May 25, 2008

Next Nuclear Weapons Are Tough Sell for Labs

By John Fleck
Of the Journal

Managers at Sandia and Los Alamos national labs often talk about “the customer.” It has always seemed an odd word to me, more appropriate to some guy walking in the door at Target than the people in the military who might some day have to use the nuclear weapons the labs design.

But insofar as “the customer” is the management-speak in use, it seems appropriate to ask what the customer wants. And in that regard, the news for the labs lately is not entirely good.

Foreign Policy magazine recently conducted a survey of more than 3,400 active and retired military leaders. They have a host of concerns regarding the current state of the U.S. military, and the things that need to be done to prepare it for the threats we face as a nation in the 21st century.

A need for new nuclear weapons was about as far down the list as it is possible to get without disappearing entirely from their vision of our military future. Only 2 percent of those surveyed thought “bring(ing) a new generation of nuclear weapons online” should be one of the nation's top defense priorities — far behind the need for “more robust diplomatic tools,” among many needs singled out.

This is a problem for the labs and the National Nuclear Security Administration, the federal agency that directs their nuclear weapons work. They have hitched their future plans to the “Reliable Replacement Warhead.” RRW is the vanguard of a new generation of nukes they want to build to replace our old and, they say, outmoded Cold War arsenal.

But the Foreign Policy survey suggests the customer may not want RRW.

To be fair, one of the customers who matters the most, U.S. Strategic Command, while not willing to buy RRW outright, at least seems interested in putting the design on layaway. Finishing up current paper studies of the RRW design will help guide decisions to be made next year about the long-term future of our nuclear deterrent, Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of Stratcom, told the House Armed Services Committee in February.

Chilton's comments seem to have been an attempt to quiet concerns that RRW was being sold by the labs and the National Nuclear Security Administration to a customer not all that interested in buying.

But like many things in the federal government right now, “next year” is a long way away, with a bright line dividing “before Jan. 20” from “after Jan. 20.” Election years create a sort of limbo as federal officials alternatively sprint as fast as they can trying to get things locked into place, or idle away the final years of the departing administration, realizing that whatever they do today could be easily undone on Jan. 21.

Which makes the question of the views of the three remaining major-party presidential candidates all the more important. One of them, combined with the next Congress, will make the decisions that will matter on RRW and the future of nuclear weapons.

In that regard, arms control scholar Jeffrey Lewis of the New America Foundation notes that all three have, in one form or another, endorsed a reduced reliance on nuclear weapons and a move toward eventual nuclear disarmament “in one form or another.”

“We should work to reduce nuclear arsenals all around the world, starting with our own,” John McCain said in a March speech outlining his foreign policy platform.

Lewis, who has done a detailed analysis of the three candidates' statements on the issue, notes that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have made similar comments.

On RRW, Clinton's views are clear. “I oppose the Bush administration's plans for the Reliable Replacement Warhead,” she said in answer to a questionnaire from the Council for a Livable World, an arms control group.

Obama has parsed his words more carefully. “America must not rush to produce a new generation of nuclear warheads,” he wrote in a policy essay published last year in Foreign Affairs magazine. Leaving the door open to continued studies, he told the Council for a Livable World, “I do not support a premature decision to produce the RRW.” For Obama, apparently, the option of continued design studies remains on the table.

McCain did not answer the questionnaire, and his campaign declined to comment on his views about RRW.

Regardless of campaign pronouncements, in nuclear weapons policy, and especially the Byzantine world of lab budgets, the devil is in the details. And as Lewis notes, presidential campaigns are not the places where one learns such details.

“Candidates are, by nature, generalists,” Lewis wrote in a recent analysis of the candidates' nuclear weapons statements done for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “They can also be quite cautious on issues that are not central to their interests or their image. Although nuclear weapons issues are incredibly important, they are also technical, abstract and excite very few interest groups.”

That means we are unlikely to see presidential candidates speak about nuclear weapons issues with sufficient specificity to answer lingering uncertainties over the future of the nuclear weapons enterprise.

But if you're trying to read the signals here, all of this suggests that the next customer-in-chief is not likely to be an eager nuclear weapons buyer.

Read science writer John Fleck's blog at E-mail to


Anonymous said...

Dispite the high price of oil, we're most likely to be dependent on it for the next 20-30 years.

Perhaps this is not the best analogy but although the issues are different, I think the situation for nuclear weapons is similar.

Do we really want to keep our existing nuclear weapons (security & safety warts and all) for this extended period?

Anonymous said...

Tom D'Agostino is a politically tone-deaf "village idiot". His sell out of the labs to Bechtel coupled with his big push for a new weapons production complex is prepping the labs for disaster. Time is running out to stop this train wreck.

The lab needs to diversify and grow it's other non-weapons national security work, and it needs to do so, pronto. Right now, all I see is mostly empty talk by LANS upper management in regards to getting this done. That, plus an unhealthy interest in stuffing LANL full of Bechtel management.

Eric said...

4:55 PM

"The lab needs to diversify ..."

To me, this is true; but I do not see any champions of diversification either at LANS or at NNSA.

Do you know of any such people, especially ones with money that they want to spend here?


Anonymous said...

What the U.S. Military Index, What The Military Needs, Foreign Policy, page 7 of 9, says:

"What does the military need to win the war on terror? According to the index´s officers, America´s Special Operations forces will be critical to the fight. Almost 40 percent of the officers say the size of America´s Special Operations forces must be expanded to help ensure victory in the battle against terrorism.

Above all, though, the officers are clear that the chances for victory do not rest on the shoulders of the military alone. Nearly three quarters of the officers say the United States must improve its intelligence capabilities - the highest percentage of any of the choices offered. Active-duty officers and those who have retired within the past year give a much higher priority to nonmilitary tools, including more robust diplomacy, developing a force of deployable civilian experts, and increasing foreign-aid programs.

Looking beyond the immediate fight, the officers say that no step is more important for preparing the United States for the broader threats and challenges of the 21st century than increasing the size of America´s ground forces. That recommendation was followed closely by another call to expand the size of Special Operations forces. A sizable percentage of officers, more than 1 in 5, want to see improved space and cyberwarfare capabilities, and a similar proportion say the United States must deepen its capacity in specialty areas, such as psychological operations and engineers, that have been in high demand in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only around 2 percent say the United States needs a new generation of nuclear weapons. Clearly, the U.S. military is looking for its tools to evolve as threats change."

"What are the two most important things the U.S. government must do to win the war on terror?

38% More Special Operations; 73% Improve Intelligence."


A more thorough analyse than John Fleck and Jeffrey Lewis of

1) Towards a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World, Renewing Transatlantic Partnership, 2007, by General (ret.) Dr. Klaus Naumann, General (ret.) John Shalikashvili, Field Marshal The Lord Inge, Admiral (ret.) Jacques Lanxade, General (ret.) Henk van den Breemen.




4) National Security, Detecting Nuclear Smuggling, Radiation monitors at U.S. ports cannot reliably detect highly enriched uranium, which onshore terrorists could assemble into a nuclear bomb [HEU bomb], by Thomas B. Cochran and Matthew G. McKinzie, Scientific American April, 2008.

Anonymous said...


Why does the lab need to diversify?

I understand why LANL employees would like to diversify, but there is no reason why the government would like LANL to diversify. Military bases don’t diversify. Government departments don’t diversify. They perform their mission. Have you ever met with government program managers? They are very clear about what their missions are.

The only way you’ll get diversification is to convince the Congress that LANL brings something unique to the nation. It is entirely unclear what that might be. Sadly, it is actually clear what that might be – nothing. I would guess that there are no major national needs which do not have labs which credibly fill those needs, at least to the satisfaction of their congressional delegation which will fight LANL’s encroachment tooth and nail.

There will be some small victories, maybe several million dollars. However, it is nukes or nothing.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to compete with Beltway bandits because they have their finger everywhere and they offer ex-military officers and politicians lush jobs when they retire.

Eric said...

To 11:44,

Does the lab need to diversify?

To me, the answer depends on what you want the Lab and northern New Mexico to be five or ten years from now.

If the Lab is to be a place of pit manufacture, building construction, and environmental clean up with little science and with 50% or less of its current budget, then the Lab does not have to diversify.

If the Lab (or, more accurately, its staff) is no longer willing to fight for funding on interesting projects, then the Lab does not need to diversify.

If Lab staff are content with being pushed hither and yon by each D.C./DOE/NNSA sirocco, then the Lab does not need to diversify.

If it is acceptable to local residents that each fundable project, whether govermental, academic, or industrial, leaves the state, then the Lab does not need to diversify.

If, on the other hand, this place and these people are worth fighting for, then it does need to diversify.

I, for one, have a few projects that could help in the diversification. I have a fund raising meeting on one of them in 90 minutes. This project, if it stays here, could be a credible start to diversification.

I will spend Memorial day on this one, another one, and on finishing a CD of photos of the history of the Pajarito plateau, with emphasis on the historical strengths of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory.

I clearly think that diversification is worth fighting for. I agree with Sig Hecker's statement to the Senate that the nation needs diversification, here and across the national labs, in order to strengthen national security.

Do these words help to further the discussion on diversity?

Anonymous said...

"It's hard to compete with Beltway bandits because they have their finger everywhere and they offer ex-military officers and politicians lush jobs when they retire." - 5/26/08 12:07 AM

Hey, that sounds a lot like the upper levels of NNSA and LANS. I guess we're not so different after all!

Anonymous said...

New LANS slogan:

"Give the nation your best 2 percent. Come and work for LANS!"

Anonymous said...


Your comments agree perfectly with my point. Los Alamos residents and LANL employees want diversification. You don't have to convince anyone of that.

However, none of your reasons for diversification are likely to convince anyone with projects and budgets.

How about some reasons why the government would want LANL to diversify.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe the bureaucratic and management infrastructure (security, nuclear safety, physical isolation of firing sites) that are required for *any* level of nuclear weapons work, are compatible with the kind of diversification that Eric says he wants. You can't have it both ways, and LANS isn't interested if it ain't nuclear. Obviously, neither is NNSA. Non-nuclear work will never be seen by LANS or NNSA as "non-interfering" with the primary mission.

Anonymous said...

It's time to divert all weapons funding to renewable energy and get off oil. We've played this game for to long and have enough in the stockpile to take care of business.

Anonymous said...

The time has come for NNSA to consolidate all nuclear weapons work at LANL. The military does not require or want the massive, cold war era nuclear weapons infrastructure (two nuclear design labs). In addition to the military, many politicians, including OBAMA, do not want to fund nuclear weapons work. I have pasted a link to one of OBAMA's TV advertisements where he outlines his plans to cut defense programs and nuclear weapons work.

Just as a surgeon will amputate a gangrene-infested limb to save the body, NNSA must cut off LNLL to save the nuclear deterrent of the US. NNSA cannot keep the current, oversized infrastructure alive when only 2% of the military and 1 retiring US Senator from NM values nuclear weapons research. We can all die or we can cut off a minor extremity; I hope NNSA chooses the latter.

Anonymous said...

4:04 pm: "It's time to divert all weapons funding to renewable energy and get off oil."

Oh, get real. There is no realistic substitute for oil, unless it is liquified coal, and that's too expensive (so far). No "renewable" source will maintain our lifestyle and economy, but that's actually what you want isn't it?

Anonymous said...

"The time has come for NNSA to consolidate all nuclear weapons work at LANL."

My bet is on the DAF for PX mission.

Anonymous said...

"Oh, get real. There is no realistic substitute for oil, unless it is liquified coal, and that's too expensive (so far). No "renewable" source will maintain our lifestyle and economy, but that's actually what you want isn't it?

5/26/08 8:20 PM"

It is oil or nothing! We should have two classes of people: those who can enjoy the oil based lifestyle and the rest that will need to walk. Soon only Paris Hilton and like will be able to drive and fly while we watch. If only 1 percent of society needs oil than it can last a long long time.

Look at us! what a worthless bunch of people we are. We are putting a piece of metal on Mars and we are allowing states to have gay marriage. We are funding LANL, LLNL NASA and NSF, what a waste! Our soldiers are dying in Iraq and we are worried about Global Warming... for Gods sake!

Anonymous said...

"It's time to divert all weapons funding to renewable energy and get off oil. We've played this game for to long and have enough in the stockpile to take care of business."

Oh, this is a real brain at work. When everybody else with nukes has the brains to see the futility of nuclear weapons THEN I'd be glad to junk ours, but not before. This clown is seriously blind.

Get off oil? Never gonna happen until Congress gets off their collective butts and does something other than playing political power games. You're easily too young to remember the "gas crisis" of the early seventies, 35 years ago. Every election we hear about how we need to be "energy independent," along with the other same old bullshit lines and how much has been done?

We need to do this...We need to that.Yadda, yadda, yadda.
What do we elect the representatives of the people for other than the regular sideshows they like to put on?
How about the idiots who are running to be a FRESHMAN congressman who say THEY will end the war in Iraq and other such nonsense.
Either these people are really that stupid or are just typically New Mexican.

ANybody else out there had enough of the crap?

Anonymous said...

Tough sell, no one is buying what we are selling, the costs are sky-rocketing and the product is out-dated. Cuts, budget declines and a whole lot of yelling and screaming are in store for the (former LANL), no more gravy -train, the remains will be a small Pit factory that may last for a few years, then.......???? (well it's anyones guess but it aint a gonna be big.

Anonymous said...

"If the Lab is to be a place of pit manufacture, building construction, and environmental clean up with little science and with 50% or less of its current budget, then the Lab does not have to diversify." (Eric)

Ouch! That, I'm afraid, is exactly where we are headed. In fact, it is where NNSA wants us to go and it's the mission I fear LANS secretly signed up for when they won the for-profit management contract.

Give it a few more years and you won't recognize LANL as a great science lab any longer. We'll start looking more and more like DOE's Savannah River complex. At Savannah River, the corporatization process mandated in the mid 90's was successful at making corporate partners like Bechtel very rich and taking the "science side", SRL, and squeezing it down to a staff of only about 300 mediocre scientists doing increasing amounts of niche research. That's my nightmare vision of the path which I think LANL may be currently embarked upon.

Anonymous said...

Joe Martz' interview on KTAO last week was interesting. I especially liked the PR touch were he talks about "channeling" the ghostly vision of ol' Hans Bethe. What a laugh riot!