Before the planes struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the United States was a decade into the end of the Cold War. Nuclear testing had ceased. Terrorist attacks were largely something that happened in other countries. While threats still existed, many Americans felt confident in their safety.
Then, everything changed.
National security has always meant turning on a dime to address the threats of the moment. For those of us who work in the national security enterprise, we’re no strangers to quickly adapting our thinking and resources to confront what’s in front of us.
In 2001, Los Alamos National Laboratory was several years into the stockpile stewardship program – developing physics and computational tools to ensure the safety and reliability of the nation’s nuclear weapons in the absence of testing. We weren’t sure what the future held. While we knew that nuclear weapons were still an important part of the nation’s military and diplomatic strategy, the end of the Cold War meant that the role they would play in national defense policy was unclear.
After September 11, the reality that not only did threats still exist but they could easily land on our shores hit hard. Soon after, a renewed sense of urgency emerged around the need to secure our nuclear weapons and ensure their readiness at a moment’s notice. On the top of many minds at Los Alamos were the what-if questions, specifically: What if the terrorists had used an improvised nuclear device? What if they might still? Could they potentially get a hold of a nation-state’s weapon of mass destruction? What about the potential for bio-attacks?
The primary task of the stockpile stewardship program has always been to use science to understand aging weapons and determine how to keep them working and effective. In the wake of September 11, we realized that we needed to use that same scientific rigor and pivot to fight asymmetric threats carried out by a group of individuals, as opposed to nation-state actors with clearly defined borders. This included collecting scientific intelligence to help decision makers differentiate between what was a real, dangerous threat, and what was a toothless distraction.
“For those of us who work in the national security enterprise, we’re no strangers to quickly adapting our thinking and resources to confront what’s in front of us”
Now, as we look to the future, we know the same ability to quickly pivot will continue to be critical.
Trying to predict the future is tricky business, and one we scientists try to steer clear of. But recent history has shown that having a robust deterrent that simultaneously addresses threats from state actors, as well as terrorist ones, will be paramount – and we’ll only succeed if we have a clear technological advantage over our adversaries.
We’ve seen this evidenced time and again. It’s the reason why, in 1943, the U.S. government brought together some of the brightest scientific minds in the world to the remote mountains of Los Alamos, N.M., to develop a scientific solution to end World War II. That solution was, of course, the atomic bomb. Similarly, when the Department of Homeland Security was stood up in response to September 11, the Department of Energy laboratories were called upon again to determine how best to utilize science and technology to protect our nation.
In some ways, the next 20 years look similar to the last 20: using world-class intelligence to understand what our adversaries are capable of, and using world-class science and technology to develop tools to counter them.
In addition, the threat will continue to be bifurcated: one head of the beast is the threat of nation-states with large, established nuclear stockpiles who are busy modernizing those weapons; the other head comprises non-state adversaries and individual actors who, with little investment, can kill thousands of Americans and terrorize millions more. Our challenge at the nation’s security laboratories is to figure out how to counter both simultaneously.
Some of the same tools can be used to fight both. For example, at Los Alamos we develop highly sensitive imaging sensors affixed to satellites that can detect small changes on the ground. These changes might indicate the build-up of a nuclear program by showing the construction of new tunnels or activity in a formerly dormant nuclear power plant. Or they might indicate possible terrorist activity by showing the increased movement of trucks from one place to another. Similarly, ground-based tools such as seismic, acoustic, and radionuclide sensors can tell us when and where explosions take place, and give us clues as to the type of explosion – was it an explosion at a chemical plant or a nuclear test?
As we often like to say at Los Alamos: It takes a weapons lab to find a weapons lab – whether that lab is in a state-of-the-art facility inside our adversary’s border, or in a shed tucked into a mountainside. In the decades to come, we know that we will continue to be called on to exercise that capability, as well as to develop other scientific and technological expertise to counter a broad range of other threats. In short, our job is far from over, and we’re honored to have the privilege of doing that job daily in service to the nation.