CATALINK

Preventing the onset or escalation of conflict by building a resilient global communications system.

The Problem

Today’s nuclear command control and communications systems (NC3) rely on both legacy and modern technologies that are increasingly vulnerable to rapidly emerging, disruptive capabilities. This fact compounds what is already an untenable reality of NC3 systems: the communications links that underwrite their credibility are the first targets in any escalating kinetic conflict. Despite these facts, if and when NC3 systems fail under stress, leaders must still be able to communicate to prevent large-scale conflagration.

The Solution

An internationally-driven, secure, resilient communications solution that has the potential to avert catastrophes amidst rising tensions between adversaries: The CATALINK system.

The system ⁠consists of an endpoint device called a Puck that rides on a global mesh-network called the ROCCS⁠. The CATALINK would build on the “hotline” model of previous generations, and rely on internationally driven open-source technologies to maximize user integrity and trust. It would exploit redundant transmission capabilities to ensure that multiple parties could connect under extreme conditions, including loss of power and the absence of cellular and/or internet connectivity. Endpoint devices would be designed for durability, availability, and ease of use, enabling parties to immediately connect with confidence amid crises. These endpoint devices would also be secure: the firmware, software, and hardware would all meet cutting edge world class requirements for security. Looking for examples of how to build international consensus around this concept, we took inspiration from the process that led to the creation of the National Institute of Standard and Technology Advanced Encryption Standard (NIST AES). To ensure the integrity and validity of the technical solution, we are building a community of passionate global citizens from varying professional backgrounds.

The Puck: A simple, secure and robust device meant for dedicated communication between global leaders and officials during a nuclear crisis or other high-stakes events like disaster response. The Puck project consists of designing, developing and supplying the PUCK Platform board based on open-source platform design, to include consideration and agreement for applicable hardware (RISC-V), firmware (OREBOOT) and software.

ROCCS: Resilient Omni Frequency Crisis Communications System based in a global mesh network. ROCCS is a permanently active network that utilizes multiple networks and channels/wavelengths to ensure reliable relays of Puck messages and is one of a variety of redundant networks on which the Puck messages may ride depending on availability, the threat environment, and the type of message sent. Between the ROCCS and the Puck exists a “Broker” interface, which determines the path of the Puck message throughout the desired network. The Broker will switch networks as needed – including between satellites, commercial networks, fiber-optic lines, and high-frequency or low-frequency radio bands – and will switch to the final resilient mesh network of the ROCCS if/when all other options fail or are compromised. ROCCS recognizes and works to integrate the need for leaders to communicate in a crisis where all conditions are degraded by conflict including the effects of nuclear weapons on the atmosphere, cyber attacks, electromagnetic jamming, and perhaps even biological attacks.

For additional information and answers to frequently asked questions about the CATALINK initiative, visit the FAQ page.

Effects of Electromagnetic Pulses on Communication Infrastructure: An IST Primer
January 2024

IST Launches New Crisis Communications Resilience Working Group
October 2023 | IST Announcement

Nuclear Crisis Communications: Mapping Risk Reduction Implementation Pathways
January 2023 | Report

hotline room

Nuclear Risk Reduction: In Search of a Common Denominator
December 2022 | NatSpecs Blog

Averting Catastrophe: Walking the Talk on Nuclear Risk Reduction & Crisis Communication
November 2022 | Event

Playing Telephone: Hoax Calls and the Insecurity of Leader to Leader Communications
July 2022 | Report

Nuclear Hotlines: Origins, Evolution, Applications
October 2020 | Report

Last Chance: Communicating at the Nuclear Brink
May 2020 | Workshop Synthesis Report

The Nuclear Risk Reduction Approach: A Useful Path Forward for Crisis Mitigation
In her article for Asia-Pacific Leadership Network, IST’s Sylvia Mishra highlights the importance of advancing the nuclear risk reduction approach and explains why IST’s CATALINK Initiative should be incorporated as a component of such an approach.
January 27, 2023 | IST in the News

The United States and China Still Need to Talk About Nuclear Weapons
The two countries “must return to talks at the earliest available opportunity to discuss their shared responsibility to reduce the risk of nuclear war through crisis management and arms control,” writes Sahil Shah in an op-ed for Foreign Policy.
February 6, 2023 | IST in the News

Philip Reiner on Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications
“What’s interesting about NC3 is that…where you can actually show that your systems are reliable and resilient and that they do the things they’re supposed to do, that is actually inherently stabilizing,” Philip Reiner tells Gus Docker. 
October 6, 2022 | IST in the News

Zoom Won’t Stop a Nuclear War
In an op-ed for Foreign Policy, Sahil Shah and Leah Walker outline why nuclear-armed states must rethink crisis communication technology and upgrade current hotlines, especially at the leader level, through a multilateral approach.
April 19, 2021 | IST in the News

Back Story with Dana Lewis: Nuclear Hotlines
“We feel we’ve struck upon something that could add value, not only from a technical perspective and give people tools that they could build off of, but also something that could be used at the diplomatic level as potentially a way to create trusted discussions and collaborative endeavors,” says Philip Reiner. Former British Rear Admiral John Gower outlines the set of questions that CATALINK could address: “Do you know who the person is at the other end of the phone? Can you be certain that they are the leader of that particular nation? Can you have a conversation with them with other leaders of directly-involved nations? And can you have such a conversation within all levels of disaster?”
March 3, 2021 | IST in the News

Press the Button: Strategic Stability
Sahil Shah joined Ploughshare Fund’s podcast Press the Button to talk strategic stability, transatlantic relations, and the need for reliable communications links in all nuclear contexts.
October 12, 2021 | IST in the News

Get Involved

The CATALINK project is a collaborative effort between our civil society partners, industry colleagues, and government officials from around the world. It is a proactively open process, and success requires active engagement with partners all around the world. If you are interested in joining in the design phase of this technology, please email [email protected] with your background, area of focus, and a detailed description of your interest in this work. We receive constant inquiries as to the status of the project and potential open roles, so please be detailed in your outreach and patient as we work to respond to your outreach.

The CATALINK Initiative is supported in part by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the German Federal Foreign Office.

The German Federal Foreign Office Commits Support to the Institute for Security and Technology’s CATALINK Initiative
The German Federal Foreign Office has generously provided a new grant in support for the Institute for Security and Technology’s CATALINK initiative. This funding will allow the organization to expand its work designing solutions to enhance the security of the global commons.
July 29, 2022 | NatSpecs Blog

Resources

  • The GitHub page n2vi/hotline, owned by Eric Grosse, provides a proof-of-concept exploration of the CATALINK system architecture. Though still a long way from a product ready for real-world use, it contains working code that has actually exchanged a few messages. The code is transparent and functional; it is mainly intended to provide a basis for discussing possible approaches to then be more professionally created by an international technical team.
  • Nuclear weapons decision-making under technological complexity: This ELN report draws on the insights from former high-level nuclear decision-makers and current officials at a January 2021 virtual pilot workshop, held in cooperation with the Oracle Partnership. Based upon a “worst-case scenario,” the event explored the possible impact of predominantly aggregate technologies on nuclear weapon decision-making. It initiated one of four working strands which form a broader project on new technologies and nuclear decision-making undertaken by the ELN.
  • The Nuclear Crisis Group NATO-Russia Crisis Brief features recommendations from Rear Admiral John Gower and highlights IST’s CATALINK project as a modern, robustly encrypted, and survivable omnilateral solution.