What is your assessment of the NNSA complex transformation proposal? Are there other viable alternative approaches to provide a more responsive infrastructure?
As I said in my testimony, “My reactions [to the Complex Transformation Plan] are mixed. While it is doubtless improved over the previous version (Complex 2030), it still does not present a compelling solution to the many problems facing the nuclear weapons complex.”
A more viable (and sensible) approach would be to:
(1) Establish at a national level the purpose and sizing of the US arsenal of nuclear weapons —appropriate to the threats we and our allies must likely face going forward.
The DoD has not taken up this issue for at least 15 years (under two administrations) but continues to try to preserve a Cold War arsenal that (a) no longer fits the world we live in, (b) nor fits the threats we face. The US Strategic Commission you created is one attempt to develop same, but whether it will stall over the polarizations (of the left and the right) is yet to be seen. There is no substitute for the US uniformed military once again developing its own detailed plans (that would implement such a national strategy.) Having DOE move forward to transform the Complex without having coordinated plans [with the DoD] is unlikely to succeed. The drafters of the current SPEIS were “flying blind” in trying to develop a plan to transform the complex without such guidance.
(2) Reorganize the management structure of the complex to have a nuclear weapons enterprise that is coherently managed and budgeted for. Just look at the DOE and NNSA org. chart: there is no direct management of the production complex. The overall management —including cohesive day-to-day management of the GOCO’s— used to be performed by the Albuquerque Operations Office for the entire complex, and the AOO depended on the weapons labs to help it establish the technical directions and design and quality acceptance requirements and the labs served as the final approval for any deviations. This arrangement worked for 40 years, and no one has filled the vacuum left by abolishment of the Albuquerque Operations role. (b) The plants mostly exist in an “everyman for himself” environment, and —in that vacuum— many plants have sought and achieved close political relationships with their own Congressional representatives and Senators. The effect of such actions has only increased “the centrifugal pressures tearing the complex apart.”
(c) There never was effective, cohesive management of the three weapons labs, although in truth it was never possible to “manage” the labs in any traditional sense. The fact has been well established that the Federal government is incapable of “managing the advancement of science” (even though periodically it tries this, through civil-service labs, but untarnished by success.) Because of this fact, the GOCO system (Government-owned, Contractor-operated) was created. The GOCO contractors originally were the nation’s best companies (or universities) in science and technology, who brought their business practices and approaches to the labs. There are only one or two of these left today, with the rest being mostly small outfits whose main business is “running the labs for the government’, motivated by fees they can earn (which was never the case in the original complex.) Worse yet, the bureaucracy of DOE (ERDA, or AEC) has continued to grow and have attempted to “take control” of the labs, and the model has deteriorated more and more to a “government-owned and operated” complex. There are now no longer any barriers to preventing the constantly burgeoning government bureaucracy from being imposed on the labs (and plants) and the advantages of having “private-sector” organizations for their functions has long since vanished. The original approach had been to have the labs responsible for innovations. The labs would propose their ideas to the government and to the military, and once agreement was established between them on “What was to be done”, the labs took over the process of how it should be done and carried the responsibility for achieving the agreed goals. My deeply held conviction is that the GOCO model has deteriorated so far, that it must now either be eliminated or drastically rejuvenated (with a new agency and a “clean sheet of paper.”)
In summary, there is little to suggest that the US weapons complex is a common team, smoothly interfacing, with clear guidance to carry out its mission. That is what is needed.
Dr. Robinson, you have witnessed previous efforts to modernize or transform the nuclear weapons complex. What lessons have you learned from previous efforts?
The whole issue of budgeting for either facility maintenance or constructing new facilities has never been done well through the process of “annual budgets.” One of the helpful improvements was the NNSA requirement for a five-year plan, although seldom were the last 3 years of any such plan ever realized. Setting priorities should be easy enough in today’s “shortage environment” where we no longer have the capability to produce Plutonium pits in sufficient numbers. Reviving a plutonium production capability must have top priority.
I believe that the organization of the Congress for budgeting has become a serious problem. Having two subcommittees in both the House and Senate that provide separate appropriations for DOE and for DoD have left us with little alignment or even correlation of these budgets. Personally, and after many years of believing that it was important to keep the nuclear weapons design, development, and production separate from the Defense Department, I have now reached the point that I believe it is worth considering removing the weapons responsibilities from DOE and placing it as a new agency within the DoD. The presence of a uniformed military could provide a continuity that has been lacking as different administrations came and went. The nation’s nuclear deterrent has only suffered from these short-term upheavals in what must be a long-term commitment.
As transformation efforts take shape, what steps can Congress take to mitigate against the risk that the vast intellectual capital in the complex —the people that make the Stockpile Stewardship Program a success — is not lost or permanently impaired?
I am glad that the Subcommittee does recognize how crucial the bright, highly, trained, and dedicated people are to ensuring the US deterrent. In this regard I am more concerned, more than I have ever been, over the more than forty years I have worked in this complex, that the morale of these rare people has reached an all time low. The recent Chiles study (a DSB Task Force on Nuclear Personnel Expertise) examined the problems of the fractionated management within DOE for nuclear weapons, safety, and security and said “Worker feelings range from anger to resigned despair.” Note also, that his investigations took place before the lay-offs of more than a thousand people at both Los Alamos and Livermore this past year. The situation at both of those labs is far worse now. While the labs had always been able to attract the best and brightest to come to the laboratories (for somewhat less pay than they would have earned in the private sector), the freedom to pursue new ideas and the fact that the work was so vitally important to the security of our country was reward enough to keep them. However today, it is impossible to make these arguments, when the burgeoning bureaucracy suppresses individual voices, and it is apparent that most officials within the Executive branch and the Congress pay little attention to the nuclear weapons efforts. It is all too obvious that too much in government no longer care about its future.
On an historical basis, one principle that has proven itself to be valid for many centuries was well expressed by Edward Gibbon (“The Rise and Fall of the Ancient Roman Empire.”), who wrote ‘That which is not advancing must surely decline.’
Thus, until only very recently, the mission to perpetually try to improve the US deterrent weapons was a necessary and accepted mission for that intellectual capital embodied in the weapons labs. That guiding principle is still uppermost in the Russian and Chinese programs, and in the French program, but it has now been successfully eliminated in the US labs. However, this issue seems to be forbidden from discussion, in the badly mistaken view that to hold such a view would stimulate other nations to proliferate (in the ridiculous viewpoint that somehow if we —the United States— stop striving for a stronger deterrent, the rest of the world will stop as well.) The safeguards —that were agreed upon to be in place with the signing of the CTBT by the US— state that the US will continue to keep a strong design and development capability, but this capability is now well down the path to going out of existence.
Do weapons designers need to design and build weapons to exercise their skills?
This question can only be answered by an understanding of what used to happen, and how it has changed over the past 20 years. The driving force for new developments was always the Phase 1 and Phase 2 joint projects with military Project Officer’s Groups (POG’s) teaming with the labs to evaluate possibilities (which the labs and the POG’s would both suggest), and then jointly settle on “Military Characteristics” that would guide the next weapon systems. The proposals would then move forward through the military chain of command and the DOD leaderships and separately through the DOE (ERDA, AEC) chain as well. Finally arriving at a Presidential decision, which —if approved—would be passed to the Congress for their approval, or disapproval.
That process seems to be broken today, with little or no attention having been paid to the configuration of the US deterrent arsenal since the end of the Cold War. Also, members of the legislative branch have interrupted this process from moving forward, by placing specific language in Authorization and Appropriation bills to prohibit any work (either Phase 1 or Phase 2 as well), until they have approved any proposed systems. The result unfortunately has been a stalemate, with no new systems being approved by the Congress and hence new starts becoming non-existent since the end of the Cold War. The labs often, but not always, would work together to establish mutual directions which could substitute for lack of guidance on future weapons, but depending on personalities at the individual labs (at any point in time), these were never really a successful substitute.
Thus the plain truth is that today the US continues to try to maintain an arsenal of weapons for deterrence purposes that no longer matches the threats we face (and hence whose ultimate use would be credible), nor the delivery systems which would be most likely to succeed, and hence the legacy systems are less likely to deter aggressive behaviors of major adversaries. The very high yields of the legacy systems are no longer needed because of the huge improvements that have been made in delivery system accuracies over the intervening years. Many of us believe that if such high yields remain the only options available, our threats to actually use such weapons are hallow and hence our ability to deter war is rapidly vanishing, to a point where we will be “self-deterred.” Something must be done to break the current stalemate.
How should the stockpile stewardship program be executed in a transformed and modernized complex? Will a transformed complex require changes to the stockpile stewardship program?
My belief is that the following represents the right order of things:
(1) The question of whether the nuclear weapons entities should all be moved to become an integral part of the Department of Defense is a critical issue, which needs to be faced now.
(2) Fix the GOCO process (as I discussed earlier) and tailor a stand-alone organization to direct and manage the R&D, design, development, and manufacturing processes.
(3) Pull the complex parts into a cohesive whole (functioning as a single, high-performance team), rather than continuing the current collection of poorly coordinated parts.
(4) Set a priority order of urgently needed facilities, and prepare a long-range budget that puts these in an appropriate budget plan.
There should be no need to change the Stockpile Stewardship program, other than to again free up some activities in advanced science and technology and advanced designs, most of which has been curtailed or eliminated in recent years. Of course, everyone should “wake-up” to the fact that there is no guarantee that it will yet prove possible to replace the confidence that always was provided by nuclear testing, by —instead— relying only on computer calculations and much improved scientific-understanding. We have made excellent progress in developing the supercomputers for the effort, but far less progress on improving the unknown scientific mysteries so that they can be correctly included in the computer codes. Thus, preservation of the ability to test —should it become necessary— is still vital to the US.
What are the highest investment priorities for NNSA’s limited resources?
A new and effective (i.e. proven) capability to fabricate plutonium pits is a critical first priority. The damage done to the US program by the closing of the Rocky Flats Production Site (because of environmental issues/protests) has hurt the overall US nuclear weapons production program more than almost anyone realizes. We are the only nation that cannot build a new, modern arsenal of weapons, much less can we reproduce the old designs which now constitute our complete stockpile.
The ultimate priority is of course a realization that the US arsenal of deterrent weapons is the only proven factor in preserving the peace in the world and prevent world wars or major conflicts. The end of the Cold War was not the “end of history”, as many suggested, but it does appear that the emergence of nuclear weapons that ended the fighting of World War II may yet prove to be “the end of the history of global conflicts.”
The mindset being advocated in many quarters —that we must now embark on a policy of “eliminating all nuclear weapons from the earth”— is misguided and premature. It would usher in a state of international affairs where nations are free to return to unlimited global conflicts, and there is little chance that even if it were possible (and it is not) to remove all nuclear weapons, they could be reproduced by some nations, who could then easily take advantage of the relatively greater power they would have over the US and others.
I have always believed that there are (at least) two extremely major barriers that must be overcome before we could undertake any realistic thinking that “a world free of nuclear weapons would be a better world” than the current situation. These are:
(a) the elimination of nation-states. (Anyone who believes that this could be achieved in a matter of decades is either hopelessly idealistic or really fooling themselves.), and
(b) a change in the nature of mankind itself to eschew any acts of major aggression. Once again, these are merely “poetic ideas” but there are little grounds to believe that this could be achieved even in 100 years, if ever. I would note that there are not even any good ideas put forward for how to go about same, nor is anyone actually working on it. The US already began the nuclear weapons era by putting forward a serious proposal (the Baruch Plan) that would have placed all nuclear weapons under a common international control, but this plan was instantly rejected, and I feel safe in predicting that a revival of that proposal would be just as quickly rejected today.
Thus, we should now all join in putting our best efforts to the task of deterring war through the threat of retaliation of nuclear weapons, with the best outcome being that we would —as a result— never have to use such weapons. But the overarching importance that the US must give sufficient attention to the characteristics, numbers, performance, and reliability of its nuclear deterrent arsenal should be obvious to anyone in a senior government position. I urge the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the HASC to step up and demand that the US greatly increase its attention to reverse the decline which now characterizes our deterrent and the complex responsible for it.