LANL and the Air Force: Partners in Excellence

Two serious incidents alerted the Department of Defense to the Air Force's need to drastically improve its handling of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons-related materiel. In 2006, four non-nuclear nose cone assemblies and their associated electrical components for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) were mistakenly shipped to Taiwan. In 2007, an Air Force B-52 bomber, based at Minot Air Force Base (AFB) in North Dakota, unwittingly flew to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana with six cruise missiles onboard armed with nuclear warheads.

The ensuing investigations revealed a serious erosion of focus, expertise, mission readiness, resources, and discipline in the Air Force's nuclear weapons enterprise. In June 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates appointed the Task Force on Nuclear Weapons Management, headed by former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, to recommend necessary improvements and the measures needed to reinvigorate the Air Force's nuclear weapons enterprise. This would, in addition, restore and reinforce international confidence in the United States' ability to manage its nuclear deterrent.

In September 2008, the Task Force frankly reported on the issues and challenges confronting the Air Force's management of its nuclear responsibilities. One of the Task Force's many recommendations was "that Air Force personnel connected to the nuclear mission be required to take a professional military education course on national, defense, and Air Force concepts for deterrence and defense."

Course in Advanced ICBM Operations

To help meet this recommendation, the Air Force charged the Twentieth Air Force at F. E. Warren AFB in Wyoming—one of three U.S. AFBs that maintain and operate the nation's Minuteman III ICBMs—to redesign the Air Force's Advanced ICBM Operations Course.

"This redesigned course would take our missileers [missile combat crew members] beyond their operational and tactical training and get them trained to think at the strategic level," says Captain Michael Valdivia, one of the instructors the Twentieth Air Force tasked to lead the course redesign. "They need to experience the entire nuclear weapons enterprise— from weapons theory, science, and production to the mechanics of how the weapons work. They also need to understand the U.S. policy of deterrence and how it works. And they need to understand how, in the absence of nuclear testing, the nation's nuclear stockpile—the weapons they're responsible for launching—is kept safe, secure, and effective. In other words, they need to know how and why the nation's Stockpile Stewardship Program [SSP] is successful."

Training Nuclear Professionals

In March 2011, Valdivia and Captain Thomas McKnight (who assists Valdivia) contacted Lieutenant Colonel Michael Port at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Port was on an Air Force fellowship at the Laboratory to gain a working knowledge of nuclear weapons architecture and of the Department of Energy's weapons-complex operations. The captains asked Port if he would inquire if Los Alamos would support a series of trainings for the redesigned course on nuclear weapons–based deterrence and stewardship that would be offered to junior officers (lieutenants and captains).

Los Alamos is a natural choice for providing the Air Force with this specialized education and training for two reasons. The Laboratory is the design agency for the Air Force's B61 nuclear gravity bomb and W78 nuclear warhead systems. In addition, one of the Laboratory's core missions is to use its unique scientific and technological capabilities in support of the SSP.

"To do their jobs better, our missileers need to understand and appreciate more about the business they're in," says Captain McKnight. "We are taking the sharp edge of the sword and giving it an appreciation of the whole blade, hilt and all, how it is wielded and maintained, who forged it, and why its existence is crucial to national security."

LANL's Principal Associate Director for Weapons Programs Bret Knapp readily agreed to the request. "We're the perfect partners for the Air Force. We have the resources they need to help their officers broaden their perspectives and become nuclear professionals."

Since March 2011, LANL has hosted 5 different daylong classes with approximately 20 officers per class. (Three additional classes are scheduled for 2012.) The classes involve a series of briefings on the science and technology the Laboratory uses for weapons design and the SSP. Tours are given of key LANL facilities, such as the Laboratory's Technical Area 55, with its plutonium science and manufacturing facilities; the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center (which includes, for example, proton radiography, whereby a high-energy proton beam images the properties and behavior of materials driven by high explosives); the Laboratory's explosives research facilities; the Sigma Complex (which includes prototype fabrication and materials research for the weapons program, threat reduction, and homeland security work); and the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility (where multiple x-rays produce multiple-view radiographs of the detonation of full-scale mockups of nuclear weapons without their nuclear components).

By the end of the day, the officers have a first-hand understanding of and deeper appreciation for the science behind the nuclear weapons enterprise.

"The officers get to see the most amazing science and engineering. Their training at LANL is the best part of the two-week course," says Valdivia, "It's the capstone."

"It really gets the officers reblued [motivated]," says McKnight. "When they get back to their base, they've got= the big picture—they 'get' the nuclear enterprise and how they, as nuclear professionals, fit into it. They also pass their excitement and knowledge on to their peers. They tell them, 'You've got to take this course!'"

staff at Malmstrom AFB

The staff at Malmstrom AFB explained key aspects of Minuteman ICBM missile maintenance to LANL staff members. A tour offered to LANL staff members gave them a chance to experience the tight, underground working environment of an ICBM launch silo. Here, Staff Sergeant Joshua Beatty explains the ins-and-outs of entry to a missile launch silo. Malmstrom AFB operates and maintains 150 Minuteman III ICBM launch silos that are spread throughout the 13,800 square-mile missile complex.

It's a Two-Way Street

The designer and the user can learn from each other. LANL recognizes the value of learning from the experiences and perspectives of the officers and enlisted personnel in the Air Force—the professionals who use LANL's designs. LANL's staff members need to see their designs deployed in the field, meet the users, and learn the challenges users face in maintaining and operating the nation's nuclear deterrent and in keeping it safe.

In November, with the support of Air Force's Global Strike Command, the Laboratory sent 10 staff members from key weapons directorates to tour the Malmstrom AFB in Montana. Malmstrom (like F. E. Warren and Minot) also maintains and operates the Minuteman III.

During the three-day visit, LANL staff members witnessed a number of training activities, including crew preparations for manning Minuteman missiles in the field, nuclear warhead maintenance activities, missile handling and transport, and security protocols. Malmstrom's officers and enlisted personnel answered questions, offered suggestions that might enhance weapons systems sustainability, and raised questions of their own, for example, about the science of weapons re-liability, aging, and other challenges in stockpile stewardship.

"They were clearly engaged and interested," says Brian Lansrud-Lopez of LANL's Experimental Theoretical Design Division, Air Force Systems Group. "We received several penetrating questions that were illuminating and that gave us a better appreciation for the Air Force personnel's perspectives and their curiosity about the science of weapons design and stewardship. This kind of interaction is essential to fostering institutional respect and personal trust across the nuclear weapons enterprise.

"I was enormously impressed with the discipline and professionalism that are clearly visible in all aspects of nuclear weapons activities at Malmstrom. I witnessed the dedication and enthusiasm that everyone brought to their maintenance, operation, and security duties," Lansrud-Lopez continues. "They gave me tremendous confidence in our deterrence and earned my respect."

The Malmstrom tour gave LANL staff the information and perspectives they need to do their jobs better and a real appreciation for the jobs and challenges faced by the men and women of the Air Force. "This field experience adds a level of gravity to my job—as a weapons physicist—that no number of successful computational simulations could produce," says Lansrud-Lopez.

Additional visits to other Air Force bases are planned for 2012.

–Clay Dillingham

Staff Sergeant Joshua Beatty describes to LANL staff members how the 125-ton concrete door (on the left) that seals a Minuteman missile silo normally operates. During a missile launch sequence, this massive door, which is mounted on rails, is instantly blown with explosives down the rails to over 100 yards away from the silo, thereby ensuring a safe and successful ICBM launch.

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