My Year at Los Alamos

Lt. Col. Michael Port, USAF

Lt. Col. Michael Port, USAF

As a career Air Force nuclear operations officer, I saw having a year's fellowship at Los Alamos National Laboratory as the pinnacle of my academic career. For senior Air Force officers, the purpose of this fellowship is to gain a working knowledge of weapons architecture and to experience weapons-complex operations firsthand. After my arrival in July 2010, I quickly appreciated the monumental efforts required of and performed by LANL personnel to help ensure that the president of the United States always has a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent.

To come here 20 years after my career began and learn about the "business end" of our weapons systems refreshed lessons-learned, then took them to the next level. As an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch officer, I was also excited to be assigned to the B61 bomb team and to be afforded the opportunity to step outside my "comfort zone."

Prior to coming to LANL, I believed Laboratory operations to be cut-and-dried science and engineering—impressive in and of themselves, but with little room for individuality and creativity. But as I visited the Laboratory's plutonium science and manufacturing facilities (TA-55), the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, the Laboratory's explosives research facilities, the Sigma Complex, the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility (DARHT), to name a few, I learned there is much more taking place. There are things a machine can do, but it takes the craftsman behind the controls, or with their hands in the glovebox, to bring an engineering marvel to fruition.

In short, LANL is an amalgamation of science, engineering, and art.

Furthermore, I was impressed and surprised about the length of time required to make someone a weapons artisan. I met many people at LANL who, due to the specialized nature of the tasks they perform, require more than two years of on-the-job training and study before being allowed to work at their specialty. By comparison, the Air Force can take brand-new officers and make them certified deputy missile combat crew commanders in six months. This includes more than four months of intensive training at a specialized school, followed by more than a month of intensive home-unit familiarization training. Once completed, the officers are certified to perform Minuteman weapon-system operations.

Frankly, before my fellowship at LANL, I was skeptical of the science of stockpile stewardship—that it could ensure the longevity, credibility, and robustness of our nuclear deterrent force. Without "seeing the earth move" in Nevada, I couldn't be certain our nuclear stockpile would work. However, the sheer brilliance of what I witnessed at DARHT, for example, and at the Nicholas C. Metropolis Center for Modeling and Simulation, allayed my concerns. This kind of science is a testament to LANL's out-of-the-box thinking.

I was also very impressed with how LANL support of DoD operations goes beyond stockpile stewardship. For example, LANL personnel train frontline forces on how to safely identify and then disarm improvised explosive devices.

Why are LANL weapons-related programs so critical to the national security? One word: deterrence. There are pundits who believe that nuclear weapons are anachronistic relics of the Cold War. The Obama administration thinks differently. The president vowed to maintain our nuclear deterrence by making significant investments in both the infrastructure and personnel of the weapons complex. These investments are critical for the continued testing and evaluation of the nation's stockpile, as well as for attracting the best and brightest personnel into the weapons complex.

For all the engineering, science, and art that take place at LANL to ensure our national security, I thank you. My year of study went by too quickly. It is an honor to have served with you. Be assured that I am grateful for the knowledge that I gleaned and for the lasting friendships I made.

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