WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has done a good job fixing near-term issues with the nuclear command and control structure but is still struggling to get a handle on long-term issues, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.
The Pentagon is undergoing a massive recapitalization of its entire nuclear enterprise, one that a Congressional Budget Office estimate pegs at $400 billion over the next decade. That includes developing and producing a new nuclear submarine, bomber, ICBM, cruise missile and warheads — and updating the command and control structure.
According to the CBO, the cost of updating the Department of Defense’s command, control, communications and early-warning systems will sit at $58 billion in the next 10 years. While that is a significant amount, it pales in comparison to the other aspects of the nuclear triad, just as nuclear command and control has largely been put on the back burner in the past in favor of more visible parts of the nuclear enterprise.
However, there is a new focus on getting the command and control network updated, with Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying in March that it was his “No. 1 priority” among the overall nuclear modernization push underway at the Pentagon. And earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force formally launched its NC3 office, which provides oversight on roughly 70 percent of nuclear command and control funding in the Pentagon.
For the most part, the report acknowledges that the service has done a good job of re-energizing and repairing the command and control structure. But a survey of eight key programs has GAO auditors worried about long-term problems that could crop up in the future.
“The Air Force has built up its understanding of the short-term sustainment needs for the 62 component systems that currently make up the NC3 Weapon System, but has not had the resources to focus on the long-term needs for NC3,” the authors wrote.
“Each of the eight NC3 acquisition programs GAO reviewed has made progress towards meeting its acquisition goals, but most have challenges remaining,” the report’s authors wrote. “For example, four programs have compressed schedules that could result in delays if any issues develop during development, production, or installation of the communication terminals. In addition, two programs with draft schedules plan to proceed into development without benefiting from a key systems engineering event that would help to ensure the requirements are feasible and affordable before development contracts are awarded.”
The Pentagon declined to offer formal comments to the GAO report, which in the past has shown the department has no real qualms with what was written by the auditors.
The Aug. 15 report, titled “Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications: Update on Air Force Oversight Effort and Selected Acquisition Programs,” is the unclassified version of a classified document provided to members of Congress earlier this year.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.