Why the Nuclear Stockpile Is Still Relevant

NSS Interviews Brigadier General Sandra Finan

Air Force Brigadier General Sandra Finan paid LANL a return visit in June of this year. Finan assists the Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), in directing the Stockpile Stewardship Program. This program is responsible for maintaining the safety, security, and reliability of the nation’s nuclear deterrent.

Finan also oversees the NNSA’s Military Academy Collaboration (MAC) program. The MAC program gives top cadets and midshipmen at the U.S. military academies (West Point, Army; Annapolis, Navy; Colorado Springs, Air Force; Kings Point, Merchant Marine; and New London, Coast Guard) the opportunity to do a summer internship at LANL in the Lab’s Service Academy Research Associates (SARA) program. (Internships are also available at other NNSA sites.) This summer’s SARA program hosted 17 interns: 1 Army cadet and 16 Navy midshipmen.

During her visit, Finan received updates on the Laboratory’s weapons programs, toured key facilities, and met with the interns to get a first-hand understanding of how the program was working.

National Security Science (NSS) interviewed Finan. The interview has been condensed and edited.

NSS: What would you like to tell our readers?

Finan: My main message is that the nuclear deterrent is still relevant to national security. While additional reductions to the nuclear stockpile are possible, they must be done thoughtfully and judiciously and be based on current and anticipated threats—because if we keep cutting it, it can get so small that it’s not going to be a deterrent.

Also, the nation needs to take action today—to invest in the science and technology that ensure the nuclear deterrent is safe, secure, and effective now and into the future. The work Los Alamos performs is essential to that endeavor.

NSS: Why do you think some folks don’t believe the nuclear stockpile is still relevant?

Reductions to the nuclear stockpile are possible, but if we keep cutting it, it’s not going to be a deterrent.

Finan: Primarily it’s the absence of the threat of the Soviet Union and the rise of terrorist threats. Terrorists probably wouldn’t be deterred by the threat of U.S. nuclear weapons. There’s a thought that our biggest threats today are really not from a nuclear exchange but from the “suitcase bomb” scenario, or from terrorists getting their hands on nuclear materials to make a dirty bomb.

Of course, while terrorists might not be deterred by the threat of U.S. nuclear weapons, nation states that might aid terrorist organizations can be deterred.

And something that many people don’t see is that our nuclear deterrent really is about world nuclear stability. You want your deterrent force to create that stability. Right now, the United States is committed to using its “nuclear umbrella” to protect dozens of allies from attack, allies like Japan and South Korea, which are fearful about North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. The United States’ decades-old commitments reduce the incentive for other countries to develop their own nuclear deterrent.

As the United States reduces the number of its nuclear weapons, some of our allies may see the nuclear umbrella shrinking to the point that they no longer feel protected. Even if we say we can still protect them, these allies might not believe it. These allies’ perceptions and beliefs are important—it’s not what we say that counts, it’s what they believe. And our allies are also concerned about the reliability of aging U.S. nuclear weapons.

Without the United States openly testing its weapons so our allies see that they still work reliably and effectively, we need to show strong scientific and technological efforts to keep the weapons operational, as well as keeping adequate funding for those efforts.

Again, perceptions and beliefs are critical. If there’s diminishing faith in the reliability and effectiveness of our smaller nuclear arsenal, more nations may feel compelled to create their own deterrent—their own nuclear weapons programs.

NSS: Wouldn’t that be an enormous undertaking for most nations?

Finan: Yes. But many U.S. allies have the capability to develop their own nuclear weapons programs, and some could do so very rapidly.

Ironically, by continuing to reduce its stockpile while not investing enough in the science and technology required to demonstrate that the remaining stockpile is good to go, the United States could be increasing the nuclear risk around the world rather than reducing it. The result could be many more nations developing and fielding nuclear weapons.

In addition, allies who become nuclear powers for fear of being unprotected could someday, for any number of reasons, become U.S. competitors. In that scenario, these ex-allies could then become incentivized to build increasing numbers of nuclear weapons to compete with the U.S. stockpile. So again, reducing the size of the U.S. deterrent could result in a world with far more rather than fewer nuclear weapons.

As the United States contemplates reducing its nuclear deterrent, and as it debates funding the Stockpile Stewardship Program, all the risks and possibilities need to be analyzed. What stockpile numbers are the “best” is up for debate, and the debate should be about not just what we need for deterrence but also what we need to help stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

This is why I say the U.S. nuclear deterrent isn’t just about preventing an attack, it’s much broader: it’s about maintaining world nuclear stability.

NSS: Let’s turn to the MAC program. What are that program’s goals and objectives?

Finan: The number one goal is to create future leaders—and not just for the military because many have new careers, including in politics, after they leave the service. These kinds of leaders need to understand what goes on at the U.S. nuclear science labs. They need to understand all they can about the technology of the nuclear deterrent force, as well as the concepts behind nuclear deterrence. But they also need to know that labs like Los Alamos, in addition to working on nuclear weapons, solve all kinds of problems like those in energy security, prevention of terrorism, climate change. Leaders in public service need to know they can come to the labs to get the answers they need to meet lots of different challenges.

So by involving our cadets and midshipmen—our future leaders— in the MAC program, we give them a very early exposure to all that the labs can do, as well as to the importance of nuclear deterrence.

We’ve got to keep the “leadership pipeline” full with talented people who know where to turn to find answers. They’re our future.

NSS: The Lab spends a lot of time looking over student applications for the SARA program and making sure there’s a good fit between what they do here and what their interests and academic goals are. This year’s interns worked in fields as diverse as computational physics, high-explosives science, and civilian nuclear science.

Finan: It’s certainly more than a little bit outside the normal military cadet experience! The SARA cadets get an opportunity to experience and contribute to ongoing scientific and weapons activities at the Lab. It’s real work with important consequences. One of them may come up with an idea that changes how we do military operations. And the seed of that idea will have been planted at Los Alamos.

NSS: What would you use as a measure of success for the MAC program here?

Finan: I think that we’ve accomplished our mission when we build leaders who understand and appreciate the breadth of science, technology, and engineering enterprises at Los Alamos. We want them to be able to speak about the incredible work that’s done here to support not only the nuclear deterrent but so many other national security needs as well.

staff at Malmstrom AFB

Micah Dose, a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy and a SARA intern in the Laboratory’s ARIES program, peers inside the glovebox where plutonium pits are disassembled at Los Alamos. ARIES is the only program in the nation that disassembles and destroys surplus plutonium pits. The pits are transformed into plutonium oxide powder suitable for being made into fuel for civilian nuclear reactors. (Photo: LANL)

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