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Lack of qualified experts could hinder defensive readiness

The Cold War is fading like a twinkle in the eye of history, but the transition from recent memory to textbook lessons has gone largely unnoticed.  But every once in a while, we receive a reminder about exactly how much the world has changed.

I. A Farewell to Nuclear Arms?

Take the recent report by Thomas D’Agostino, the undersecretary for nuclear security and the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).  He said that the number of nuclear weapons experts at the U.S. Department of Defense with experience designing or testing nuclear weapons today numbers in the low teens.

Most of those experts come from the final period of sparing nuclear weapons testing in the early 1990s.  The undersecretary says that these experts could be completely gone within five years, leaving a sizeable knowledge gap.

Defense News quotes him as saying at a press breakfast, "Last year, it was in the 17 to 18 range, but I’ve got to believe it’s five fewer than that now.  Five years from now, they will no longer be active employees of our laboratories."

Nuclear testing
The U.S. in five years may have no active experts who have tested a live nuclear weapon.
[Image Source: NDEP]

The knowledge gap is being furthered by budget cuts to pioneering national laboratories, such as Las Alamos National Lab -- often regarded as the birthplace of the atomic bomb.  Los Alamos had 557 employees agree to buyouts as part of a Congressional decificit reduction plan.  That's nearly 10 percent of the lab's total research staff.

II. Shifting Politics

The last nuclear weapons test by the U.S. was conducted in 1992.  Linton Brooks, a former ambassador and administrator of the NNSA at the Energy Department, says that neither party is eager to restart testing, commenting, "As long as it is the policy of the United States — and it has been now for four successive administrations, two from each party — not to test, that is inevitable. So the question becomes: What do you do about it?"

Indeed, it is diffcult for either party to advocate such tests, given that there's a relative bipartisan consensus in terms of rhetoric condemning nuclear testing.  In recent years both Democrats and Republicans have admonished nations like Iran, Iraq (during the Saddam Hussein era), and North Korea for alleged weapons tests or nuclear aspirations.

The issue becomes whether the U.S. will have enough qualified personnel to keep the weapons stockpile healthy and to potentially deploy it, if the need should ever arise.

But some doubt that will be an issue at all.  In terms of tactics, the DOD's recent protocols point to a shift away from considering nuclear weapons a key part of defense strategy, as attention turns to cyber-defense and other more modern tools.

Obama w officers
President Obama has pushed for a "nuke-free" world.
[Image Source: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images]

Further movement in this direction could come if President Barack Obama can convince the Senate to pass the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty -- a bill that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, but overturned by the Senate in 1999.  President Obama has been pushing Russia to commit to bilateral nuclear disarmanment, and has publicly stated that he wants the U.S. to be free of nuclear weapons in the future.

III. To Test or Not to Test

There's growing debate over whether lack of testing experience will lead to safety issues.  Most experts, including Mr. D'Agostino argue that testing is not necessarily a prerequisite of safety.  

He states, "If [nuclear weapons] were a car, [surveillance] would be the equivalent of checking to see if the batteries are good, the fan belt works.  I would say, based on the information that I review and the information that the laboratory directors review, that we have a much better understanding of what’s going on inside our stockpile now than we ever did during the days of underground testing. We can now explain phenomena that we never could back then."

Others are not so supremely confident that "surveillance" on the health of weapons stockpiles can be reliable without testing.  Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, comments, "If the [Obama] administration has said they want to abandon testing, then certainly they have no interest in nurturing the knowledge base that would support it."

But an expert report from the National Academy of Sciences disagrees with the Congressman.  It argues that surveillance quality is less a function of testing experience and more a function of how high the quality of individuals recruited to the program.  It suggested that in order to maintain interest in a time when nuclear weapons faced a shrinking role, experts should be encouraged to participate in the disarmanent proceedings and/or nuclear forensics (monitoring other nations' stockpiles) as a means of increasing enthusiasm for the occupation.

Kingston Reif, director of nuclear nonproliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation agrees with this line of thinking.  He says that with national security being a much sought after field, putting experts to work in national security-related nuclear forensics would boost interest in what might otherwise be viewed as a dying profession.

For now the U.S. still has a lot of weapons to manage.  While President Obama has pushed a bilateral U.S.-Russia disarmament treaty called START, which would cut the U.S. stockpile down to 1,500 warheads, for now the U.S. still has 5,113 warheads, according to President Obama (2,200 of which are operational).

Nuclear warheads
A slightly outdated estimation of nuclear warhead counts.
[Image Source: Information is Beautiful]

Recent expert commentary argues that while mankind -- mostly the U.S. and Russia -- has enough warheads to wipe out most heavily populated areas, that it would take over a million warheads to destroy humanity -- two orders of magnitude more than existing stockpiles.

Source: Defense News

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RE: Great for HD
By Motoman on 4/16/2012 3:26:33 PM , Rating: 4
A nuclear explosion in space wouldn't be much fun.

With no oxygen (or anything else) around to ignite, you don't get the huge fireball, or the smoke plume, etc.

Also, with no atmosphere or whatever, the explosive force of a nuke in space would be a pittance of what it is on Earth. Most of the physical damage in a nuke blast is caused by the shockwave as it propagates through the air away from the bomb at a bajillion miles an hour. No atmosphere, no shockwave, greatly decreased destructive force.

RE: Great for HD
By MrBlastman on 4/16/2012 3:36:20 PM , Rating: 2
Err... I disagree. Scientists disagree too.

Nuclear fission and fusion for that matter (hydrogen bombs) don't need oxygen to explode. Not at all. No, in fact, the vacuum of space actually presents less resistance to the reaction thus facilitating a faster, more widely spreading explosion.

The EMP effects are also quite widespread and devastating due to no ground to block it, however, the Earth's magnetic field causes some interesting dispersion characteristics.

RE: Great for HD
By MrBlastman on 4/16/2012 3:44:13 PM , Rating: 2
To further my point--ask yourself what fire is? Fire represents several things. In the most familiar form, it represents the energy release of a chemical reaction--i.e. the one that occurs when wood burns after being subjected to sufficient energy to create a reaction. The consumption of oxygen is merely a result of the chemical reaction.

The same goes with burning hydrogen--it gives off "fire" too, but the net result of burning raw hydrogen is water, as the chemical reaction creates molecules of water through the combination of hydrogen and oxygen after adding energy to it.

"Fire" is basically... excess energy and heat from reactions and processes. You don't need oxygen so to speak to have excess energy being emitted from something in the form of fire. Believe it or not, it can exist with non-oxygen based oxidizers.

Plasma is another form of it. Not all "fireballs" like solar flares are fire like you seem to know.

RE: Great for HD
By Motoman on 4/16/2012 3:55:43 PM , Rating: 2
You seriously need to re-read my original post. I said nothing about needing oxygen for the nuke to explode.

It is, however, very true that the destructive force of a nuke in space is radically smaller than a nuke on Earth, simply due to the lack of any atmosphere to carry the shockwave. Even if somehow that atmosphere was devoid of any flammable gas at hell with the fireball, the shockwave is what does the damage.

RE: Great for HD
By JediJeb on 4/16/2012 9:37:54 PM , Rating: 2
the shockwave is what does the damage.

That is what would limit the power of a nuke in space. The only mass you would have to propagate the shockwave would be that which was contained in the bomb itself. If the bomb had a total mass of a few tons, how much shock would be generated after you spread a few tons of material into a spherical shockwave? At a radius of a few hundred meters that mass would already be spread pretty thin. You just can't create much of a pressure wave in a vacuum.

RE: Great for HD
By Motoman on 4/16/2012 11:25:22 PM , Rating: 2
This is what I've been saying...and yet I'm getting downrated for pointing out basic physics. All hail the interweb!

RE: Great for HD
By Jedi2155 on 4/17/2012 12:21:36 AM , Rating: 2
This is DAILY TECH. You will lose in any logical argument :).

RE: Great for HD
By leviathan05 on 4/16/2012 4:02:19 PM , Rating: 2
With a name like Mr. Blastman, I'd have to agree with you regarding anything in the realm of explosives right?

RE: Great for HD
By Motoman on 4/16/2012 4:18:28 PM , Rating: 2
Apparently not. A quick spin on Google will show you that, in fact, the "scientists" are not with him on this one.

RE: Great for HD
By Breathless on 4/16/2012 4:46:26 PM , Rating: 3
yea well.... I am going with blastman, because his name is blastman - so there.

RE: Great for HD
By BSMonitor on 4/16/2012 5:07:30 PM , Rating: 2
Some "scientists" also thought the first hydrogen bomb would propagate indefinitely and burn off the entire atmosphere.

Until someone detonates a nuclear weapon, in space, we will just have to wait and see.

At the center of the fusion or fission reaction is an extreme about of thermal energy. Surely you are not suggesting this energy is less destructive than the pressure shock wave.

"everything is immediately vaporized by the high temperature (up to 500 million degrees Fahrenheit or 300 million degrees Celsius)"

The pressure shock wave on earth may cause more widespread damage to man made objects, but the grandest part of the nuclear explosion is the reaction and vaporizing of all matter in the immediate vicinity to plasma. With no matter getting in the way of this intense thermal wave, it would seem the light show would be far grander in space.

RE: Great for HD
By JediJeb on 4/16/2012 9:53:26 PM , Rating: 2
With no matter getting in the way of this intense thermal wave, it would seem the light show would be far grander in space.

Remember though, that the intensity of that thermal wave which would be expanding in a spherical form would decrease in a inverse square with its radius as it expanded. So once the thermal wave had expanded to twice its original size it would be four times less powerful, four times its original size it would be one sixteenth of its original strength, twenty times its original radius and it will be four hundred times weaker than it was at its origin.

Though I am not an expert on this I would imagine that part of the increased damage of an atmospheric or land based detonation comes from the conversion of thermal energy into kinetic energy. In space the thermal energy will only have a noticeable effect if there is matter there for it to interact with, otherwise you will see an initial flash, then nothing, unless you can see in the IR, UV and especially Gamma and Xray range of the spectrum.

RE: Great for HD
By sprint113 on 4/18/2012 12:21:14 PM , Rating: 2
Not sure if this qualifies as "Space", but has similar limitations.

RE: Great for HD
By Motoman on 4/16/2012 3:53:21 PM , Rating: 2
I didn't say it wouldn't explode. I said without oxygen et al you wouldn't have the big fireball and/or smoke plume (or, more properly, a smoke sphere in space). I also pointed out that you don't get a shockwave without an atmosphere.

The bits that are left wouldn't be much to watch. Which was my point.

RE: Great for HD
By 3DoubleD on 4/16/2012 4:43:19 PM , Rating: 2
Motoman is correct. In space the destructive power of a nuclear warhead explosion would be severely limited (and less fun to watch).

The majority of the damage (most wide-spread, impacting the largest areas) of such an explosion is propagated by the atmospheric shockwave. As motoman pointed out, there would be an underwhelming explosion plume in space do to the lack of material to vaporize and send outwards (eg. explode).

The damage conveyed by the heat of the reaction is propagated at first by the radiation given off, which drops quickly as a function of 1/d^2 (d=distance). You could compensate by having a higher yield warhead, but it's a losing battle. The same relationship holds for ionizing radiation and neutron activation. Heat is also transferred through the air (along with the blast), but in space, there would be no conduction or convection of heat.

The EMP from the blast has been shown to be severe in space testing. But, this would unfortunately extend to wavelengths well beyond the scope of human vision.

So, the detention of a single warhead in space with nothing around it would probably look like an extremely bright flash of light composed of wavelengths across the entire spectrum. You might catch a glimpse of it with your camera before it's circuitry was shorted by the EMP ;)

As for it's usefulness as a weapon against a vessel... you would probably have to detonate the warhead within a few kilometers to cause physical damage, and a hit would surely be a kill. However, armoring a spacecraft by reflecting or absorbing the heat through ablation isn't impossible - look up nuclear powered spacecraft designs. Radiation would be another issue, but again, manageable so long as your shielding was intact. If the hull was sufficiently activated from the neutron flux, then space walks might carry increased danger.

Back to cool explosions on video... if we embedded a warhead in an asteroid or something with some appreciable mass... that would be fun to watch/film!

RE: Great for HD
By Motoman on 4/16/2012 5:04:09 PM , Rating: 2
Granted the lack of any medium in space in which a shockwave can propagate, I think a nuke would actually have to be a missile in order to damage a spaceship (like in a Star Trek style space battle). Having it detonate at any distance at all would probably render it moot. Would just be a big flash of light.

Also, I think that unless a nuke goes off near a significant source of gravity, you really don't get much of an EMP either.

First Google source found on that:

Ultimately I think the likely fact of the matter is that a nuke in space would be little more than a big firecracker.

Oh, and that article even has a bit on a nuke "strike" on a spaceship. Seems to jive with what I just said...all the talk is about a nuke going off while in contact with the ship.

RE: Great for HD
By BSMonitor on 4/16/2012 5:18:30 PM , Rating: 1
You are absolutely wrong. And you are basing your argument on a Sci-Fi junkies website.

Ground Zero of a nuclear blast instantly heats the surrounding area to 300,000,000 degrees C at the speed of light. No matter on earth or space would/can withstand that much thermal radiation and would be instantly vaporized. You are focused on the kinetic energy similar to convention weapons while ignoring the most devastating part of the reaction. The distance that amount of thermal energy travels from the core depends on the yield of the bomb. But make no mistake, in space or on earth, it is far from a firecracker.

RE: Great for HD
By Motoman on 4/16/2012 5:37:22 PM , Rating: 2
I'm not "basing" an argument on anything...I pointed out that that was simply the first Google result when I went to search the topic. Barely glanced over it.

Maybe you'll like this one better:

It talks at length about how the overpressure from the shockwave is what does the damage.

What *you're* overlooking is that sure, you've got a really nice, hot little ball of fury there out in space. But if you're a couple miles away from what? What magic will transfer that fury across an effective vacuum to the space ship you want destroyed?

Which is why I'm saying you'd need the nuke to be an impactor in order to get the desired effect in space. You can't count on a non-existant medium to create the overpressue that does all the damage in an atmosphere.

RE: Great for HD
By ezorb on 4/16/2012 6:04:53 PM , Rating: 2
sorry your wrong, at the trinity test the jumbo survived mostly intact less than 100 feet from the test tower. so much for "No matter on earth or space would/can withstand that much thermal radiation"

RE: Great for HD
By Reclaimer77 on 4/16/2012 7:39:51 PM , Rating: 2
Ground Zero of a nuclear blast instantly heats the surrounding area to 300,000,000 degrees C at the speed of light. No matter on earth or space would/can withstand that much thermal radiation and would be instantly vaporized.

Heat yes. But what you need to understand is heat transference. Conduction, Convection and Radiation. Both conduction and convection wouldn't work in space for a nuclear blast very well because they require matter to function. Without air nothing can carry the heat of the fireball, so much for your "thermal energy" claim. Without air the shock-wave, maybe the most destructive element to a nuclear weapon, can't propagate.

After about 60 feet most of the blast effect will have dissipated. You show me a nuclear weapon delivery platform that could have that kind of accuracy in space, and I have a bridge to sell you. Nuclear weapons have proximity triggers and "accuracy" measured in the 900 meter range give or take.

Nuclear weapons are pretty much the dumbest idea for space combat unless you fit them to some kind of SUPER accurate shaped charge or penetrating weapon. THEN they would be very effective. But by that time I guess we'll have the Battlestar Galactica built so we can load our "radiological" warheads on board. Frack ya!

RE: Great for HD
By Paj on 4/17/2012 7:53:43 AM , Rating: 2
Pretty much. Tactically, any kinetic weapon will be just as effective as a nuke in space.

RE: Great for HD
By Bad-Karma on 4/16/2012 5:59:43 PM , Rating: 5
Nukes in's been done. Back in 1958 they sent a warhead 250 miles out into space to try and one up a previous test by the Soviets......

Here is a great article with a 2 minute video on the tests. Even has some photos & video footage of the actual test.


RE: Great for HD
By Bad-Karma on 4/16/2012 6:06:40 PM , Rating: 2
Pardon my error. Scanned the article a little too quickly.

It's 1962 not 58'.

RE: Great for HD
By Peter898 on 4/21/2012 9:51:23 AM , Rating: 2
Read about nukes in space here :

And here :
Argus III
Time: 22:13 September 6, 1958 (GMT)
Location: 48.5° South, 9.7° West
Altitude: 335 miles (539 km) (perhaps the highest nuclear explosion ever)

You can watch the explosions here, in glorious HiDef :
U.S. Nuclear Weapon Tests, Operation Dominic; Nukes In Space!

RE: Great for HD
By Iketh on 4/16/2012 7:18:17 PM , Rating: 2
Actually, the shockwave expands closer to the speed of sound...

RE: Great for HD
By InvertMe on 4/17/2012 11:44:36 AM , Rating: 2
Don't you watch battlestar galactica? Nukes in space are devastating!

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