Weapons designer ponders exit strategy

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By The Staff

Joe Martz has been a man on a mission for the last six months, giving versions of his thoughts about transforming the nuclear weapons complex.

As the nuclear weapons program director at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the intense and articulate Martz not only has a stake in the outcome, he also professes a longstanding commitment for breaking through some of the limitations of current policy.

In simplest terms, he wants to see a high level capability for designing, certifying, developing and producing nuclear weapons in a relatively short time frame, so that the capability itself would serve as a reliable substitute for at least a large portion of the actual weapons.

If that could be done, Martz  and others believe it would maintain a quality of deterrence that has prevented the use of nuclear weapons in international conflicts while sustaining 60-years of reduced war fatalities in the world.

Recently Martz has given a talk to young people at a Café Scientifique, to the general public via several interviews with the media and to a group of peers at a two-day workshop on nuclear weapons issues sponsored by the University of New Mexico’s Center for Science, Technology and Policy.

On Tuesday, he gave a version of the talk, with some new bonus material, to a seasoned group of nuclear policy experts and advocates at the Los Alamos Committee for Arms Control and International Security.

“I led the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) design team at LANL,” Martz said, referring to a controversial project of recent years to upgrade and optimize a smaller, safer, more secure and less expensive line of nuclear weapons.

While it has won only mixed political support from Congress, the RRW project persists as a recommendation for dealing with an aging nuclear stockpile, while reducing the footprint and increasing the long-term efficiency of the nuclear weapons complex as a whole.

The LANL team’s RRW design ultimately lost out to a blueprint produced by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. But Marz’s involvement in the process of designing a nuclear weapon according to an exacting set of new requirements started him thinking about a related question.

“Could we look at (nuclear) deterrence in the same way?” he wondered. Could there be a way to substitute a set of analytic criteria for optimal deterrence in place of the technical design requirements for a line of weapons. And might those criteria be compared in a way that would lend itself to a meaningful evaluation over a wide range of postures and strategies, including some that did not assume that nuclear weapons were part of the answer?

Deterring the foe

Among the deterrence paradigms that Martz plugged into his systems analysis were such concepts as “nuclear supremacy,” “mutual assured destruction” (the cold war formulation); the current regime of “tailored deterrence” in which a counter is devised to each threat; “threshold deterrence,” which holds a minimum asset at risk as insurance against an attack; and the Indian model of “virtual deterrence,” which counts on being able to reassemble components quickly from a distributed stockpile.

With a “capability-based deterrence,” Martz added, it is assumed that the nature and timing of the threat provide a long enough warning, to build a response.

A final form of deterrence was considered – “deterrence without nuclear weapons,” which assumes that others can be induced to do the same thing and that sufficient deterrence can be provided by conventional forces, economic or diplomatic pressures, and so forth.

Each of these forms of deterrence was then graded according to dozens of criteria, which included such things as protecting national security interests, effectiveness in enhancing the nation’s reputation and costs.

An elaborate matrix was then devised and the criteria were variously weighted to score different deterrents.

Allowing for some subjective elements, and sprinkling in some important assumptions, such as that “the world situation remains as it is today Martz concluded that “tailored” and “capability-based” deterrents were the most robust systems, that stood out among different weighting schemes.

“Tailored deterrence” pretty much describes our current, post cold war posture. “Capability-based deterrence” is similar to what the National Nuclear Security Administration has been advocating in its complex transformation plans.

Martz suggests much more thought and effort be given to “capability” as a way to continue to reduce the stockpile, while maintaining an effective deterrence.

The work itself (the ability to respond to a given threat) becomes more important than the product of the work (the nuclear weapons), according to his formulation.

The audience was constructively skeptical about many aspects of the proposed concept.

“I don’t understand the agility advantage,” Charlie Bowman said, “Russia has plenty of weapons; even China has a few hundred.”

“By getting the nuclear material under control and out of the pipeline through continuing negotiations with Russia and others,” Martz said, the country would have a hedge against rapid reconstitution.

“That’s the long pole in the tent,” he said, suggesting that other defense studies support the concept of a seven-to-10 year window for a resumption of a nuclear build-up.

Half of that time period is assumed for identifying the threat and developing the will to do something about it.

Others questioned the ability of any of the deterrents to work against terrorists or any group with “nothing to lose.”

“That’s a topic for another discussion,” Martz said.