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The biggest national security challenges of the future

Six Lab directors share insights at panel discussion.
October 1, 2018
A group of six men pose for a photo in front of a blue wall embossed with the LANL logo.

Seated from left: Robert Kuckuck, John Browne, Donald Kerr. Standing from left: Michael Anastasio, Charles McMillan, Terry Wallace.


"This country needs to marshal all its resources to defend its way of life."- Michael Anastasio

On July 31, 2018, five former Laboratory directors joined Director Terry Wallace for a panel discussion titled “75 Years of Solving National Security Challenges.” The directors—Donald Kerr (1979­–1985), John Browne (1997–2003), Robert Kuckuck (2005–2006), Michael Anastasio (2006–2011), Charles McMillan (2011–2017), and Wallace (2018)—discussed the past, present, and future of Los Alamos’ strategic deterrent and national security and how world events during their tenures impacted their leadership of the Lab. Here’s an excerpt from the conversation: 

What do you think the biggest national security challenge will be in the future?

Kerr: Gray or hybrid warfare. The best existing example is in eastern Ukraine, where, in effect, you have a war going on that’s undeclared. You have men who are not active duty military personnel (they say), you have cyber warfare going on, and you have a future promise of cyber physical activity. You really have to ask how nuclear deterrence fits into this new construct of warfare between states that are going after economic targets, health targets, and behavioral targets. Social media has enabled things we never thought of years ago.

Browne: I stay up nights thinking about information warfare against our military assets—whether we lose stealth someday or someone can find our submarines or whether they can just take out our satellites. But more than that, the information warfare against our society, our democratic way of life. Just think of how many times you look at social media today and someone believes something is true because someone else has put something out there. I think that threatens our democratic way of life.

Kuckuck: One thing is science-based stockpile stewardship. It might get more confident, but should we really, truly have that confidence? I think that can only get worse as time goes on. I don’t see how we can possibly know better as we go. And also, our society values human life, fairness, equality, and so forth. Having to defend that society against totalitarian threats by building tools that contradict a lot of those values is a fundamental underpinning of the trauma we always have finding a governance system that works, finding a way to deal with each other. The challenge to all of us is to really understand that those concerns are valid. We have to take those as serious and try to understand them.

Anastasio: This country needs to marshal all its resources to defend its way of life. I agree with the hybrid warfare. What’s the threshold of pain that we’ll take? What’s the threshold of disruption before we respond? We need to have many capabilities, whether they’re economic or natural resources or science or nuclear weapons. How do you marshal all those things together in a coherent way? It’s that whole range of capabilities that we have to marshal and wield in a strategic way to continue to defend the things that we believe in.

McMillan: I certainly agree with the challenges that colleagues have raised. I’m going to touch on one more: people. Because today this Laboratory and many of the other laboratories are in a period of generational change. The generation that I am a part of came to the Laboratory in the early ’80s, and we developed a way of doing business through the course of our careers, and it’s now time for us to move off the stage. That is both a challenge and an opportunity. I have had the privilege of meeting many of the young people who are the Laboratory of the future, and they are amazing people. It is going to be the challenge of your generation to deal with some of the problems that my colleagues have articulated so well. I have confidence that it can be done in a place like this Laboratory by the people who are coming to this Laboratory today, but only if we stay focused on our mission and ensuring that we’re bringing in people today who share that mission. 

Wallace: National security is built around this concept of protecting our borders and our economy. I am not sure that we have a national economy anymore—it’s a global economy. If you take the five largest technology companies in the United States, they’re the fourth largest economy in the world. Are they our enemy or our friend? I worry that the challenge in 2030 will not be centered on some latitude-longitude definition of a country; it will be about a concept. The concepts are the values that our nation was founded upon. National security may no longer be related to just our borders and our boundaries. How are we prepared for that? We’re not prepared for it. That’s my concern. Humanity has had challenges within a decade that are just so different than they were in 1943 when we worried about an existential threat from an alliance.



There should be optimism for the future because of all of you. The smart, strategic thinking that can happen inside an institution like this to anticipate what might be a problem in the future—that type of thinking has always gone on in this place and will continue.” —Mike Anastasio, when asked by an audience member if he fears for the future.