The tower in the woods: preparing for nuclear war

By Dawn Stover | May 25, 2016

GWEN tower Washington

Not long after my husband and I moved to rural southwestern Washington in 1992, we were driving through the woods on a primitive road a few miles from our home when we spotted a tall, slim tower poking up above the trees. We turned down a side road for a closer look. Standing in a clearing on the edge of a farm field, the tower was surrounded by guy wires and security fencing. A sign warned us about radio frequency radiation hazard and identified the tower as a Defense Department facility. We wondered about the tower’s purpose, but by the time we returned home hours later, we had forgotten about it. We saw the tower again a few times over the years, always with the same results: Once out of sight, it was out of mind.

I thought of that tower recently because I’m part of a local group that is trying to bring broadband Internet access to our sparsely populated, topographically challenged community. “You know that government tower on Cimiyotti Road?” I asked the group. “What about using it to relay Internet service to our area?”

“Oh, that’s Gwen,” said one of my neighbors. “It’s for nuclear war.”

Wait, what?

I thought that sounded like a backwoods conspiracy theory (and it wouldn’t be the first one I’ve heard around here), but it turns out he was right. For a few years, anyway. The 299-foot tower, part of the Pentagon’s Ground Wave Emergency Network—GWEN—was installed in the 1980s to enable communication in the event of a nuclear attack.

If the idea of having a nuclear-war tower in your backyard scares you, you may understand why the Pentagon put that tower in a remote spot where few people are likely to see it. For most of us, nuclear war is unthinkable. For the US military, though, it’s not only thinkable but actionable. A mind-boggling number of hugely expensive systems have been built, upgraded, and replaced over the years—all at taxpayer cost but with very little public oversight or awareness—to make it possible to fight a nuclear war. The Cold War is over, but the 30-year, trillion-dollar US nuclear “modernization” program currently underway is not just a matter of dusting off some warheads and putting them back on the shelf. It’s about planning for nuclear warfare and building new systems to make it possible. And, of course, keeping them mostly out of sight.

Who is GWEN? When I first saw the tower, it was still part of the Ground Wave Emergency Network, a US Air Force communication system intended to survive the effects of a nuclear bomb detonated high above the United States. Military planners expected such an explosion to generate an electromagnetic pulse that would disable electronically sensitive systems. While normal radio transmissions might not be possible after a high-altitude nuclear attack, GWEN was designed to send emergency messages to the commanders of US nuclear forces by relaying low-frequency radio signals along the ground between widely spaced towers. That way, the president (or his successor) would be able to retaliate in kind. And after that, GWEN messages would enable the US military to regroup for continued warfare.

Longtime readers of the Bulletin may remember that this doomsday radio network was highly controversial. Neighbors worried that having a tower nearby would make them military targets. Some people even feared that the towers would be used for mind control. And GWEN was ill-conceived: The remote relay towers might survive a nuclear attack, but if the “input/output stations”—located at key military bases that would send and receive messages—were destroyed, the whole system would fail.

William M. Arkin, then director of nuclear weapons research at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, wrote in the May 1985 issue of the Bulletin: “While military leaders claim GWEN will have several useful functions, they wax incoherent trying to name them. Its only clear purpose is as one of a number of command, control, and communications systems that lay the groundwork for World War IV.” (Why IV and not III? Arkin cites an assistant secretary of defense who said that GWEN would assure communications not only for retaliation, but for “force reconstitution and recovery operations after a nuclear attack.” In other words, it could be used to prosecute the war that comes after the nuclear war.)

The idea that an electromagnetic pulse would decapitate communications was eventually discredited, and only 58 of the originally planned 240 GWEN towers were built. The 1994 defense appropriations bill banned the construction of new towers, and the Air Force later canceled the program.

Secret tools. GWEN is just one of a host of “survivable” nuclear command-and-control systems developed by the Pentagon. After GWEN’s demise, the system’s intended duties were assumed by Single-Channel Antijam Man-Portable terminals. Systems such as the Worldwide Military Command and Control System and the Survivable Low Frequency Communications System are now obsolete, but they have been replaced by the Global Command and Control System, the Minimum Essential Emergency Communications Network, the Defense Improved Emergency Message Automatic Transmission System Replacement Command and Control Terminal, and a dizzying array of other technologies and command posts. All are intended to enable communications in case an enemy, presumably Russia, attacks the United States with a nuclear weapon.

Few of these systems are (or were) known to the public. One exception was Operation Looking Glass, an airborne command post that mirrored operations on land—ensuring that even if essential ground-based facilities were destroyed in a nuclear attack, an Air Force general aboard an EC-135 plane would be able to take charge of retaliation. Until 1990, there was a Looking Glass plane in the air at all times. They flew out of the Strategic Air Command base near my childhood home in Omaha, and the father of one of my high school friends was a brigadier general who was sometimes on duty in the air. I did not feel safer knowing that my friend’s dad might someday be calling the shots in a nuclear war.

Looking Glass did serve one very important, but probably unintended, purpose: At least in Omaha, it made the possibility of nuclear war seem very real. But in one of the military’s frequent and often inexplicable reshufflings, the Looking Glass mission was transferred in 1998 to a Navy detachment that is forward-deployed at Travis Air Force Base in California, where E-6B planes are on ground alert at all times. “Not [a] whole lot of the Air Force people know what we are doing here,” the detachment commander told a reporter from the Fairfield-Suisan Daily Republic in 2013. So you can imagine how little the general public knows about the group’s mission.

A complex, costly system. The current military infrastructure for nuclear command, control, and communication (known as NC3) “is a large and complex system comprised of numerous land-, air-, and space-based components used to assure connectivity between the President and nuclear forces,” according to a 2014 US Government Accountability Office review of the Defense Department’s modernization efforts. It “consists of components that support day-to-day nuclear and conventional operations prior to a nuclear event as well as those that provide survivable, secure, and enduring communications through all threat environments.”

The Defense Department “is executing several acquisition efforts intended to modernize elements of NC3,” according to the Government Accountability Office review. In testimony at her December 2015 Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing, Lisa Disbrow, who is now the undersecretary of the Air Force, referred to the “significant challenges” associated with command, control, and communication systems that have reached or are nearing the end of their useful life. Aging systems not only must be kept alive until they can be replaced, but also protected from cyberattack—and commercial solutions can introduce new cybersecurity vulnerabilities, she said.

“Modernized” technologies—including communications systems that don’t get as much attention as weapons hardware—must be held accountable for their cost and performance. The GWEN program, for example, turned out to be utterly unnecessary just a few years after a 1986 fact sheet called it “an essential part of the President’s Strategic Modernization program to upgrade and improve our Nation’s communication system thereby strengthening deterrence.” In 1988, the US Air Force announced a scaled-back plan to complete the system with only 96 towers at an estimated cost of $600 million. It never came to fruition, but we can use the cost estimate to conjecture that the actual amount spent on GWEN was equivalent to about $6.25 million per tower, or around $363 million.

These millions did not completely go to waste. In the late 1990s, the Coast Guard temporarily converted the tower near my home, known as the Appleton site, into a differential GPS broadcast station—to boost the accuracy of radio beacon signals used for maritime navigation. A study measured the signal strength at various points hundreds of miles from the tower, and the experiment was deemed a success, so other GWEN towers were also converted and became part of the Nationwide Differential GPS Service. However, that system has experienced declining use, and the Coast Guard proposed decommissioning 62 of its 84 towers, including the Appleton tower. Protests from some users have kept the system alive for now.

Modern madness. In his 1985 inaugural address, US President Ronald Reagan famously said, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” But that same year, the Air Force began constructing the GWEN towers, which the Reagan administration said were a key component of its strategy for “supporting controlled nuclear counter-attacks over a protracted period.”

Subsequent US presidents have continued the American tradition of paying lip service to peace while simultaneously building increasingly complex systems for fighting a nuclear war. Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize largely on the strength of his 2009 speech in Prague, in which he pledged that the United States would take “concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.” And the following year, it looked like he would continue on this path, signing the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia. But as his presidency draws to a close, Obama has embarked on an expensive modernization program that not only commits the United States to retaining its nuclear arsenal for decades to come, but also calls for the development of smaller weapons that could make nuclear war seem more thinkable and survivable than ever before. The tower still standing in the woods near my house is a monument to that kind of foolhardiness.

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