The Comms Tool I Wish I Had in US Nuclear Operations

Better. That’s how RSA wrapped up the main idea for their 2019 conference. How can we communicate safer, faster, better?

Thinking about this theme made me reflect on my time as an Army Signal Officer with the Joint Nuclear Operations Center (JNOC). It was me, my Platoon Sergeant, a couple squad leaders, and 20 brand new soldiers operating one of the few Joint Defense nuclear command and control (NC2) satellite terminal posts in the world.

And while this was one of the most rewarding positions I’ve ever held – in and outside of the military – it came with a lot of challenges.

Outside of the obvious headaches that come with managing a high-visibility joint operation, we also had huge communications obstacles. You’d think that being Signal, the Army’s communicators, we’d have the communication thing locked down.

We didn’t.

Most things about the JNOC were at the TS-SCI level and all information had to be shared on the high side. Every soldier assigned to the platoon needed a TS-SCI clearance and all visitors had to be cleared, read-on, and briefed. That meant most people in the battalion weren’t even allowed access and had no idea what we did or why we had to run 24-hour operations.

It felt kind of cool being part of the exclusive, secret squirrel-type ops.

But when those calls came in at 2:30 am on a holiday, and we had to figure out how to collaborate on a top-secret mission while physically dispersed… that wasn’t so cool. It sucked.

Of course we had the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet) and Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS), but those are not accessible in the middle of the night, from your house, while in pajamas.

Some higher-ranking people had access to secure messaging on their BlackBerry devices, but for the masses – company grade officers (like me) and junior enlisted soldiers (like most of my team) – that wasn’t a thing.

So, we had to tiptoe around secret information while trying to troubleshoot and problem solve over the phone. Or, when it got really bad, I had to put on my uniform and drive on site for face-to-face collaboration.

We called it, “getting eyes-on the situation”, but it was really just a last resort resulting from a lack of accessible communications tools.

I wish we could’ve done it better.

These days, I still work heavily in secure communications and cybersecurity in general – but on the civilian side. In doing some research for work, I discovered the comms tool I wish I had during my JNOC days. The tool I NEEDED.

It’s called HighSide – a name that speaks directly to my soul – and it’s the most secure unified communications and file sharing platform on the market.

Not only would HighSide have been invaluable during those middle of the night outages and Emergency Action Message (EAM) transmissions, it would have enhanced our overall operations.

There are countless ways this would have helped us, but here are the top three:

1. Troubleshooting

I was ultimately responsible for the maintenance and operations of the JNOC communications systems: two Milstar terminals, Companion Ultra High Frequency Tactical Satellite (CUTS) systems, NATO Nuclear Command and Control Reporting Systems (NNCCRS), and Contingency Satellite (CONSAT) radios. And although we were the greatest maintenance and operations team to ever run the JNOC, sometimes our 1980’s vintage comms equipment would fail.

But anyone who’s worked NC2 will tell you that failure is really not an option. You can’t wait until Monday to get things back up. Tomorrow morning is unheard of. In ten minutes it’s too late. When secure comms go down, they need to be back up five minutes ago.

And because signal systems like to take breaks during off hours, my team and I were often left to collaborate while geographically dispersed – over the phone. That meant largely speaking in code about which systems went down, how long they were down, and how we would go about getting them back up.

Which system was the Ace of Spades, again? Wait… the Big Joker or the Little Joker?

As you can imagine sometimes wires got crossed – metaphorically and literally. We might as well have been sending smoke signals.

HighSide would have allowed me to create troubleshooting channels where we could clearly discuss the issues with the systems and brainstorm ways to fix them. Operators could’ve posted updates and we could’ve shared documents and sketches to facilitate a faster and more efficient troubleshooting process.

That reduced downtime would’ve looked good on my OER…

2. Training

Training in the JNOC was a perpetual challenge. After soldiers went through the security clearance process, they had to learn the nuances of all systems before completing a series of vigorous tests to ensure their competence.

Of course, training and training instruction had to take place on site and in person. Because soldiers weren’t able to continue the learning process when they weren’t physically on site, our training cycles were much longer than they should’ve been. Holidays and long weekends meant that soldiers had to come back to work to relearn complex concepts and ideas that could’ve been reviewed during down time.

Not being able to get soldiers trained quickly put a strain on the soldiers who were certified to work on the systems and send and receive EAMs. At times, we were down to as few as 10 soldiers covering a 24/7 operation.

This made it hard to keep up morale and motivation.

With HighSide, I could’ve developed training groups and shared various training documents. Trainers could’ve contributed tips and explanations to help soldiers throughout the training process. This could have even been a place where certified soldiers contributed to the training program and helped improve the program in real time.

Our training cycle time line would’ve been shortened and we would’ve had more soldiers available for shifts at any given time. They would have been better trained and gotten the opportunity to develop stronger bonds amongst each other.

Improved morale, happier soldiers – just better all around.

3. Continuity

Pretty much anyone who’s spent time in the military will tell you that continuity can be a problem. With people moving out and in so frequently, it can be hard to keep track of what happened a couple of years prior – or even a couple of months prior.

Even units that don’t have to tiptoe around strenuous communications security requirements have continuity problems.

Someone changed it a while ago, but we don’t know why or where they put the old part.

I think we tried it like this before, but we stopped doing it for some reason.

When personnel are a revolving door, it’s easy to lose track of important details that help future and ongoing operations.

In secret and top secret environments, maintaining continuity is even more difficult. People are hesitant to write things down, print things out, and store information in general – as they should be. Any continuity information or documents were normally housed on the SIPRNet – and not everyone (even with the appropriate clearance) had access to sipper.

Because of these restrictions, I ultimately ended up serving as the JNOC orator – she who knew and remembered all the things. Even if I had reference documents on the SIPRNet, most of my soldiers weren’t granted sipper accounts and couldn’t pull the information anyway.

If I had HighSide, my platoon members and I could’ve tracked conversations and details within organized channels. We could’ve shared and stored documents and information as a group or one-on-one. I could have posted broadcasts and alerts to let my team know when there were emergency changes or pertinent need-to-know-NOW information.

This exchange of information wouldn’t have required access to the SIPRNet and would have empowered my team members to know they were following protocols and making the right decisions based on their access to information continuity.

Of course, I guess I might have seemed a bit less important to my platoon, but I also would have gotten more sleep.

While thinking about bettering secure communications and reflecting on my JNOC days, I contacted my old Platoon Sergeant. I asked him if they’d found other ways to share secret information or if they were still struggling with the same confines we had back then. He let me know that it was mostly still sipper and that they desperately needed something different and more functional.

I think HighSide is the something they need. HighSide didn’t exist when I was in the JNOC, but it’s here now. Now we know better. And as that Platoon Sergeant used to tell me, “When you know better, you do better.”

Cecilia Clark

First introduced to information security while serving as a Signal Officer in the US Army. During my time in the military, I managed information security from all sides of the discipline - as a user, service provider, and culture change agent.

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