LANL’s Military Academy Interns Visit Minot AFB

Los Alamos thanks the men and women of the U.S. Air Force’s 91st Missile Wing and the 5th Bomb Wing, stationed at Minot Air Force Base (AFB), in North Dakota, for hosting a visit by LANL’s military academy interns.

In June of this year, seven midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy, who were interning at LANL during the summer as part of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Military Academy Collaboration (MAC) program, traveled to Minot with their LANL sponsors. At Minot the midshipmen were given the opportunity to witness, firsthand, how the Air Force maintains and operates two critical component of the nation’s nuclear deterrent—the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and strategic bombers that deliver nuclear weapons.

LANL designed and developed the W78 nuclear warhead, which is used in the Minuteman III ICBM. LANL also designed and developed the B61 nuclear gravity bomb, which can be dropped by a variety of strategic aircraft, including the B-52 Stratofortess.

The midshipmen witnessed day-to-day operations in support of ICBM activities, including training and maintenance activities, and the security response capabilities that ensure safe and secure operations. The midshipmen also participated in one of the daily predeparture briefings, which bring together command staff with the security and maintenance personnel scheduled to stand alert in the missile fields. These briefings are a critical tool used by the Air Force to ensure that the highest level of rigor and discipline is applied to all aspects of ICBM operations.

In addition, the midshipmen witnessed how Minot’s personnel would man and deploy the ICBMs in the event of a presidential decision to launch the missiles. “We wanted the Navy’s midshipmen to understand the professionalism and precision with which the Air Force executes its part of the nation’s nuclear deterrence,” says Jon Ventura, LANL’s MAC program advisor. “Both branches of the military have tremendous responsibilities for the deterrent. This gives the Navy’s future leaders the opportunity to better appreciate the role of the Air Force in their national security partnership.”

Admiral Winnefeld

An Air Force sergeant inspects a Minuteman III inside a silo. LANL designed and developed the W78 nuclear warhead used in the Minuteman III missiles, which are deployed at Minot and other ICBM bases overseen by the Air Force. (Photo: U. S. Air Force)

Admiral Winnefeld

An Air Force sergeant inspects a Minuteman III inside a silo. LANL designed and developed the W78 nuclear warhead used in the Minuteman III missiles, which are deployed at Minot and other ICBM bases overseen by the Air Force. (Photo: U. S. Air Force)

LANL Co-Hosts Strategic Weapons Conference

The international security environment continues to evolve in the face of the the world’s complexity and fluidity. In that dynamic atmosphere, concerns regarding nuclear energy, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and nuclear weapons policy continue to pose serious challenges, which senior government officials and academicians from the United States and other countries discuss, debate, and deliberate at the annual Strategic Weapons in the 21st Century Conference (SW21).

Participants in each year’s conference engage in an ongoing, in-depth dialogue on topics related to the role of strategic weapons in national and international security, with special attention to the interface between technology and policy. Specifically, the SW21 enables the exchange of national and international perspectives on the deterrence policies and postures of the United States and other states in a complex, changing, and fiscally challenged world.

The sixth annual SW21 was held on January 26 of this year in Washington, D.C. This year’s conference included representatives from Congress; the departments of State, Energy, and Defense; U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories; the United Kingdom’s Atomic Weapons Establishment; NATO; and the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members, the so-called P5—the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France.

The conference focused on three particular areas: assuring U.S. allies of the continuation of extended deterrence (protection of allies under the United States’ “nuclear umbrella”), enhancing security and stability through the P5, and implementing the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) in a fiscally constrained environment.

Admiral Winnefeld

The invitees to the international 2012 Strategic Weapons in the 21st Century Conference were given the opportunity to confer with the leaders of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. Shown left to right are co-hosts Parney Albright (Director, LLNL) and Charles McMillan (Director, LANL), along with General Robert Kehler (Commander, USSTRATCOM) and Don Cook (Deputy Administrator, NNSA Defense Programs). (Photo: LANL)

First, as rearticulated within the 2010 NPR, the United States remains committed to its extended nuclear deterrence and is working to assure its allies of this commitment. However, some participants raised concerns about the ability of the United States to meet such obligations while also reducing stockpile numbers, especially within declining budgets. In this context, it was emphasized that the United States is meeting the challenge of those obligations and that the U.S. nuclear stockpile remains safe, secure, and effective. Additionally, discussions addressed the way in which the role and posture of U.S. nuclear (and other) capabilities differ around the globe, reflecting different regional security challenges, with concomitant challenges to the United States’ provision of extended deterrence and assurance.

Second, participants considered the need to increase cooperation among members of the P5. The P5 states have different self-interests and security policy perspectives, and those differences pose challenges to increased cooperation. As a result, dialogue among these states is widely recognized as critical to future international stability. Persuading P5 members to allow transparency with regard to nuclear issues is seen as especially challenging. For example, there is considerable U.S. interest in promoting transparency on the part of Russia and China about their nuclear weapons and production facilities. Such transparency is necessary for strategic stability dialogues. Yet the Russians and Chinese hesitate to seriously engage in these arenas.

Current nuclear budget shortfalls facing the United States might undercut NPR implementation.

Third, the SW21 addressed the challenges facing the U.S. government: needing to reach a national, bipartisan consensus on nuclear weapons and deterrence policy; determining if outyear budgets will allow that policy’s objectives to be met; and performing the technical work essential for implementing the NPR.

Together, the NPR, the annual updates specified in Section 1251 of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2010, and the New START treaty provide the basis of current U.S. nuclear policy. Discussions during the SW21 highlighted the extreme fragility of that policy. There was limited consensus among SW21 attendees about what the fundamental requirements are for sustaining the deterrent and modernizing its supporting infrastructure and about what activities should be pursued to reduce nuclear dangers.

Participants pointed out that the U.S. nuclear stockpile and its critical infrastructure have deteriorated since the end of the Cold War. There was considerable support, therefore, for the NPR’s call for maintaining a sound Stockpile Stewardship Program, extending the lifespan of U.S. nuclear weapons, and modernizing the supporting infrastructure. Meeting these objectives would help to ensure that future defense requirements can be met. In addition, this approach would provide an opportunity for enhancing the safety of weapons systems by, for example, using modern insensitive high explosives in warheads. Insensitive high explosives can withstand insults like fire and shock and so are less likely to explode because of an accident, such as a plane crash.

The NPR initially led to increased Department of Energy budgets for policy implementation. However, it was noted that current nuclear budget shortfalls facing the United States might undercut NPR implementation. There were also major concerns that the budget shortfalls would force essential National Nuclear Security Administration mission programs to compete for available funds. For example, some participants suggested there might be a shift of resources away from science, technology, and engineering and to the Life Extension Program (LEP) for the nuclear stockpile’s aging weapons.

Some participants noted that although the Defense Strategic Guidance (released by the Department of Defense just before this conference) recognizes the importance of sustaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent, the budget sequestration called for by the Budget Control Act (2011), which might occur in 2013, would force the Administration to return its NPR to the drawing board.

It was widely recognized that the United States faces an exceedingly difficult path on all these issues, especially in fully realizing the objectives in the NPR. However, many participants attempted to strike a positive note and argued that there is no choice but to move forward. Several participants suggested that a strategy-driven approach offers the best prospect of reconciling requirements with available funding.

The Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories initiated and have annually co-hosted the SW21 conferences since the first in 2007. In the middle of the last decade, issues such as future nuclear weapons requirements, nonproliferation, and the complicated nuclear stockpile LEP efforts were at the heart of the debate on nuclear weapons policy.

There were divergent views on the purpose, character, and costs of transforming the U.S. nuclear stockpile and its infrastructure, as well as on certain nonnuclear programs. There was also no general agreement on how these issues are, or should be, affected by U.S. obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty and various arms control treaties (for example, the New START) or how the issues affect extended deterrence and assurance obligations to U.S. allies, as well as broader U.S. nonproliferation goals.

Annual SW21 conferences were established to provide an international forum for a reasoned debate on these issues; to further the development of a strategic view of nuclear weapons, as well as realistic cost-benefit analysis for the U.S. nuclear weapons program that looks at the broader defense and security context; and to help forge a sustainable U.S. bipartisan consensus on nuclear weapon policy.

The next SW21 conference, by invitation only, is scheduled for January 31, 2013, in Washington, D.C., and will focus on strategic stability and deterrence.

–Bryan Fearey

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