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Budgetary pressure and technical considerations are likely to doom the Obama Administration’s “3+2” strategy for modernizing the nation’s nuclear stockpile, former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Director Parney Albright said this week. Speaking at George Washington University, Albright said he supported the strategy, which would modernize and consolidate the nation’s nuclear stockpile through three interoperable warheads, a gravity bomb and an air-launched cruise missile, but he painted a bleak picture for the strategy’s prospects, which has received a lukewarm response from Congress and the military.

Albright said the Administration’s recent decision to delay work on the W78/W88 interoperable warhead by five years would likely trigger a series of events moving the Administration away from the strategy. With the interoperable warhead delayed, he noted that the Administration still will need to do work on the non-nuclear portion of the W88, which he suggested is likely to expand to include the nuclear package as well. “Then the Navy almost certainly will argue that if I’m doing that, why do I want to pay for an interoperable warhead; that costs too much money,” said Albright, who resigned from the top spot at Livermore in October. “Let’s just go ahead and make this the way we did last time which is what they did on the W76.”

Could Air Force Live Without W78?

Such an approach would decrease the incentive for the Air Force to pursue an interoperable warhead for the W78, and could lead to its retirement if the Air Force concludes it can live with the W87 as its only ICBM warhead. “I really think ‘3+2’ is the right thing to do. I really do,” Albright said. “I just don’t think it’s going to happen. I think there is a reasonable chance that we should be prepared for.” He said that safety and security features planned for future warheads could also take a backseat to budgetary concerns. “I think the answer will come back and say we’ve lived for 50 years without these. Tell me why I need to spend money in this budget environment right now,” he said.

Trying, and failing, on the strategy could have a serious impact on the scientific and technical workforce at the labs, he said. “I’m going to take my workforce and for 12 to 15 years have them no longer doing the science I think they should be doing as lab director, or we’re not going to be investing in high performance computing that I think we ought to be investing in? Then I think it’s a really interesting question whether or not we ought to, [whether] it’s worth the sacrifice,” he said. “Because for me it’s not about the weapons; it’s about the workforce and the capabilities.”

The Labs as Maytag Repairmen?

Whether the “3+2” strategy succeeds or fails, Albright suggested the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories and their workforce face a grim future with a large gap in warhead work looming, and he argued that new weapons designs could invigorate the workforce. “If you don’t change how you think about Stockpile Stewardship then the labs basically become Maytag repairmen,” he said. “They’re basically—‘let’s take these things down to Pantex, let’s cut them open, oh, there’s a smudge, let’s fix it or not fix it and go forward.’ Think about the kind of workforce you’ll attract in that kind of environment if that was all they did.”

He suggested that recent experimental work, like subcritical tests at the Nevada National Security Site and work on other experimental facilities around the complex, are not enough to energize a new class of workers needed to sustain the nuclear weapons complex. “We are sort of at a fork in the road right now,” Albright said. “Stockpile Stewardship has been very successful, to the point where you could make the case that if you don’t do something proactively we’re going to be in a situation where people are going to be looking at each other and saying what’s next?” He said working on new weapons designs, even if they weren’t tested, would “challenge your workforce” by “sustaining this competitive environment and you’re really asking people to get to the boundaries of what they know about nuclear weapons and the physics associated with nuclear weapons.” —Todd Jacobson

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