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Modernizing the US nuclear deterrent: An interview with Elizabeth Durham-Ruiz

The director of US Strategic Command’s Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications Enterprise Center describes recent efforts to engage the private sector in modernizing the US nuclear deterrent.

The US Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications (NC3) system has evolved significantly in the past 60 years. Charged with leading, stewarding, and advocating for US strategic capabilities, US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) recently announced plans to modernize the NC3 system. The latest effort to modernize the nuclear force has emphasized an integrated approach for the intricate system, supported by an approach to the underlying technology that combines speed and agility.

Facing evolving challenges on land and sea, as well as in air and space, USSTRATCOM has plans to create a deliberate enterprise-wide, end-to-end redesign, so it can continue to ensure that NC3 works under any circumstance—today and in the future. The goal of this transformation is to ensure that the US military can continue to guarantee the safety, security, and effectiveness of its nuclear deterrent.

USSTRATCOM is engaging the private sector to source innovative ideas through a newly established NC3 Enterprise Center (NEC), led by Elizabeth Durham-Ruiz. In this conversation with McKinsey’s Kevin Dehoff, Durham-Ruiz describes the motivations behind the redesign, the management of the modernization process, the industry’s role, and the future-oriented features of an effective operation.

McKinsey: First, could you describe the NC3 system, its purpose, how it has evolved, and why it’s in need of modernization? How does this relate to or differ from other nuclear-modernization efforts—for example, the B-21, GBSD [Ground Based Strategic Deterrent], or Columbia submarine?

Elizabeth Durham-Ruiz: NC3 enables the capabilities that allow the president to exercise command-and-control authorities over the nation’s nuclear forces. NC3 is the linkage between decision makers, forces, and command-and-control systems that enable us to deter—and should deterrence fail, to detect—strategic attack against the United States and its allies and to provide the president with response options.

The NC3 system of systems evolved over the past 60 years into a complex architecture with capabilities operating in the space-, aerial-, terrestrial-, maritime-, and cyber- and electronic-warfare domains. This architecture evolution was not part of a master plan and today represents a daunting range of technology eras that are becoming increasingly challenging and expensive to sustain. From this perspective, modernizing the NC3 enterprise, such as the bombers, Columbia-class submarines, and missile systems—which are delivered by each of the services and several agencies—is much more complex than any one of the weapons platforms. Therefore, as we are modernizing the nuclear force, we must also ensure that each platform is integrated and communicates seamlessly to maintain the reliable and resilient command and control necessary for the modernized triad to deliver its strategic deterrent value and warfighting capability.

McKinsey: In 2018, the secretary of defense gave USSTRATCOM responsibility for managing the modernization of NC3. How was that different than other systems or programs, and why was it considered necessary?

Elizabeth Durham-Ruiz: The secretary of defense has appointed the commander of USSTRATCOM to be the NC3 enterprise lead, with increased responsibilities for operations, requirements, and systems engineering and integration. These responsibilities are supported by the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, serving as the NC3-capability-portfolio manager. These changes were necessary due to fragmented and conflicting roles, responsibilities, and authorities across the Department of Defense [DOD].

Placing a single operational commander in charge of the NC3 enterprise, comprising capabilities and systems delivered and operated by multiple services and agencies, was essential for two primary purposes: first, to ensure continued operation of the current NC3 capabilities, and second, to deliver the NC3 next-generation enterprise architecture on a timeline that is responsive to the threat and aligned with the triad modernization. The services and agencies will continue their role as force providers and deliver and operate the next-generation capabilities, but they will do so as an enterprise weapon system under a single operational commander.

McKinsey: You established an NEC. Would you describe what this is and what it is intended to do?

Elizabeth Durham-Ruiz: The NEC is the heart of the nuclear enterprise. The NEC provides the commander of USSTRATCOM, as the NC3 enterprise lead, the means to execute assigned roles, responsibilities, and authorities designated by the secretary of defense.

It is the integration of all the services of NC3, providing central management of a holistic capability. The NEC is an organization that is tasked to focus on operations, requirements, and systems engineering and integration as well as analytics for the entire NC3 enterprise.

The NEC is focusing on three things: first, to ensure continued operation of the current NC3 capabilities; second, to deliver the NC3 next-generation enterprise architecture on a timeline that supports modernization efforts and responds to the threat; and third, to provide the NEC lead data-driven analytics to inform risk management, resource priorities, and investment decisions across the NC3 enterprise.

McKinsey: What role do you see industry playing in the mission of the NEC itself and, more broadly, in shaping future NC3 capabilities?

Elizabeth Durham-Ruiz: General John Hyten, commander of USSTRATCOM, has engaged with industry, requesting nonproprietary ideas regarding future NC3 operations. These submissions informed key characteristics, behaviors, and attributes for a broad, high-level NC3 next generation’s mission needs statement [MNS]. This statement identifies capability needs for a program to satisfy a combination of solutions to a mission deficiency or to enhance operational capability.

Once approved, the MNS will serve as an enduring road map for the services and agencies to begin analysis of future systems that will combine to deliver the enterprise capabilities and enhance the operational capabilities. The NC3 next-generation architecture requires innovative approaches executed and delivered with speed and agility. To do so requires active engagement with industry partners, both traditional and new entrants, our R&D corporations, and academia.

McKinsey: How can you leverage the best commercial technology while maintaining the extremely high level of security needed for NC3?

Elizabeth Durham-Ruiz: The fiscal year 2020 research, development, test, and evaluation budget invests heavily in game-changing technologies, increases funds for modernization of our nuclear triad, and continues the development of future space. To be successful at everything we do, we must recapture our ability to go fast—faster than all our potential adversaries—and that’s the biggest concern these days. Therefore, while leveraging commercial technology to gain this advantage, we are mindful of the risks in the cyber domain.

Understanding the risks means that the mitigation of cyber vulnerabilities will be considered during the design process, throughout the development and testing of the system, and when the system is operational.

McKinsey: Do you have early thoughts to share on the overall architecture? Are there any design options you are promoting?

Elizabeth Durham-Ruiz: The current architecture is not the result of a deliberate enterprise-wide, end-to-end design. Rather, the services and agencies delivered capabilities piecemeal over the decades to address individual capability gaps as they arose. The continued upgrades or recapitalization efforts—that is, releasing a new version of the old thing—will not sufficiently meet 21st-century operational needs against 21st-century threats.

We need to be innovative in our approaches while accessing the talent needed to enhance our current workforce and go fast while we partner with academia and industry.

We must approach the design of the NC3 next-generation architecture with future operational needs at the forefront; we must design an architecture that is flexible, resilient, and adaptive and can evolve with the threat and advances in technology. At this point, all architecture-design options are on the table. The additional questions raised are key among those considerations. We are assessing the advantages and disadvantages of various design strategies and principles against evaluation criteria such as operational effectiveness, cybersecurity, life-cycle cost, speed of acquisition, and deterrent messaging.

McKinsey: It has been a long time since the last NC3-redesign effort. How are you thinking about identifying and attracting talent to work on these programs?

Elizabeth Durham-Ruiz: Talent recruitment and retention are significant challenges compared with when the initial NC3 architecture deployed in the late 1950s to early 1960s. Back then, the DOD drove much of the technology innovation, which drew the talent enticed by cutting-edge work. Today, the private sector drives the majority of technology innovation—much of which the DOD relies on—and attracts and compensates the top talent. We need to be innovative in our approaches while accessing the talent needed to enhance our current workforce and go fast while we partner with academia and industry to establish the pipelines to build a talent workforce for the long term.

We need to grow more systems engineers, computer engineers, data scientists, cognitive scientists, and artificial-intelligence and machine-learning scientists and engineers, to name a few. We also need to develop career paths that entice involvement in the NC3 enterprise while affording opportunity for professional development outside of NC3. The NC3 next-generation architecture will not be a one-time delivery. It will be a continually evolving set of enterprise capabilities requiring a professional workforce and affording a long-term opportunity for challenging work and a rewarding career in the service to our nation.

About the author(s)

Elizabeth Durham-Ruiz is the director of the Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications Enterprise Center at US Strategic Command. Kevin Dehoff is a senior partner in McKinsey’s New York office.

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