National Interest

US Emergency Communications Are Vulnerable

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Last Thursday’s abrupt collapse of the AT&T cell network, along with recent news reports of Russian nuclear attack weapons in space, underscore threats to satellite, cellular, and cyber networks. Americans must take urgent measures to protect emergency communications as a national security imperative.

Millions of Americans throughout the country lost cellular signals on February 22. Though the blackout lasted only one day, the incident should be a wake-up call for policymakers to make the U.S. telecommunications architecture more resilient. Wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters have repeatedly toppled cell towers and disrupted internet service that our first responders and emergency management officials depend on to broadcast urgent messages.

Though cellular systems are primed for problems, Thursday’s outage was an accident, apparently caused by a flawed procedure to expand the network. Still, the chaos underscored the vulnerability of cell phone networks to malign actors as well as mishaps.

Russia, China, and other U.S. adversaries, including terrorists, aim to blind and paralyze Americans in a crisis. The Russian armed forces have repeatedly disrupted Ukrainian phone systems through cyber and electronic warfare attacks. The Pentagon has also taken down adversary communications in foreign military operations.

This month’s news highlighted the threat from Russia’s newly developed space nuclear attack weapon. These are reportedly designed to disable entire satellite constellations through nuclear-power energy surges and electromagnetic pulses.

Russia and China want to dominate the strategic high ground of space to exploit Americans’ dependence on this domain. They have designed, developed, and tested multiple anti-satellite weapons, including direct-ascent kinetic kill vehicles launched from the Earth’s surface that obliterate exo-atmospheric targets through force of impact; “co-orbital” satellites that maneuver toward targets to observe, shadow, hack, disrupt, grab, or ram them; and directed energy and electronic warfare systems that disrupt satellite’s sub-systems, making them blind, deaf, and dumb.

In January 2007, China destroyed one of its satellites in a test, spewing a massive volume of debris that even today threatens to collide with the International Space Station. Russia followed suit in November 2021.

Despite the high visibility of nuclear weapons in space, Moscow’s and Beijing’s most usable anti-communication weapons are non-kinetic. In 2014, Chinese operatives hacked into several U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites. Using “soft-kill” technologies such as directed energy and commandeering cyber weapons against satellites, cellular networks, or Internet providers is more difficult to attribute to foreign adversaries due to the plausibility of alternative explanations such as coincidental technical failures or accidents. They also increase the risk of misperceptions and wars.

Sustaining emergency communications during severe crises is critical to our national security. Last October, the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States released a new report that correctly characterized space assets as “critical infrastructure that merits an explicit threat of response” that includes “active defense, passive defense, and U.S. terrestrial strike and offensive.” The Pentagon and its private sector partners should make space systems critical for U.S. national security easier to replace by expanding the prompt space launch capabilities of the United States and its partners. They must also be prepared to fight anywhere and everywhere, using degraded satellite and terrestrial communications.

Within the United States, we must also maintain the National Public Warning System and Emergency Alert System. Unlike cellular-based systems, which are vulnerable to general system outages like the nationwide one on Thursday and severe weather, this emergency communications system has never faltered. Among other strengths, it is built around the connectivity of AM radios, which are considerably more resilient than cell and Internet networks for wide-area surface communications, especially in rural and mountainous terrain. The U.S. government should ensure auto manufacturers keep AM radios in their vehicles, such as through bipartisan-backed bills in Congress, to keep us safe when disaster strikes.  

Furthermore, the U.S. government needs to accelerate the removal of Chinese-made hardware from internet networks in the United States and foreign partners. The current and previous administrations have made progress in this endeavor, especially in curtailing the use of Huawei hardware in 5G networks, but more needs to be done. At this month’s Munich Security Conference, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that Chinese hackers have prepositioned malware throughout global networks to sabotage them in future contingencies. The spread of artificial intelligence technologies is creating new cybersecurity complexities.

Ensuring crisis communications during all types of emergencies—from natural disasters to foreign attacks—is essential for preserving Americans’ prosperity and liberty. The United States must harden networks against all kinds of attacks, from kinetic strikes to cyber sabotage. Communication has become another arena of great power competition. The United States needs to step up its game to win it.

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