November 26, 2012

Bilateral Hotlines Worldwide

(Updated: July 12, 2024)

In a previous article we discussed the Washington-Moscow Hotline, being the most famous bilateral hotline. It was soon followed by direct communication links between a number of other countries with nuclear capabilities.

In general these hotlines started as a teletype connection, being upgraded with facsimile units in the eighties and were eventually turned into dedicated secure computer networks. An exception is the hotline between Washington and London, which was a phone line already since 1943.

Overview of the top level bilateral hotlines worldwide
(Click to enlarge)

The hotlines between the heads of governments, are meant to prevent (nuclear) war in times of severe crisis. For preventing misunderstandings and miscommunications in less critical situations, countries have also set up lower level telephone hotlines between their defense or foreign ministers. For example, the United States has so called Defense Telephone Links with at least 23 other states.

Overview of the lower level bilateral hotlines worldwide
reflecting political and military relationships between countries
(Click to enlarge)


- In 1963 the United States and the Soviet Union established the Direct Communications Link (DCL) or Washington-Moscow Hotline. This highly secured connection originally used teletype machines, which were replaced by facsimile units in 1988 and is using e-mail since 2008.

- In 1990 both countries agreed to establish a direct, secure telephone link between Washington and Moscow, which is officially called the Direct Voice Link (DVL) and is maintained by the White House Communications Agency.

- In 2008, Russia and the United States agreed to set up a Direct Secure Communications System, which is an encrypted computer network for both the original Hotline and the Direct Voice Link. Since 2013 this network is also used for a voice link to manage cybersecurity incidents and in December 2021, for a secure video call between the Russian and the American presidents.

The Washington-Moscow Hotline terminal room at the Pentagon in 2013

Between the United States and Russia there are also the following lower level communication links:

- In 1988 the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center (NRRC) was established at the US Department of State, which is used to exchange information in support of arms control treaties. After the split-up of the Soviet Union this secure data exchange connection, called Government-to-Government Communication Link (GGCL), was extended to Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Since 2013, the NRRC also maintains a communications link with Russia for the exchange of information about cybersecurity risks.

- In 2000 the US and Russia signed an agreement for the establishement of a Joint Data Exchange Center (JDEC) to share early warning information on missile and space launches to reduce the risk that a test launch could be misread as a missile attack. It's not clear whether this center has already been realized or not.

- In 2013, a direct secure voice line was set up between the US Cybersecurity Coordinator and the deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council in order to manage crisis situations arising from cybersecurity incidents.

- In 2015, the American and the Russian military created a back-channel after Russia entered Syria's multi-sided civil war. This de-confliction line consisted of a non-secure telephone line and a Google e-mail account, which proved useful in avoiding serious accidents.

- On March 1, 2022, a military de-confliction 'hotline' was established in order to prevent an accidental clash between Russia and the US during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This link is basically an exchange of phone numbers between both sides for quick access. The US side will be run out of the US European Command's operations center in Stuttgart, Germany, while the Russian side is expected to be coordinated out of the Ministry of Defense in Moscow.

Besides these bilateral hotlines with Russia, the United States also has the following lower level communication links with other nations:

- There is a secure telephone line called Foreign Affairs Link (FAL) between the US Department of State and Russia (since 1999), Japan, Mexico, Germany and Israel.

- There is or was a Defense Telephone Link (DTL) between the US Department of Defense and Russia (since 1994), China (since 2008), Albania, Oman, Qatar, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Kuwait, Estonia, Slovakia, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Bahrain, Israel (since 1996), United Arab Emirates, Poland, Romania, Czech Republic and Austria.

In March 2022, US defense secretary Llyod Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark A. Milley tried to set up phone calls, most likely through the Defense Telephone Link (DTL), with their Russian counterparts, but the Russians declined to answer the calls.

- In September 2011, the United States proposed opening a direct military hotline with Iran to avoid a possible conflict erupting over the Iranian nuclear program. Tehran declined the offer.


- Already before Russian armed forces invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the United States provided Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky with a secure satellite phone that can put him into an encrypted call with US president Biden. On March 5, 2022, Zelensky used it for a 35-minute call with his American counterpart on what more the US could do to support Ukraine without entering into direct combat with Russian forces. A similar satellite phone was provided to Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba.


- During World War II, two decades before the hotline between Washington and Moscow was established, there was a direct secure telephone link between the Cabinet War Room bunker under Downing Street and the Pentagon with an extension to the White House. From 1943-1946 this link was secured by using the very first voice encryption machine, called SIGSALY.
In the 1950s and 1960s the Washington-London hotline was secured by the KY-9, probably succeeded by the KY-3 voice encryption devices. In the 1980s, the STU-I system was used, to be replaced by a small version of the IST red phone.

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in her office at Nr. 10 Downing Street in 1987
At the far right we see the beige STU-I telephone for the hotline with the US
(photo: Tim Graham/Getty Images - click to enlarge)


- In 1962, a hotline was established between the White House and the German chancellor's office. Initially, this was non-secure, standard telephone line. In 1969 it was probably replaced by a secure teletype link and since the late 1970s it consisted of secure STU-I telephone sets. Somewhere in the 1990s these were replaced by a small version of the IST red phone.


- The Spanish prime minister José Maria Aznar (1996-2004) was so often in contact with US president George W. Bush, that a special phone line was installed in his office in the Moncloa palace, exclusively for phone calls to the White House. One of those phone calls was just before the war in Iraq and both leaders also talked about developments in South America.*


- In October 1997, US president Clinton and Chinese president Jiang Zemin agreed to "connect a presidential hotline to make it easier to confer at a moment's notice." On April 29, 1998 the United States and China signed an agreement to set up such a direct telephone link between both heads of state. However, this hotline was not used when in 2001 an American EP-3E electronic surveillance aircraft was forced to land on Hainan Island.

- In the Summer of 2021, the Biden administration examined the possibility of setting up an emergency hotline with the office of China's president Xi Jinping in order to avoid accidental escalation at a time of heightening bilateral tensions. However, it was believed that China views hotlines as tools to manipulate rather than to solve crises by de-escalating and communicating between forces like the US does. According to remarks by president Biden in July 2024, it seemed that the hotline between him and Xi had been established.

- On February 29, 2008, China and the United States had already agreed to set up a Defense Telephone Link (DTL) between the US Department of Defense and China’s Ministry of National Defense, which became operational in April 2008. Until 2011 this hotline was used only four times, but later it was used somewhat more often and in 2014, the US proposed to upgrade the DTL to video teleconference. In 2020, the DTL was used on a regular basis by various defense officials.


- During a visit of US president Obama to India in January 2015, it was decided to set up a secure hotline between the White House and the Indian prime minister. The link became operational in August 2015 and was said to be established with the help of the US military.


- A hotline connection between Moscow and Bejing was used during the 1969 frontier confrontation between the two countries. The Chinese however refused the Russian peace attempts, and informed Moscow that the direct communications link "was no longer "advantageous" and normal diplomatic channels would suffice". After a reconciliation between the former enemies, the hotline between China and Russia was revived in 1996.* It's not clear whether this hotline is for record or voice communications.
- A telephone hotline between the defence ministries of Russia and China became operational on March 14, 2008.


- Apparently there was a facsimile-hotline between Moscow and Pyongyang, which was used in 1968, when North Korea captured the American spy ship USS Pueblo.*


- Since 1966 there was a direct teletype connection between the French president and the Kremlin. In 1989 the teletype equipment was replaced by high speed facsimile units.*


- Since 1967 there was a direct teletype connection between the British prime minister and the Kremlin. In 1990 it was proposed to install a telephone line between London and Moscow, but British government officials considered it too costly to secure this line through encryption. It seems that this hotline was eventually upgraded with encryption in 2011.


- In 1989 a facsimile connection was established between the West-German capital Bonn and Moscow.* In 1990 there was also a non-secure telephone line between both capitals.
- The Soviet Union also had a hotline with Erich Honecker as leader of the former East-German Republic (DDR). During a short period before East and West Germany were united in 1991, there was a telephone hotline between Honecker and the West-German Bundeskanzler Helmut Kohl.*


- In 2009 Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak agreed to pass on relevant intelligence information immediately using a hotline, primarily to combat smuggling from Sinai into the Gaza Strip.


- In 2015, Russian armed forces in Syria had set up a hotline with the Israeli military to avoid accidental clashes in the Syrian sky: "Mutual information-sharing on the actions of aircraft has been established through a hotline between the Russian aviation command center at the Hmeimim air base and a command post of the Israeli Air Force."


- After the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, a secure communications link between the Prime Minister Secretariat in Islamabad and the Secretariat Building in New Delhi was established, but it was seldom used until the 1990s.
- In 2004, both countries agreed to set up an additional secure hotline between their foreign ministers, aimed at preventing nuclear risks.
- In 2011, India and Pakistan agreed to set up a 24/7 non-encrypted hotline between their interior ministers, that will facilitate real-time information sharing on terrorist threats.


- Since 2005 there's a non-encrypted hotline between the foreign ministers of India and China for building "mutual political trust".
- In 2009 both countries agreed to set up a direct, secure telephone link between the Chinese premier and Indian prime minister, which was meant as a confidence building measure and to maintain regular contacts at the highest level. The agreement for this hotline was signed in April 2010.


- There's also a non-encrypted hotline between Delhi and Moscow, which was established before 2009.


- A first telephone hotline between North and South Korea became operational on September 22, 1971. Many low-level phone lines between both countries followed, until there were 33 lines through Pamnumjom and 15 lines outside that border town. A top-level telephone hotline between the presidents of North and South Korea was established on April 20, 2018, in preparation of a summit between both leaders.

A South Korean liaison officer speaks with his North Korean counterpart over the
inter-Korean communications channel at Panmunjom, January 3, 2018
(photo: Unification Ministry - click to enlarge)


- In September 2012, China and South Korea agreed to set up a consular hotline between their defense ministries to protect rights of their citizens who are staying in the other country. In April 2013 both countries agreed to set up a second, 24-hour hotline to deal with the rising tension over North Korea.


- In June 2013, China and Vietnam agreed to set up a naval hotline between their defense departments, in order to keep a peaceful and secure maritime environment in the South China Sea, amid escalating maritime tensions over disputed South China Sea islands.


- In January 2023, an emergency telephone hotline was established after Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. However, during a confrontation between Chinese and Philippine forces in August 2023, the Philippine government said it was unable to reach Chinese officials through this "maritime communication mechanism" for several hours.
- In July 2024, a direct line of communication was opened between the presidential offices of China and the Philippines to help prevent confrontations from spiraling out of control in the disputed South China Sea. Now there are several channels for communication, specifically on maritime issues, through the representatives to be designated by Chinese and Philippine leaders.

In 2010, China and Japan agreed to establish a hotline between their political leaders, following a series of naval incidents, but the plan wasn't realized. Defence officials of the two countries also agreed in 2011 to set up a military-to-military hotline by the end of 2012, but the talks stalled due to heightened tensions over the territorial row. In February 2013, Japan again suggested to establish a China-Japan hotline, and reiterated this once again in January 2014.

In September 2016, China and the Southeast Asian countries decided to set up hotlines and adopt communications protocols to avoid potential naval clashes in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

When more information about these hotlines becomes available, it will be added here. Some of the most notable bilateral hotlines will be discussed later on this weblog.

Links and Sources
- The Rand Blog: Another 'Hotline' with China Isn't the Answer, July 2022
- Politico: Pentagon wants Moscow back channels to prevent nuclear escalation, February 2022
- National Communications System, Forty Years of Service to the Nation: 1963-2003, 2003
- Haraldur Þór Egilsson, The Origins, Use and Development of Hot Line Diplomacy, Institute Clingendael, 2003
- US Department of State, Bureau of Information Resource Management (IRM), 2011

1 comment:

Nick said...

Hi nice reading your post

In Dutch: Meer over het wetsvoorstel voor de Tijdelijke wet cyberoperaties