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.

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.

Resources

Last Chance: Communicating at the Nuclear Brink Scenarios Workshop Synthesis Report: This paper introduces the CATALINK system. CATALINK would build on the “hotline” model of previous generations and rely on internationally driven open-source technologies to maximize user integrity and trust.

The GitHub page n2vi/hotline, owned by Eric Grosse, provides a proof-of-concept exploration of just how small we can make such a system. This is still a long way from a product ready for real-world use but does contain working code that has actually exchanged a few messages. It is mainly intended to provide a basis for discussing possible approaches to then be more professionally created by an international technical team.

Nuclear Hotlines: Origins, Evolution, Applications: This paper by Dr. Steven E. Miller gives an overview of experiences to-date with nuclear hotlines. It reviews the history of the US-Russia hotline, describes the ways that hotlines can be used or misused, and charts how the hotline concept has evolved and propagated to help states manage international crises. The paper shows hotlines as important, if imperfect, tools for avoiding nuclear conflict.

Nuclear weapons decision-making under technological complexity: This report by the ELN draws on the insights of, and debate among, former high-level nuclear decision-makers and current officials at a virtual pilot workshop. This was held in January 2021 and was organized by ELN 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.

Mentions

CATALINK was supported by Nicolas Plattner (Head Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs FDFA, Switzerland) during a UNIDIR event on the prospects for progress with the Stockholm Initiative on nuclear risk reduction, with a particular focus on the prospect of realizing key Stepping Stones in the run-up to the Tenth NPT Review Conference and beyond.

On this Back Story podcast, Dana Lewis, talks with former British Rear Admiral John Gower, on nuclear threats and communication as the single biggest component of averting war, and Philip Reiner of the U.S. Institute for Security and Technology on a newly proposed nuclear hotline for nations with nuclear weapons.

IST’s Leah Walker and ELN’s Sahil Shah, who both serve on the IST Catalink team published this critical Foreign Policy piece on why nuclear-armed states must rethink crisis communications technology.

The Asia Pacific Leadership Network (APLN) and the Jeju Peace Institute broadcasted five special panels for Jeju Forum 2021, including a session on nuclear hotlines and risk reduction where CATALINK was discussed in Session 3 “Nuclear Hotlines and Risk Reduction: Past Experiences and Lessons from the Asia-Pacific” by IST CEO Philip Reiner, Dr. Peter Hayes and other colleagues.