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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 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.

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