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Air Force Nuclear Command Pushes to Guard Against Electronic Strikes

The U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command is seeking means to guard its command-and-control technology against computer strikes after a 2010 malfunction temporarily severed its connection to 50 ICBMs, Foreign Policy magazine reported this week.

"Our ability to keep our networks assured and protected and not vulnerable is really important, it's something we have looked at hard," said Maj. Gen. William Chambers, Air Force assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration. "It's something that we build into all of our new nuclear weapons systems so that they remain cyber-secure."

"It's really important. It's a problem that about a year ago we were seized with. We have done some pretty comprehensive studies of the cyber-state of our ICBM force. We are confident in it," Chambers said on Sept. 18.

He said the 2010 incident at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming "produced a need to take a comprehensive look at the entire system.

"It took a year to do that study, and we're confident that the system is good, but as we upgrade it, modernize it, integrate it, we've got to really pay attention to" ensuring adequate security for atomic command-and-control data, the officer said.

The decades-old gear in place for commanding the nation's Minuteman 3 ICBMs is extremely resilient, according to the official.

"ICBM-wise we have a very secure system," Chambers said. He did not address control gear for the service's B-61 nuclear gravity bombs or nuclear-armed cruise missiles.

"We are continuing to study the cyber assurance aspect of the supply chain that supports our nuclear weapons systems," he added. "That work is under way and we're taking steps to mitigate and close off any vulnerabilities."

Defense contractor Boeing is considering possible steps to augment elements of the Minuteman fleet's management apparatus, but the equipment is already protected from computer-based assaults, according to a company insider. The United States intends to begin swapping out the Minuteman 3 missiles for successor systems no later than 2030.

"Our C2 (command-and-control) system for Minuteman is a very old system. There's a network called the HICS (hardened intersite cable system) network, and it's (made of) copper wire, and it's limited in bandwidth," Peggy Morse, who heads strategic missiles systems programs for Boeing, said in Sept. 18 remarks.

The mechanism has aged significantly, but it is "very secure," Morse said. Nonetheless, "as we look at different C2 systems and ways to move data about in the field, information assurance is a big deal there, and the security requirements are going to drive the solutions that we look at," she said.

Nuclear command-and-control expert Bruce Blair, though, described broadcast gear inside ICBM launch facilities as well as the HICS lines as weaknesses.

"In the case of Minuteman, there are ... potential entry points into the supposed firewalled command-and-control system," Blair, co-founder of the nuclear disarmament organization Global Zero, stated on Tuesday by e-mail.

"One of them is the radio antenna at the unmanned missile silos designed to allow airborne launch control centers to inject the three short signal bursts (telling the missiles to identify their targets, arm and launch) in the event of a breakdown in the local underground command post system," the expert said.

The mechanism -- designed as a secondary communications feature for such contingencies as the destruction of a subterranean management station in a nuclear strike -- "could provide access under a range of circumstances such as the loss of control experienced at F.E. Warren in a squadron of 50 missiles ...  or such as illicit actions taken by an ‘insider' agent," Blair continued.

"Another (vulnerability) are the thousands of cables that run six feet underground interconnecting all of the missile silos with all of the launch control centers in a given squadron," he added. "It's possible to imagine outside parties surreptitiously tapping into one cable at one location or another, and thereby gaining access to the actual conduits that control and target, enable, and fire the missiles."

Such an action would require knowing the exact placement of the communications lines and the successful evasion of defensive forces, according to Foreign Policy.

 

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