Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory

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Strategic deterrence in the 21st century

U.S. nuclear weapons capability is second to none. Are we in danger of losing that edge?
March 25, 2013
Missile being sent into space

Nuclear weapons, like the Trident D5 missile shown here, are primarily weapons of war prevention, as opposed to war fighting. Nuclear deterrence ultimately depends on the threat of retaliation—not on our capability to strike first, but on the assurance we always have the capability to strike second.


  • Managing Editor
  • Clay Dillingham
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Our strategic forces appear to be adrift—paralyzed by inaction and a lack of consensus.

The logic, or illogic, of no nukes


  • The United States has sought to maintain, in the words of John F. Kennedy, a nuclear weapons capability “second to none.”
  • Are we in danger of allowing our nuclear preeminence to become “second to one”?

If one thinks about our strategic capabilities as an enterprise, it really resembles a pyramid whose foundation is the scientific and technological expertise resident in our nuclear complex employees and in our strategic operating forces. That foundation is growing increasingly thin and brittle—through both an aging workforce and difficulties recruiting and retaining the best and brightest.

Our legacy Cold War stockpile is also aging while at the same time we lack a robust design and production capability. We have lost people with unique skills as well as design and production knowledge. Many of our warheads are beyond their design lives and lack desirable safety and surety features we are now capable of incorporating into replacement designs.

Our legacy warheads are sophisticated machines, with as many as 6,000 intricate parts and complex chemical interactions. Because of their sophistication, some warhead performance margins are extremely narrow. And unlike wine, the reliability of sophisticated machines doesn’t improve with age. The best we can do is to extend their lives. Needless to say, reestablishing design and production capabilities remains a very complex and lengthy process.

And while many have spoken eloquently about the importance of science and technology programs as critical underpinnings of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) portion of the nuclear enterprise, there are really few, if any, programs on the Department of Defense (DoD) side that are analogous to DOE’s science-based stockpile stewardship program or the advanced computing initiatives.

We have raised a whole generation of war-fighters within DoD who have received virtually no professional education in the theories of deterrence, assurance, and dissuasion, and who consequently often fail to think in war-prevention terms.

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