or disproportionate nuclear attack because every world leader could confirm immediately if and where a nuclear attack had in fact occurred, or if it was only a false alarm.  In a scenario where nuclear weapons have already been detonated, the data can be used to assess the extent of destruction, providing a strong motive for de-escalation. And the recent false-alarm in Hawaii is a reminder that attack warning works better when it is direct, without middlemen and circuitous processes that can fail in more places.    

USNDS is an extraordinarily survivable and resilient information system comprised of many sensors fielded on different satellite platforms, including GPS.  The sensors are tuned to the unique signals of nuclear detonations, providing unambiguous confirmation that an above-ground nuclear test or attack has occurred.  Both GPS and USNDS transmit directly to users with radio.  Data are not routed through precarious cyber networks vulnerable to hacking and misinformation.  However, because USNDS data is still classified, the telecommunications industry has not yet had an opportunity to shrink the components to fit within smartphones like with GPS.  USNDS receivers are larger (e.g., tractor-trailer sized) and much fewer in number. 

Like USNDS, GPS was originally a classified military system.  It was not until the shooting down of Korean Air flight 007 in 1983, after it inadvertently strayed into Soviet airspace, that the Reagan administration first authorized limited public access to GPS telemetry.  Later, the Clinton administration declassified all GPS navigation data.  With open access to GPS telemetry, the telecommunications industry made possible everyday use of the system by reducing the cost, size, and power needs of receivers, and it led to GPS having a higher military utility as well. 

USNDS plays in emergency response, should a nuclear attack occur, by informing those in the hazard area if they should shelter-in-place, or move to avoid radioactive fallout. But if it happened today, those people would have to wait for the assimilation and retransmission of this data by systems that might be destroyed or overwhelmed.  USNDS can also help during peacetime emergencies.  For example, the system can provide the position and strength of a thunderstorm, super-cell, or eye of a hurricane.  And because the radio transmissions are globally available and all-weather, life-saving information from USNDS would be available even when land networks lose power or are destroyed.      

The United Nations maintains and operates a ground-based system that detects detonations underground and in the atmosphere.  But the UN system is for peacetime.  It is not as rapid, accurate, or survivable as USNDS and it will not detect or report surprise detonations in space intended to disable command and control capabilities at the onset of war. 

Keeping nuclear detonation telemetry secret would maintain little advantage.  Conversely, a public USNDS harmonizes with the emphasis of the 2018 NPR, which is that change is necessary, under the current threat environment, to deter attack or escalation. The decision to declassify GPS telemetry turned out to be phenomenally positive.  Declassifying USNDS telemetry holds the same promise. 

The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense or any other agency of the Federal Government, or any other organization.

Dr. Vaughn Standley is the Department of Energy Faculty Chair at the National Defense University’s College of Information and Cyberspace.  He is a former manager of the Department of Energy’s Space-based Nuclear Detonation Detection program, United Nations nuclear inspector, and Air Force officer.

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