Innovation in the shadow of the Nuke

Researching my forthcoming book on the history of the ‘Net, I’m investigating the nuclear context.

By the mid 1960s the Air Force had upgraded its early nuclear missiles to use solid-state propellants. The new solid-state weapons brought the launch time down from eight hours to a matter of minutes. Yet while US missiles were becoming easier to loose on the enemy, the command and control systems that coordinated them were every bit as vulnerable as they had been.

A secret document drafted for President Kennedy in 1963 highlighted the importance of command and control. The report, produced by senior personnel from State Department, CIA, Air Force, and Navy, detailed a series of possible nuclear exchange scenarios. In all cases, nuclear exchange was not a simple ‘I hit you, you hit me’ matter. The President would be faced with ‘decision points’ over the course of at approximately 26 hours. One scenario described a ‘nation killing’ first strike by the Soviet Union that would kill between 30 – 150 million people and destroy between 30 – 70 percent of US industrial capacity. Yet even so, the President would have to act at three pivotal decision points.

The first decision, assuming the President survived the first strike, would be made at “0 H” (zero hour). 0 H marked the time of the first detonation of a Soviet missile on a US target. Kennedy would have to determine the extent of his retaliatory second strike. If he chose to strike military and industrial targets within the Soviet Union, respecting the ‘no cities doctrine‘, US missiles would begin to hit their targets some thirty minutes after his launch order and  strategic bombers already on alert would arrive at H + 3 hours. Remaining aircraft of would arrive at between H + 7 and H + 17 hours. Next, the scenario indicated that at some time between 0 H and H + 30 minutes, the President would be sent an offer of ceasefire from Moscow. He would have to determine whether to negotiate, maintain his strike, or escalate. In the hypothetical scenario described, the President reacted by expanding US retaliation to include Soviet population centres in addition to the military and industrial targets already under attack by the US second strike. In response, between H + 1 and H + 18 hours, the surviving Soviet leadership opted to launch nuclear strikes on Western European capitals, and then seek a cease-fire. At this point, European nuclear forces launched nuclear strikes against Soviet targets. At H + 24 the President decided to accept the Soviet cease-fire, subject to a withdrawal of the Soviet land forces that had advanced into Western Europe during the twenty four hours since the initial Soviet strike. The President also told his Soviet counterpart that any submerged Soviet nuclear missile submarines would remain subject to a US nuclear attack. At some point between H + 24 and H + 26, the Soviets accept. The US remained poised to launch against Soviet submarines.

However, if the President was going to take even one of these decisions, he needed a nuclear-proof way of talking to his nuclear strike forces. Unfortunately, this did not exist. A separate briefing for President Kennedy described the level of damage that the US and USSR would be likely to sustain once a nuclear weapons were launched. At the end of each of the scenarios tested both sides would still retain ‘substantial residual strategic forces’ that could retaliate or recommence the assault. This applied irrespective of whether it had been the US or the Soviet Union that had initiated the nuclear exchange. Thus, despite suffering successive waves of Soviet strikes, the United States would have to retain the ability to credibly threaten and use its surviving nuclear arsenal. However, the briefers advised the President, ‘the ability to use these residual forces effectively depends on survivable command and control…’. If the US had nuclear-proof command and control, it had the edge. This had been a concern since the dawn of the nuclear era. In 1950, President Truman had been warned of the need to ‘defend and maintain the lines of communication and base areas’ required to fight a nuclear war. Yet, for the next ten years no one had the faintest idea of how to guarantee command and control communications once the nukes started to fall.

As Soviet engineers made their missiles more accurate, the US missile command and control system became more vulnerable. This put the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) into question. A key tenet of MAD was that the fear of retaliation would prevent either Cold War party from launching a first strike. This logic failed if a retaliatory strike was impossible because one’s communications infrastructure was disrupted by the enemy’s first strike. A nuclear detonation in the ionosphere would cripple FM radio communications for hours, and a limited number of nuclear strikes on ground could knock out the highly centralized national AT&T telephone network.

RAND, a think tank in the United States, was mulling over the problem. A RAND researcher named Paul Baran had become increasingly concerned about the prospect of a nuclear conflagration. As a result of his experience in radar information processing at Hughes, he was concerned about issues of vulnerability and command and control. In his mind, improving the communications network across the United States was the key to averting war. Where liquid fuel missiles had required up to eight hours fuelling time, from the early 1960s solid-state missiles had introduced the trigger-hair alert. Decision makers had almost no time to reflect at critical moments of crisis. Baran feared that ‘a single accidental[ly] fired weapon could set off an unstoppable nuclear war’. In his view, command and control was so vulnerable to collateral damage that ‘each missile base commander would face the dilemma of either doing nothing in the event of a physical attack or taking action that could lead to an all out irrevocable war’. The military needed a way to stay in contact with its nuclear strike force, which would be geographically dispersed as a tactical precaution against enemy attack. The answer that RAND delivered was revolutionary in several respects – not least because it established the guiding principles of the Internet.

More anon…

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