McMillan talks 'Moneyball'

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By John Severance

Los Alamos National Laboratory director Charlie McMillan spent the good portion of his week in Washington and one of his stops was Capitol Hill where he testified at a hearing before a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.

McMillan used an interesting analogy when it came to describing the budget scenario at LANL.

“You may have seen the film 'Moneyball,' based on the book of the same name. When I lived in the Bay Area, the Oakland A’s turned baseball’s conventional wisdom on its ear," McMillan said in his testimony.

"They analyzed what really mattered to win. Conventional wisdom said it takes home runs and batting average to win – but the A’s showed that on base percentage was a more important metric for winning. They challenged conventional wisdom to increase value, and Mr. Chairman, I submit now would be a good time for the nuclear weapons enterprise to do the same. I believe we need to challenge existing requirements to look for flexibility in how we are currently meeting our programmatic deliverables.”

McMillan said the lab had to absorb a $450 million cut to its budget as well as another $130 million because of sequestration. McMillan pointed out to subcommittee members that LANL had reduced its staff by roughly 1,500 employees and was able to still meet its deliverables.

But he had a warning for the senators.

“Los Alamos is approaching a tipping point. I am losing my mid-career staff at an accelerating pace because they are finding better opportunities elsewhere. Our nuclear infrastructure is not being modernized, the costs associated with our LEP (Life Extension Program) activities continue to rise, and our weapons designers continue to be required to focus on our aging stockpile.

“Infrastructure projects such as CMRR and MOX have been delayed, weapons experiments at important science facilities like DARHT and NIF are being scaled back, and our ability to recruit and retain staff is becoming increasingly difficult. It is a trend that does not bode well for us over the long-term.”

McMillan testified there are a number of options that LANL can pursue and eventually he went back to the “Moneyball” analogy.

“The performance and execution requirements currently mandated by our customers, while important, are in many cases driving cost escalation. Conversely, there have also been changes in requirements, initiated by the laboratory and accepted by the government, that are creating timely options. These options can meet stockpile needs and manage the cash flow for execution. 

“I believe that the approach we have taken at Los Alamos in providing the capabilities of CMRR — an approach that challenges assumptions and existing requirements — may have promise for other parts of the program as we move forward in a constrained fiscal environment.

“If, like the Oakland A’s, we are to have a winning strategy with a lower budget, we will have to make fundamental changes in our basic assumptions.”

McMillan said there are three areas of opportunity as it attempts to manage the nuclear stockpile in the future.

He said there should be a challenge to the assumptions of “big box: style nuclear facility construction. There should be a reexamination of requirements driving future Life Extension Programs and concentrate on value. And he said weapons experts should be challenged to find workable solutions.

“I believe we must look at these issues and decide very quickly how we are going to change the dynamic. As one of the individuals that assess the certification of the nation’s stockpile, I will tell you emphatically that it is currently safe, secure, and effective, but it is not without risk. We must craft a program that will underwrite this statement for as long as our nation continues to require nuclear weapons to deter potential aggressors and assure our allies.”

McMillan then urged committee members to pass a budget because he said it is getting increasingly difficult to manage the laboratory.

“Should we have to operate in another full year CR  (continuing resolution) in FY14, I believe significant negative impacts to the laboratory are possible going forward.

“Faced with near and long-term budgetary uncertainties, I will continue to do everything in my power to meet our mission commitments within these constraints.

“… Some may ask, ‘Is the path we’re on feasible?’ I believe that it is; however, in practice, it is going to be an expensive path. 

“The national laboratories are here to provide technical options. I submit that now is the time to create paths that sustain the deterrent while challenging the ways of the past decades.”