China and U.S. to open military hotline ... and then what?

When most people think of military hotlines, it is safe to say, the Cold War movie images of a red telephone sitting at the ready in the White House and the Kremlin still dominates. As China and the United States move to set up a line between militaries,

When most people think of military hotlines, it is safe to say, the Cold War movie images of a red telephone sitting at the ready in the White House and the Kremlin still dominates. As China and the United States move to set up a line between militaries, the real question is: how is a hotline technically different from a telephone?

News reports refer to a "direct dial" telephone between military establishments. Are we talking here about a dedicated line? Does the telephone use regular undersea cables? Is there a military satellite link being used for this purpose? Are the Pentagon and the People's Liberation Army just trading private phone numbers? If reporters are asking, no one's answering.

Already, there has been a direct phone between U.S. and Chinese heads of state since the 90s, and between the U.S. secretary of state and the Chinese foreign minister since 2004, according to AFP.

Let's do the what if game for a minute, realizing that I'm coming up with some pretty absurd situations:

  • What if these hotlines use the regular undersea cables, either by regular encrypted phone transmission or IP-style networks?
    Someone working on a Tomorrow Never Dies-style war could cut a line or two, and with the right intelligence, they may be able to cut off contact. Presidents and generals would be reduced to calling each other's switchboards, which though less secure would probably work quickly to get each other on the phone.
  • What if they lay a new wire, an unlikely if intriguing idea?
    It would be even easier to sever the ties, but if general communications went down the unique connection would still work.
  • What if, as with the last implementation of the U.S.-Soviet hotline, military satellites were used (seemingly a lot more likely)?
    This is where the modern era gets interesting. This only works so long as no one blows the satellites out of the sky. It seems to me a weakness in a strategic communications plan if for instance one or both sides decided to blast some military satellites as a precursor to any terrestrial war. Worse yet, if something like terrorism makes it to space, more Tomorrow Never Dies trouble could result from a third party severing the link. Heads of state would still probably want the option of talking to each other in hopes of preventing a full blown mutual destruction.

Which leads me to my proposal: Follow the lead of the first implementation of the Soviet-U.S. line (as explained at Wikipedia).

The first generation of the hot line had no voice element at all; the memorandum called for a full-time duplex wire telegraph circuit, based on the idea that spontaneous verbal communications could lead to miscommunications and misperceptions. This circuit was routed Washington - London - Copenhagen - Stockholm - Helsinki - Moscow. The Washington - London link was originally carried over the TAT-1, the first submarine transatlantic telephone cable. A secondary radio line was routed Washington - Tangier - Moscow.

The key is the redundant link, and keeping facilities guarded. Keeping a terrestrial radio line open may be the only reliable fall-back in an age of spy movie paranoia.

All this absurdism, tongue firmly in cheek, comes by way of asking: What are these folks really trying to accomplish here? Could it be that the tech-heads in both militaries just want a new toy to play with? Your guess is as good as mine.

About the author

    Formerly a journalist and consultant in Beijing, Graham Webster is a graduate student studying East Asia at Harvard University. At Sinobyte, he follows the effects of technology on Chinese politics, the environment, and global affairs. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network, and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

     

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