Even as the Trump administration looks for further nuclear arms reductions with Russia and full denuclearization with North Korea, the Pentagon is making crucial changes in nuclear weapons employment and options after Defense Secretary James Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently called for classified changes.
A classified report on overhauling nuclear communications for President Donald Trump will be delivered to Mattis on Friday, according to Gen. John Hyten, head of the US Strategic Command. Hyten took the rare step of offering some specific new details of top Pentagon leaders’ views on nuclear weapons.
The report will detail a new method ordered by Mattis on how the Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications System (NC3), which allows a US president and top military commanders to communicate with military forces in a nuclear event, will work in the future. The NC3 provides communication with bomber aircraft, intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines, satellites, ground stations and command posts.
The key change will be that Hyten will now be the sole senior officer responsible for NC3 operations and systems.
Hyten revealed many of the nuclear changes at a speech last Friday in Kings Bay, Georgia, a key home base for Navy nuclear armed submarines.
He noted that when Mattis visited STRATCOM last year, NC3 was “the big item on his mind.” Hyten told Mattis there was a “committee” of people in charge of NC3. “He did not react well. He said, ‘I want somebody in charge. I want the commander in charge,’ ” Hyten said.
Mattis then put Hyten in charge of the NC3 program and ordered a report on how the changes will be implemented. The secretary is expected to approve the changes within the month.
This will not change the highly classified launch procedures but rather focus on ensuring the security and readiness of the connectivity of the system.
This also comes as the Trump administration continues overhauling basic military plans for the conduct of nuclear war.
For decades, the military plan for nuclear war has been known as the Single Integrated Operational Plan – focusing entirely on a nuclear campaign. STRATCOM is continuing the effort begun by the Obama administration to provide military plans that combine nuclear and conventional options, in order to be able to de-escalate a crisis, according to defense officials familiar with the effort.
The move to include conventional options as part of planning for nuclear war took on additional importance as tensions rose with North Korea, and the Pentagon leadership was looking for a wide range of military options to offer Trump, officials say.
Hyten noted that in February, Dunford and members of the Joint Staff rode on the National Airborne Operations Center in an exercise. That E-4 aircraft is used in a crisis essentially as an airborne command post. After the plane landed, “he called me, like within seconds. And I’ll just say Gen. Dunford wasn’t happy with the way the exercise went,” Hyten said. “He said we should provide the President with more options, not fewer options.”
Hyten, who has long advocated for de-escalation in a nuclear crisis, noted it’s essential to “have other options for a President.”
These changes are critical in the wake of months of tensions with North Korea and uncertainty about Russian intentions. Including conventional military options – such as cyber or missile defense – gives a President specific options in a crisis for de-escalation, something Hyten continues to advocate
“Because the way conflict actually happens is that if it’s going really, really bad, that’s when it gets to nuclear. You don’t want it to get really bad, so you want to apply every conventional aspect that you have to that,” he said.