Communications System, United States National

Communications System, United States National


The United States National Communications System (NCS) brings together representatives of numerous government departments, using a wide variety of technologies, to provide a single, integrated communications network in the interests of national security. Created in 1962, when Cold War tensions highlighted the need for reliable intraand international communication, NCS underwent significant changes in 1984, but its core mission—to provide for the communication needs of the president and the national security apparatus—has not altered significantly.

The "Red Telephone" and the reality of NCS. One of the great fixtures of American national-security lore in the modern era is the "Red Telephone." According to legend, this piece of equipment is exactly what its name implies: presumably an ordinary-looking phone colored a standard shade of red—but with a key difference. As it is depicted in movies and the popular imagination, the Red Telephone has no dial or buttons, because it is designed for communication between two sites only: the Oval Office and the Kremlin. In a moment of grave national danger, so the legend goes, the president of the United States picks up the Red Telephone and is instantly connected to his counterpart in Moscow.

The Red Telephone, in fact, is a figment of overactive imaginations. There is no Red Telephone, per se; rather, the president communicates with world leaders through various secure lines, which are maintained by NCS. The latter organization—and, perhaps, the myth of the Red Telephone itself—emerged from a period when the United States came as close as it ever would to nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Early history. During the two weeks of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, as President John F. Kennedy spent a great deal of time communicating with Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, as well as with other world political and military leaders. Faulty communications technology threatened to further complicate interchanges, and thus exacerbate tensions, a situation that prompted Kennedy to action after the crisis subsided.

The president ordered a study of available security communication capabilities. Subsequently an interdepartmental committee, formed by the National Security Council (NSC), conducted this investigation. The committee recommended the creation of unified system designed to serve the security communication needs of the president and other top political, military, national security, and diplomatic figures. As a result, Kennedy established NCS by a presidential directive signed on August 21, 1963.

Its initial mandate called on NCS to link, improve, and extend the communications technology and capabilities of the relevant federal agencies and departments, with a focus on interconnectivity and the ability to survive ruptures in the communication system. It was a bold mission at a time when telephones had dials, few homes had more than one phone (let alone more than one phone line), and few offices possessed any equipment other than a phone and a typewriter. For the next two decades, the system continued on the model set for it in the early 1960s; then, on April 3, 1984, President Ronald Reagan greatly altered its structure with Executive Order (E.O.) 12472.

NCS participants and NS/EP responsibilities. Under the terms of E.O. 12472, NCS grew from six member agencies and departments to 22, and set about coordinating national security and emergency preparedness (NS/EP) plans to provide communications in the event of crisis or disaster. Today NCS works with all the departments of the federal government, as well as the Central Intelligence, National Security, and Federal Emergency Management agencies; the Joint Staff; the General Services, National Aeronautics and Space, and National Telecommunications and Information administrations; the Nuclear Regulatory and Federal Communications commissions; the Federal Reserve Board; and the United States Postal service.

A particularly notable example of a department with critical NS/EP responsibilities is the Department of Defense (DoD). Among the telecommunications assets it oversees are the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) computer network; the Direct Communications Link (the Washington-Moscow hotline that constitutes the real-life "Red Telephone"), the Defense Satellite Communications System; the Worldwide Military Command and Control System; and several others.

Along with the other 21 members, DoD is represented on NCS through the Committee for National Security and Emergency Preparedness. The committee, formerly known as the NCS Committee of Principals, was established by E.O. 12472, and renamed October 2001 according to E.O. 13231, "Critical Infrastructure Protection in the Information Age." In late 2002, NCS was slated for inclusion in the new Department of Homeland Security.



National Communications System, 1963–1998: 35th Anniversary. Arlington, VA: National Communications System, 1998.

National Communications System for Emergency Response Personnel. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2001.


Caterinicchia, Dan. "When Duty Calls." Federal Computer Week 16, no. 36 (October 7, 2002): 25–26.

McConnell, Bruce. "Telecom Role Model." Federal Computer Week 16, no. 40 (November 11, 2002): 27.


National Communication System. < > (January 29, 2003).


Cuban Missile Crisis
National Telecommunications Information Administration, and Security for the Radio Frequency Spectrum, United States
NSC (National Security Council)

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