Global Security - The Growing Challenge

A dialogue with the Laboratory's principal associate director for global security and the recent acting director of the Office of Counterintelligence

William (Will) Rees has led the Principal Associate Directorate for Global Security (PADGS) since the organization was created in 2009. He and Terry Hawkins, then acting director of the Office of Counterintelligence, agreed to talk with 1663 about the Laboratory's global-security mission and operations. Global security is regarded internally and externally as a core mission of the Laboratory. The Office of Counterintelligence falls within the PADGS organization

Rees has roots in academia. For over a decade he was a full professor and director of the Molecular Design Institute at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Rees came to the Laboratory from the Science and Technology Policy Institute in Washington, DC, where he is a fellow. Prior to that, Rees was deputy under secretary of defense for laboratories and basic sciences in the Department of Defense. In January, Rees was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Hawkins, a Laboratory senior fellow, joined the Laboratory in 1988 after a career in the U.S. Air Force. He served as the division leader for both the International Technology Division and the Nonproliferation and International Security Division. Hawkins became acting director of the Office of Counterintelligence in July 2010 and is now a senior scientist for PADGS.

1663: What is the significance of the Laboratory creating a Principal Associate Directorate for Global Security?

Rees: As a Department of Energy (DOE), National Nuclear Security Administration national security laboratory, we have a long, proud history of devoting science of the highest caliber to the most pressing issues of national security. The core mission of the Laboratory has always been and will always be to help ensure the safety, security, and reliability of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. Closely coupled to our core mission is our role in helping to ensure our national security in a broader sense, which includes, for example, nuclear nonproliferation. This focus on nonproliferation is reflected in the fact that the PADGS used to be called the Threat Reduction Directorate, and before that the Nonproliferation and International Security Division.

Hawkins: Nonproliferation is a key mission of the Lab that has existed since the days of the Manhattan Project. We had to assess the nuclear threat posed by both Germany and Japan. What generally isn't known is that the Japanese arguably had a better understanding of nuclear weapons physics than their Nazi allies.

Following World War II, the importance of nonproliferation grew tremendously as more nations joined or attempted to join the nuclear weapons club. There were successes; for example, Switzerland, Sweden, and West Germany each stopped their nascent nuclear weapon programs, and in 1989, South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons and placed their fissile material under international safeguards. Los Alamos played a key role in this important South African outcome.

With the end of the Cold War, the international security environment dramatically changed again. First, Russia agreed to convert a large fraction of its nuclear weapon material for use in peaceful nuclear energy programs. Today, one out of ten light bulbs in the U.S. is powered by converted nuclear weapon material from Russia. Other bright spots followed, such as the 2003 decision by Libya to halt and dismantle its program. Again, Los Alamos played significant roles in these, and in other, successes in nonproliferation.

Despite our successes, the determined quest for nuclear weapons continues, often by states with societal instabilities and with direct financial and philosophical ties to international terrorist organizations. In addition, this quest was encouraged and enabled by the infamous A. Q. Khan of Pakistan, who operated a network for shoppers seeking technology for nuclear materials production and nuclear weapon designs and manufacturing––until his illicit activities were shut down. By establishing a cooperative international computer network for the DOE, Los Alamos has played a major role in detecting illicit activities, such as those perpetrated by the Khan network, and preventing the illicit international trade in commodities associated with nuclear material and weapons.

Rees: So when the international security environment changes, our national security imperatives must change in concert. As a result of these new realities, we are as concerned about a truck-delivered nuclear weapon as we were concerned about nuclear weapons delivered by intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in the Cold War period. To state the problem another way, there are far more trucks to watch than ICBMs. This is why, for the first time, the Nuclear Posture Review places the goal of preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism at the top of the nation's nuclear agenda. President Obama has a very bold international nonproliferation agenda. The president wants, over the next few years, the fissile material in the world to be controlled. That's a challenging goal––but a goal that must be achieved. It simply is not sufficient to have controlled all but a few weapon's worth of highly enriched uranium or plutonium.

Will Rees & Terry Howkins photo

Will Rees (left) and Terry Hawkins.

1663: What makes it so challenging?

Hawkins: First of all, we do have the ability to monitor fissile materials where they are being stored or used under international safeguards. The cadre of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors plays a crucial role in safeguarding this material. And where were all the IAEA inspectors you see trotting all over the globe trained? They were trained here at Los Alamos. Moreover, these inspectors are using safeguards technologies that were largely invented here at the Lab. The problem isn't that we don't have the people, skills, and technology. As Will said, it's that significant quantities of fissile material are still unaccounted for. In addition, there are known caches that might be subject to theft, diversion, or sale to the highest bidder. Dealing with these latter threats is the challenge we, and the world, face everyday.

Rees: We say that it takes an established nuclear weapons lab to find a hidden nuclear weapons lab. That is part of our nonproliferation role, also. Part of our skill set is focused on finding nuclear weapons labs all over the globe no matter where they're trying to hide. In like fashion, if Los Alamos can design and build a nuclear weapon then we certainly have the requisite knowledge to disarm and dismantle a stolen or improvised nuclear weapon. So threat response is part of our global-security mission: our National Emergency Search Team, the NEST—with our equipment already palletized, our pagers always on—would be on a plane heading into the threat if, heaven forbid, a threat materialized.

Hawkins: We also have a nuclear forensics team principally comprised of staff from the Nuclear Chemistry Group. The term "nuclear forensics" pertains to their use of scientific methods––including radiochemistry, mass spectroscopy, and microscopy––to develop specific assessments of activities involving nuclear materials and weapons. Roots for these methods were pioneered here at Los Alamos, going back to a time when we tested nuclear weapons by detonating them. Our nuclear forensics techniques are very powerful. For example, a forensic analysis can be derived from about 0.00000001% of the fissions produced by a 1-kiloton device. This radiochemical assessment can provide information on the device design, sophistication, and performance. It can also provide insights into the possible source of the fissile materials involved. But, since the debris cannot tell us whether or not these materials were stolen, nuclear forensics alone will not allow us to say who built the device or who detonated it. That information has to come from intelligence and other techniques––again, areas where Global Security (GS) plays an important role.

1663: Nuclear forensics. It sounds like CSI on steroids. What do you do with the information you collect?

Rees: The work that the Lab does in these areas is highly respected and sought after. Because of our expertise in weapons design and weapons infrastructure, we provide unique insights into foreign weapons programs. It is highly unlikely that any would-be proliferators would go down paths that we have not already explored, or at least thought about. Because of this experience, we help our government partners understand the technical underpinnings of the threats as well as the detection and prevention of those threats.

However, it must be emphasized that we don't make policy. We support, using science and technology, policy development by providing knowledge and advice to the appropriate federal authorities. We know that technical support is an important component used by those authorities as they set priorities. As such, we offer our best technical advice, knowing that it will be only one component in the policy makers' decision space. So if the government tells us to find a way to detect a nuclear explosion down to a certain level, then we will put the best technical minds in the country to work on that problem––even if that goal exceeds our current understanding of the science involved.

Using this paradigm in 1943, this Laboratory designed, fabricated, tested, and built the world's first nuclear weapons––in the short time frame of just two years. In GS, we're working hard to continue that tradition of science in the national service in our areas of responsibility.

Hawkins: And those GS areas of responsibility span the gamut of science and technology beyond those associated with nuclear proliferation. Because the Lab has such a wide breadth of outstanding talent, our expertise has been in rising demand. As a result, we now have more customers who present us with new, interesting challenges. Thus, the Laboratory and the GS directorate provide support not only to the National Nuclear Security Administration's nonproliferation mission, but also to the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Justice, and to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the broader intelligence community.

1663: What are your other focus areas?

Rees: Ensuring global security requires that GS be involved in several areas besides nonproliferation. These include support to warfighters, the U.S. intelligence community, event response, counterterrorist tactics, resilient global infrastructure, and space science. However, they often overlap. Our work in space science is an example. Since the earliest days of satellites in the 1960s, the Lab has been at the forefront of space-based monitoring––looking for nuclear detonations with our space-based assets. One of the core components of space-based security has always been nonproliferation. The Laboratory was a key player in developing the first monitoring satellites, called Vela, which means "watch vigilantly" in Spanish. From the first Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency satellite program to the NUDET (nuclear detonation detection) missions flown today, Los Alamos did each and every one, in partnership with Sandia National Laboratories.

In addition, the Lab is at the cutting edge of space-based science. For example, we pursue new computing and analysis capabilities for the evolving and challenging fields of space situational awareness and space weather studies.

Hawkins: Note that we made the cover of Science for our work with NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission. IBEX was able to discover new fundamental properties of the heliosphere––the bubble created by the Sun that the solar system lies within. Solar materials, with characteristics we hadn't expected, have accumulated at the outer fringes of the heliosphere forming an arc-shaped ribbon of high-pressure material that appears to be piled up there after being ejected from the Sun. IBEX makes it possible to construct a more comprehensive sky map of our solar system. The map is going to be completely different from what we thought it would look like, fundamentally changing the way we view the interactions between our galaxy and the Sun. This technology is also important to global security, because in using IBEX sensors and data interpretation methods to model the heliosheath, we are also suggesting to others, who might be planning to use space to carry out some nefarious experiment, that we might be able to see their experiment. Showing and knowing are both elements of deterrence.

Rees: We've developed over 1400 sensors and 400 instruments for 60 satellites and spacecraft that have provided researchers with invaluable information. This information spans the gamut from finding the brightest source of light in the universe to providing the first confirmatory evidence of water on the surfaces of the Moon and Mars. The planet Mercury is next. Because of these and other discoveries, we are internationally recognized for our contributions to space science. Said another way, our space people rank tops in citations, a factor that measures both the productivity and impact of scientific publications. I'm a recovering academic, and to me, the top spot in citations is a big deal.

1663: What is "space situational awareness"?

Hawkins: Well, the term is self-defining. It means integrating and analyzing data from space surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, environmental monitoring, and orbiting cybersystems to understand both natural and anthropogenic threats to our important space-based assets.

1663: What can you tell us about the Lab's role in intelligence gathering?

Rees: Although we don't elaborate on it, our important work in this area is focused on intelligence analysis, integration, and exploitation. We work closely with the DoD, DHS, and other federal agencies on their intelligence-related challenges. Our clients present us with a problem, and we provide the best science-based options and interdisciplinary solutions possible in the fastest times imaginable. And depending upon the nature of the problem, that solution could take a couple of hours up to a couple of decades. We provide our clients with hardware, software, analysis, modeling and simulations, and technical processes and techniques. Our goal is to provide the means to meet a mission with the least risk to the mission, to the people, and to the environment while being the most efficient and cost effective. We have provided effective solutions that had been deemed by others to be impossible.

Hawkins: Our clients appreciate our work and they keep coming back to us for more. And by "us" I don't mean just PADGS. Remember, global security is a core mission of the Lab for a reason.

Rees: The fact is that we depend on the entire Lab and its resources and talents to meet our customers' needs, because we cannot necessarily predict the nature and dimensions of the important problems we are being asked to address.

1663: So it's an interdisciplinary team effort.

Rees: Always. Note, too, that often it also demands partnering with other organizations to meet the nation's requirements. One of the top factors in determining how to approach a specific mission is to first ascertain what part of the solution space resides in the central capabilities of the Laboratory. We then seek external partners to complement these areas and develop the team that will design the best solution for the government.

1663: Would you elaborate more on our work to support our warfighters?

Hawkins: Conventional warfare continues to evolve technologically, getting ever more high-tech and cyber-dependent. The nation needs the Lab to keep current and, better yet, stay ahead. But it sometimes requires ever-better science and technology just to overcome even relatively primitive threats, like the homemade improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that account for many of the casualties in the current war in Afghanistan. The DoD comes to the Lab when the complex science and technology existing here is needed for warfighter support. For example, GS was instrumental in developing the AngelFire System of advanced optics and computers that provides broad-area, real-time, high-resolution surveillance of our opponents.

The Lab is also working on developing entire new classes of defensive weapons using free-electron lasers. And we're engaged in research on alternative energy sources for military (and nonmilitary) applications.

Rees: That's because our military complex is among the world's largest energy consumers. Three-quarters of that is petroleum-based energy. The costs of petroleum, along with its transportation and storage and the impact its use has on the environment, are huge burdens. Napoleon was right in saying that an army marches on its stomach, but today we can add that it rides and flies on its petroleum. Imagine the positive impact we would make if we could reduce even a fraction of that amount!

1663: How does GS support countering terrorist tactics?

Rees: Deterrence and response, either preemptive or retaliatory, are difficult. A terrorist with a weapon of mass effect may represent an ill-defined and relatively small organization with no significant infrastructure using destructive devices kludged together in someone's garage. But we're the come-to Lab when it comes to dealing with really tough challenges. Our customers, like the DHS, rely on us to provide the best science and technology to predict, deter, and help mitigate terrorist threats. We provide intelligence gathering tools and data analysis. We have extensive capabilities to design and fabricate conventional, micro-, and nanoscale sensors, power sources, beacons, and antennas to help tag, track, and locate persons of interest.

Another aspect of countering terrorism involves deploying technologies to diminish the burden to our citizenry associated with certain security measures. Our MagViz technology, and next-generation CoilViz technology, can distinguish threatening liquids from the harmless shampoos and beverages that travelers want to take aboard an aircraft. This technology would increase security while both enabling innocent travelers to take, for example, their water bottles, on board and to board more quickly.

Hawkins: There has been a lot of press coverage of the new "show-it-all" images in use at a growing number of airports. We believe we could use our genetic algorithm technology to analyze the image and thereby take the human viewer out of the issue. Then, if we could only find a technology that would allow us to keep our shoes on, we'd have it made! That is, of course, until the next threat evolves.

1663: What is a "weapon of mass effect"?

Hawkins: We make a distinction between weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and mass effect (WMEs). You can think of a WMD as being a subclass of WMEs, which impact a wide area but can involve relatively little physical destruction. Neutron bombs or "dirty bombs" or deadly viruses are good examples of weapons with mass effect but little physical destruction, whereas a nuclear bomb has both a mass effect and mass destruction. Said another way, we are distinguishing between the destruction of a large city block with adjacent impact and the destruction of a large city. Dealing with WMEs is an important focus area within GS.

Rees: Note that a WME might cause very few or even no casualties but still be devastating. For example, a broad cyberattack could result in relatively few casualties but cost the nation trillions of dollars to recover from.

U.S. officials believe there is a high probability of an attack using a WME in the near future, somewhere in the world. No matter where it occurs, no matter if it's perpetrated by a terrorist organization or a failed state unable to secure its WMEs, this event will have a major impact on global security, and by extension, our national security. The Lab has unique skills and capabilities in chemistry, radiology, materials science, explosives science, etc., under its roof to assist our nation in dealing with the WME threat. We have the science and technology, and will continue to improve them, to monitor, identify, predict, interdict, defeat, and when needed, mitigate WME threats.

Will Rees and Terry Hawkins photo

1663: So GS is also focused on developing event responses?

Rees: Of course. Some events are avoidable but we must be prepared for a worst-case scenario. Being ready to reduce the consequences of such attacks is an essential element of deterrence.

Hawkins: Our customers, like the DHS's National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center (NISAC), rely on us to provide the best science and technology to help mitigate events, whether natural or anthropogenic in origin. We model events and event responses for NISAC using everything from high-performance computing to individual subject-matter experts. We provide the most intelligent and effective suite of response solutions for international, national, state, and local decision-makers to have on their shelves ready and waiting should an unfortunate, or unthinkable, event happen. In addition, we train rapid responders, develop mitigating technologies, and provide analysis and supportive resources during ongoing events.

Rees: So, getting back to your original question, GS is a PAD with a new name, but its fundamental missions are not new to the Laboratory. It's just that our responsibilities and challenges in keeping the nation secure have gotten considerably larger and more complicated. The "Global" in our name reflects this growth.

— Clay Dillingham

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