Last Chance: Communicating at the Nuclear Brink
Institute for Security and Technology, Nautilus Institute
Nuclear war threatens the existence of humanity. Managing this risk depends on the ability of nine supreme nuclear commanders to avoid using nuclear weapons or to de- escalate rapidly after initial use, rather than drive toward full-scale nuclear cataclysm. Unfortunately, current nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) systems to control nuclear weapons and communicate with one’s own forces and those of adversaries—to step back from the brink of nuclear war, or to end it once it begins— may not be up to the task, in light of novel technical developments of the early 21st century. Today NC3 systems are in fact “systems of systems” that rely on legacy and modern technologies that are increasingly vulnerable to digital and other rapidly emerging, disruptive capabilities. This fact has been laid bare in recent years through U.S. government-sponsored research, including that of the U.S. Defense Science Board. If and when NC3 systems fail under stress, however, leaders must have a way to communicate to step back from the brink.
As a result, this report outlines a vision for a novel “hotline” system, devised through conversations between public and private actors from around the world, that would enable secure and verifiable communications between leaders during nuclear crises and other high-stakes scenarios. This unique, resilient system is designed for “radical simplicity” from the hardware up, with as few components as possible. The proposed system would augment but not replace hotlines currently used by governments around the world or provide such links where they do not already exist. Such a hotline system would also provide a communications option for rapid and reliable connectivity between heads of state and senior nuclear commanders. We call this system CATALINK, from the terms “cataclysm” and “link.”download pdf