Commercial chips put nukes, satellites at risk
- By Dan Verton
- Jun 21, 1998
The Defense Special Weapons Agency (DSWA) is working on a solution to protect commercial chips in nuclear missiles and communications satellites from being crippled by an increase in radiation associated with above-ground nuclear tests.
Commercial multiple-chip processor modules, which guide nuclear missiles during flight and direct military communications worldwide, fail when exposed to the kind of high-level X-ray radiation that is produced after a nuclear device— even a small one— is exploded high in the atmosphere. The modules can take months to recover before they can operate properly.
The Defense Department has known about the processors' vulnerability since 1994. That year, Lt. Col. Glenn Kweder of the Defense Nuclear Agency— now known as DSWA— gave a briefing to the director of the National Reconnaissance Office and said, "A single, low-yield nuclear weapon detonated at high altitude can negate a majority of [low Earth orbit (LEO)] space assets in a few months."
In addition, according to Kweder's briefing, which FCW obtained, the loss of so many communications, weather and surveillance satellites would have "dire consequences for [the] U.S. defense posture...[and] eventually tens of thousands of U.S. high-tech jobs" could be lost.
The vulnerability of the processors has now been raised to the top of DSWA's agenda because of rising nuclear tensions in Asia and because more missile and satellite designers are installing less costly commercial multiple-chip processor modules in missiles and satellites. The modules are a preferred technology because they weigh less than the bulky chips DOD has used in the past. In addition, the military is increasing its purchase of LEO satellites, where they are most vulnerable to the effects of a high-altitude nuclear test. The processors, DWSA officials believe, are not "hardened" sufficiently to protect them from this higher level of radiation.
"This is something [DOD] should be worrying about," said Allen Thompson, a former CIA analyst and frequent contributor to studies conducted by the Federation of American Scientists. "There is considerable [fear] that satellites using unhardened commercial components are vulnerable to nuclear weapons effects...and the long-term effects of trapped electrons."
Electrons become trapped in so-called Van Allen Belts when a nuclear device is detonated in the atmosphere. Van Allen Belts are radiation belts that circle the globe and are held in place by the Earth's magnetic field. A nuclear detonation increases the number of electrons in the Van Allen Belts, causing the electronic components of satellites to "fry" in a matter of hours, Thompson said. The radiation also can shorten the lifespan of satellites. For example, the lifespan of the Hubble Telescope would be decreased from 15 years to less than two years.
Commercial satellites are not designed to withstand the increase in radiation that is produced as a result of a nuclear detonation, said Peter Coakley, a spokesman for Jaycor's Defense Sciences Group. The commercial satellites used by the military "will probably fail immediately," he said.
DSWA plans to award a contract to San Diego-based Jaycor to study ways to protect commercial off-the-shelf microprocessors from radiation.
William Summa, chief of the Survivability Assessments Division at DSWA, said the technology to harden the chips in satellites and missiles exists but that a solution is probably two to three years away. And despite studies that show it is less costly to harden the components during the design stage, satellite and missile manufacturers continue to ship systems that contain unhardened components, therefore, forcing the government to incur the added expense of retrofitting them with the proper technology, Summa said.
Larry Wing, director of the electronic products business area for Honeywell Inc., manufacturer of a radiation-hardened 32-bit processor for use in next-generation space systems, said "systems that are deployed today are adequately hard...[but] hardness means different things to different people." Wing said the older satellites are probably shielded better than newer systems; however, when it comes to strategic missiles, "it is very difficult to harden just anybody's commercial design."