Dec 13, 2007

Butler County native ascends to national defense post

Thursday, December 13, 2007

As the new overseer of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, some aspects of Robert L. Smolen's life are secret.

The Butler County native's allegiance to the Steelers is not among them.

"Folks here will tell you that I'm looking across the room at a Terrible Towel," Smolen, a 1970 graduate of Knoch High School in Saxonburg, said of the symbol of Pittsburgh that hangs in his Washington office.

Smolen, 55, a retired Air Force major general, was sworn in Nov. 28 as deputy administrator for defense programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration. He is in charge of the nation's Stockpile Stewardship Program, which employs more than 30,000 people.

President Bush appointed him to the position in August, and the Senate confirmed the appointment last month.

The program he heads is responsible for keeping the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal at the ready.

Touring nuclear laboratories during his first week on the job, Smolen outlined some priorities to his staff.

"I told them I have a number of goals, but primarily I want them to stay focused on what they do best and just worry about doing that, and let me worry about trying to knock down the obstacles that keep them from doing their job better," Smolen said. "I'm instrumental in trying to help them get the resources they need to make all that work.

"It's really exciting to be a part of an organization that has so many smart people doing so many really important things across such a wide spectrum," he said.

The program faces challenges.

"Our nuclear weapons are very old. The newest one is over 20 years old. We're not testing anymore. We have a science-based program that enables us to monitor our weapons to ensure they are safe and reliable and secure," Smolen said. "It is a challenge to continue to refurbish them and ensure that they can do what they were intended to do."

Leadership skills vaulted Smolen to a position of high-level national responsibility, said William J. Green, a veteran Pittsburgh political analyst and Smolen's longtime friend. They met in the Boy Scouts in the 1960s. Smolen is an Eagle Scout and member of The Order of the Arrow, the Scouts' national honor society.

At Smolen's retirement ceremony in July, Green overheard the general's top sergeant talking to the base's chaplain. "The sergeant said, 'You know, chaplain, I've known some generals in my life. I'll tell you, there are generals, and then there is Bob Smolen,'" Green said. "It was quite a moving statement. He was greatly admired by his subordinates."

Before retiring from the Air Force, Smolen most recently was commander of the Air Force District of Washington, Bolling Air Force Base in Washington. Previously, he served as director of Strategic Policy and Arms Control at the National Security Council.

He and his wife, Adriane, started dating when he was a senior and she was a junior at Knoch High School. He was sports editor for the school newspaper. During his senior year at Allegheny College in Meadville, he was vice president of the student government and received a bachelor's degree in communications from the college in 1974.

Smolen received a master's degree in public administration from the University of Oklahoma in 1976; and a master's degree in international relations from Auburn University in 1985.

Robert and Adriane Smolen live in Springfield, Va. They have three grown children.

David M. Brown can be reached at or 412-380-5614.

[Read the NNSA press release here.]


Anonymous said...

When I left LANL for academia a couple of years ago, I found myself back in a culture that assumes federal program managers have technical expertise in the programs they're managing (imagine that!) -- as is the case at NSF, ONR, and a number of agencies. Because of this, I have spent a bit of energy setting people straight on how DOE managers tend NOT to have that level of hands-on technical expertise (in the form of advanced degrees and true research experience) but rather are lawyers, accountants, and ... public administrators.

But maybe he's a good politician. Hang in there, folks.

Anonymous said...

I feel much better now.

Anonymous said...

At this point, does it matter?

Anonymous said...

"Smolen, 55, a retired Air Force major general.."

Why don't we just stop the pretense and have the whole weapons complex shifted over to DOD. Their retired brass already run most of the place.