21st Century Deterrence

B6I Life Extension Program

Following a period of reduced attention and funding during the 1990s, the nuclear security enterprise that provided nuclear deterrence from the end of WWII to the end of the Cold War has seen a reemergence in both national policy focus and funding. Large, meaningful projects, such as the B61 Life Extension Program (LEP), are being used to provide the nation with an updated, 21st century deterrent force as well as a new generation of trained scientists and engineers that contribute to the credibility and reliability of this force.

The Cold War ended nearly two decades ago. In response to the ensuing expectations of a peaceful world, our nation has since halted all underground nuclear testing, canceled development of new nuclear systems, and retired or eliminated 13 different stockpile nuclear weapons.

As the focus of the nation's nuclear laboratories shifted to stockpile stewardship and broader support of nonproliferation and nuclear material protection, the United States, as the only remaining superpower, became heavily engaged in conventional warfare and in humanitarian and policing activities around the world. At this point, the concept of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence as tools of war became viewed by some as being as anachronistic as the Cold War itself.

To maintain a worldwide U.S. presence through active military campaigns and associated humanitarian activities, our nation's senior civilian and military leaders have been forced to make hard choices about expenditures and national priorities. After all, the American people expected a peace dividend, and budget cuts within the nuclear enterprise seemed like a good place to start.

In short, until 2007 the nation's leadership no longer perceived a "great need" for robust nuclear enterprise funding. Faced with decreased attention and, more important, diminishing annual budgets, the nuclear security enterprise, including Los Alamos National Laboratory, was left hard-pressed to continue to attract the best technical personnel, to justify infrastructure upgrades and sustainment, and to accomplish the hands-on science and engineering necessary to support the current aging nuclear weapon stockpile in a nonnuclear testing environment.

Late in the last decade, several U.S. Air Force incidents involving nuclear warheads or components brought to light the compounding effects of inattention to the role of nuclear weapons in deterrence.

In 2006, the Air Force shipped forward-section parts of a sensitive intercontinental ballistic missile reentry vehicle from F. E. Warren Air Force Base (AFB) to Taiwan. In 2007, members of then Air Combat Command's Eighth Air Force transported, without authorization or intent, nuclear-armed cruise missiles from Minot AFB to Barksdale AFB on a B52 bomber normally used for nonnuclear transport. In a review carried out by former Secretary of Defense Schlesinger at the request of Secretary of Defense Gates, Schlesinger's task force found that "there has been an unambiguous, dramatic, and unacceptable decline in the Air Force's commitment to perform the nuclear mission," and the task-force's report reminded decision makers that, "the nuclear deterrent is 'used' every day by assuring friends and allies, dissuading opponents from seeking peer capabilities to the United States, deterring attacks on the United States and its allies from potential adversaries, and providing the potential to defeat adversaries if deterrence fails."

While the incidents were unrelated in specifics, a review by Admiral Kirkland H. Donald in 2008 found commonalities in them and attributed both events to a gradual erosion of nuclear standards and a lack of effective oversight. Defense Secretary Robert Gates then highlighted the "degradation of the authority, standards of excellence, and technical competence" being observed in some nuclear weapons operations.

B61 Patch

Redefining Deterrence

A question then arose: Is nuclear deterrence really a relic of the Cold War, no longer necessary in a 21st century world in which globalization and overall economic development and competition tend to dominate as tools of engagement?

An answer might be found in a definition of deterrence by General Kevin P. Chilton: "The purpose of a deterrence force is to create a set of conditions that would cause any potential adversary to conclude that the cost of a particular act against the United States or one of her allies is far higher than the potential benefit from that act." General Chilton, recently retired commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, is one of the main advisors for the recent New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report.

As we have learned during the last two decades, the end of the Cold War did not mean the end of conflict for the United States. Instead of having one major peer adversary, we are now looking at multiple adversaries (some that are nation states and some that are not) looking to position themselves against our country and our allies, with different goals, different approaches, and different stakes in the game.

Under President Barack Obama's administration, the world waited to see what role nuclear weapons would have. In April 2009, President Obama challenged world leaders to create a world free of nuclear weapons. However this challenge did not mean the United States would unilaterally disarm. While some factors, such as the geopolitical environment, cannot be controlled, the fact remains that nuclear weapons ready for immediate deployment need to maintain their long-term status as a strategic existential deterrent for our nation.

In the President's strategy, our nation would set the example by reducing the numbers of weapons in its arsenal and, while not developing new nuclear weapons, maintaining and improving a safe, secure, and effective active stockpile. As a nation, the United States can achieve this goal by (1) modernizing facilities, (2) recruiting a new generation of "the best and the brightest" nuclear scientists and engineers capable of backing up the credibility of the deterrence function, and (3) investing in component modernizations and upgrades to extend the life of current aging weapon systems and to certify their reliability without underground nuclear testing.

To achieve the first of these ends, within DOE's nuclear weapons operations, the NNSA's Complex Transformation plan is turning the current aging nuclear weapons complex into a 21st century national security enterprise that is smaller, safer, more secure, more cost effective, and environmentally compliant.

Obama speech in Prague photo

In an historic speech in April 2009 at Hradcany Square, Prague, President Barack Obama outlined his vision of a world someday without nuclear weapons and reiterated a long-standing U.S. commitment to "a safe, secure, and effective arsenal".

Extending the Life of Aging Weapons

Given that fielding a new nuclear weapon is not part of the current national strategy, the second and third ends can be achieved through a multi-laboratory process within the enterprise called an LEP.

While extending the functional lifetime of current nuclear weapon systems has obvious benefits, maintaining the stockpile through such an approach has some level of risk. Consider the following analogy offered by former Los Alamos Fellow Stephen Younger. Imagine buying a car (nuclear weapon) and promising your neighbors that you will not drive it except in an absolute emergency. Over the years, you have to perform periodic maintenance, e.g., replace the spark plugs, change the oil, etc., to ensure the car will be drivable if needed. As the car ages, the car industry stops making specific parts for it, forcing the "owner" to find suitable replacement parts. Finally, an emergency arises and the owner has to drive the car. Will it really start? If it starts, will it operate as required?

In an LEP, hundreds of scientists, engineers, and technical personnel from across the complex contribute to a combined development, testing, and manufacturing project designed to best improve the safety, security, efficiency, and lifetime of a current nuclear weapon system. This process allows an entire generation at several laboratories and production plants to acquire the skills, knowledge, and expertise required to provide the nuclear deterrent of the future without creating a new nuclear weapon. To date, the LEP approach has been successfully applied to the W87 and W76 warheads.

In August 2010, guided by the administration's NPR, LANL and Sandia National Laboratories' scientists and engineers began the daunting task of ensuring that the nation's nuclear automobile, i.e., the B61, would not only be ready to start, but would run at a moment's notice upon presidential direction for several decades to come. Additionally, they took to heart the President's instruction to ensure that the B61 is as safe, secure, and effective as possible.

The B61 bomb is an integral part of our nation's strategic defense; a considerable segment of the stockpile's nuclear weapons are B61s, many designed and produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These weapons were not intended to last indefinitely—nuclear and nonnuclear components deteriorate over time, even in storage, making maintenance increasingly difficult.

Therefore, to extend the "life" of a weapon so that it remains safe and reliable in the stockpile, a generation of mostly new scientists, engineers, and technicians must use science-based R&D to find specific solutions to the need for extending or certifying the lifetime of each component, as well as the functionality of the system as a whole.

During the program, each nuclear and nonnuclear component is assessed individually and within its functional subsystem, and a decision is made whether to reuse, rebuild, or redesign the part. For example, if the component is too old and cannot be recertified for another 30-year life period, then it can be rebuilt as designed or completely redesigned within the constraints of the system and program. A component rebuild or redesign does not mean a new weapon design; it addresses only those components that cannot be reused and must be replaced. When an opportunity arises to upgrade a critical component to improve safety or security of the weapon, this program taps the new technology and experience from the past 30 years.

Several major components, including detonators, control systems, and gas transfer system components, are being redesigned for safety, security, reliability, or efficiency improvements. Here, new component technology intermingles with years of stockpile surveillance and R&D experience (see the Innovative Component Technology).

Production technicians prepare a B61 for a surveillance test.

Production technicians prepare a B61 for a surveillance test.

An Evolving Workforce

During the LEP process, regardless of how much change the component undergoes, if any, the steps include product development and engineering; component-, subsystem-, and system-level testing; certification and qualification; system integration; and Weapons Reserve manufacturing.

As the LEP evolves, the benefit in terms of education for the workforce evolves with it, involving personnel from quality, reliability, project development, purchasing and acquisition, facilities, safety, manufacturing, and management and leadership, as well as multiple cross-discipline technical teams. The ensuing collaborations needed to develop, integrate, manufacture, and test components increase the probability that the weapon will operate reliably.

Overall, as Laboratory Director Michael R. Anastasio stated before the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services in late March, "The recommitment to the nuclear weapons enterprise embodied in the NPR has … engendered a sense of stability and dedication in our workforce" that helps replenish an essential workforce into the future.

–Dan L. Borovina and Michael Port

HOPE Team Photo

Gen. Roger Brady, then–Commander of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe, being shown B61 nuclear weapon operation procedures on a "dummy" in an underground Weapons Security and Storage System in June 2008.

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