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Auditors to Air Force: Don't Be Short-Sighted on Nuclear Comms

The Air Force has been short-sighted in its handling of a multi-billion-dollar effort to upgrade nuclear command and control communication systems, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

The GAO issued a report Tuesday said the service should play a better long game in upgrading the technology that allows the president to communicate with the military in the event of a nuclear attack. The service provides the lion's share -- nearly 70 percent  -- of funding for such systems.

"The Air Force has built up its understanding of the short-term sustainment needs for the 62 component systems that currently make up the NC3 Weapon System, but has not had the resources to focus on the long-term needs," the report states.

Auditors spent most of the past year reviewing six major acquisition programs, analyzing assessments and planning documents, and interviewing officials from Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the NC3 system; the Nuclear Weapons Center, which integrates the technology; and the Program Executive Office, which manages the acquisition efforts.

The six programs include the common very low frequency receiver (increments 1 and 2); the family of advanced beyond line-of-sight terminals; the global aircrew strategic network terminal (increments 1 and 2); the mission planning and analysis system modernization; the Minuteman minimum essential emergency communications network program upgrade; and the presidential and national voice conferencing integrator program.

"Each program continued to make progress toward meeting its acquisition goals, but most have challenges remaining," the auditors wrote. "For example, four programs have compressed schedules that could result in delays if any issues develop during development, production, or installation of the communication terminals."

They added, "two programs with draft schedules continue to plan to proceed into development without benefiting from a key systems engineering review that, in accordance with acquisition best practices, is used to ensure the requirements are feasible and affordable before development contracts are awarded."

The multi-year effort to upgrade the command and control communications infrastructure is estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars over the next decade, though government officials have released varying cost estimates.

The GAO in a separate report from July estimated the 10-year cost of the Air Force's nuclear command, control, and communications upgrades at $40.5 billion through 2026, but acknowledged the figure may be inconsistent "with DOD's internal funding plans."

In February, the Congressional Budget Office estimated funding for the Pentagon's nuclear command, control, communications, and early-warning systems would "total $58 billion over 10 years" -- roughly $7 billion more than the office's 2015 estimate.

The CBO also estimated the cost of fielding and maintaining the entire nuclear enterprise over the next decade will total about $400 billion.

The GAO report comes at a time when the Defense Department is conducting the Nuclear Posture Review, designed to determine what role nuclear weapons should play in U.S. security strategy -- and how many should be in the arsenal.

The Air Force didn't provide a formal response to GAO, but service officials told auditors "they plan to review the acquisition strategies and adjust them as appropriate before the acquisition approaches are finalized," according to the report.

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