Get six people who have run Los Alamos National Laboratory together for a chat and ask them about today’s national security threats, and they don’t talk much about the lab’s central subject – nuclear weapons.
Collectively, the current lab director and five men who have been in charge of the nation’s pre-eminent weapons lab in the past say they’re most afraid of economic, cyber or information warfare, or problems in education.
At a recent lab event, John Browne, LANL director from 1997 to 2003, said he “really stays up nights” concerned about information warfare “against our military assets, whether we lose stealth (capability) someday, or someone can find our submarines and whether they can just take out our satellites.”
“But more than that,” Browne continued, “the information warfare against our way of life. Just think of how many times you look at social media today and someone thinks something is true because someone has put something out there. I think that threatens our way of life.”
Current LANL director Terry Wallace cited “an educational crisis” when asked about fears for the future. He said “mass illiteracy in the country is extraordinary.”
“Participation in democracy and the values that we have require that you’re well grounded in education,” he said.
“So when you look at a website that tells us that there’s a conspiracy in a pizza parlor, that everyone goes there for pedophile activities, you should be able to apply scientific principles to that to understand that it’s not (true).” He said American university systems are in crisis.
“So am I fearful? Yes, because nobody’s got a plan for that.”
The six directors gathered at the lab last week to wrap up LANL’s 75th anniversary events with a panel discussion dubbed “75 Years of Solving National Security.” Along with Wallace and Browne, Donald Kerr (director from 1979-85), Robert Kuckuck (2005-06) Michael Anastasio (2006-11) and Charles McMillan (2011-17) participated.
Several hundred lab employees attended at the lab’s Pete V. Domenici Auditorium, behind LANL’s security fence. The discussion was moderated by Ellen Tauscher, a former California congresswoman and under-secretary of state for arms control and international security affairs.
The serious talk of past accomplishments and anecdotes featured just a bit of what might be called insider national weapons lab humor. Wallace, introducing Kerr, noted the historic world and national events that took place during Kerr’s lab directorship more than 30 years ago, including the death of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, who died after only 15 months atop the Communist bloc in 1984.
Looking at Kerr, Wallace said, “Don’t think you had anything to do with that, but it’s possible.” He added, “Sorry, remember we don’t talk about all the things we do at Los Alamos.”
And there were repeated references to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, LANL’s longtime rival, as “the junior varsity.”
There may have not been another audience expected to understand when Wallace twice used the verb “grok” in a sentence. For anyone who’s not a science fiction nerd, the word was invented by Robert A. Heinlein for his 1961 novel “Stranger in a Strange Land” and means, more or less, to understand.
Fears for the future
But no one was kidding around when Tauscher asked the directors what they see as the biggest national security challenge going forward. As a follow-up, an audience member wanted to know: “Do you fear for the future?”
Kuckuck did express worries about a weapons issue. He wondered aloud about whether the lab’s main job these days – “stockpile stewardship,” or making sure nuclear weapons work by using science instead of the test explosions that were permitted in the past – can provide adequate confidence in whether the bombs will work if ever called upon.
“It might get more confident, but is it really, truly… ?” he asked.
“I think that can only get worse as time goes on,” Kuckuck said. “I don’t see how you can possibly know better as we go. That’s just my own feeling.”
Browne had spoken earlier about misgivings that arose when President George H.W. Bush announced a moratorium on testing in 1992. Later in the ’90s, Browne was asked at a congressional hearing if science-based stockpile stewardship would work. “We said we were highly confident, but we could not guarantee,” he said. “That caused a lot of angst.”
But he said he believes that the nation’s weapons labs have demonstrated that they have been able to develop the “tools” needed for stockpile stewardship since then.
Kerr also weighed in on this issue. He said he had gained notoriety back in the day for opposing a ban on nuclear testing. He said he was “saved” when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 “and the whole issue was set aside.”
Kerr said that he doesn’t think anyone believes the mathematical probability of a successful bomb detonation is 1, or absolute, under stockpile stewardship. “But we got awfully close to that,” Kerr said. McMillans said he has seen stockpile stewardship come to maturity. “I think it’s worked better than many of us even hoped it would back then,” he said.
Wallace talked about the old bomb tests in Nevada with something like nostalgia.
“I was on site alone, putting out instruments, running over desert tortoise, pulling up desert onion, all the things that today are illegal,” he said. “And I actually got to feel the tremendous rumble through the desert of very large explosions.”
Technology and economics
Wallace said he’s worried about “technological leaps” in areas such as artificial intelligence as security threats, but is also wary of changes in how economies and nations are organized.
“We have a definition of national security as protecting our borders and our economy,” he said. “I’m not sure we have a national economy anymore. It’s a global economy.”
He said the five largest tech companies in the U.S. “are the fourth-largest economy in the world.”
“Are they our enemy or our friend?” he asked. “They pay taxes in every country … . That’s how you define your allegiance or not.”
“Look at 2030, we’re going to have a series of challenges between AI, health and who actually runs the world that we cannot grok at this point,” Wallace said.
“The concept of values we, our nation, are founded on may be what we call national security, but no longer related just (to) our borders and boundaries. We’re not prepared for it.”
Kerr said he worries a great deal about what’s coming. “I don’t understand about the forces at work in our society today and how they’re going to evolve,” he said.
“I don’t understand the role of private capital financing in what are in fact very well-funded political movements,” he said, “the use of new technology, whether it’s big data analysis, communications capabilities that didn’t exist before and behavioral analysis that has matured to the point where advertisers can predict fairly competently what you may do when you’re exposed to some of their pleadings.
“So I worry a lot about that and that we as citizens are not suitably engaged thinking about it.”
Anastasio said, “The country needs to marshal all its forces to defend its way of life, to defend what we believe in, and to find that we come together on what that is, which we seem to be bifurcated about these days.”
Wallace became emotional about his work in the lab’s global security area, which he said is “invisible,” even to many who work at LANL.
He said he’d worked on projects “that basically did something that nobody else can do and doing something that nobody else will know, but it changed the world.”
“And I can measure the change in the world and I can feel extreme pride in that, but know that nobody else will never know.”