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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