- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2009

The U.S. is approaching a critical juncture with respect to ensuring effective stewardship of its nuclear arsenal. In crude terms, policymakers have two choices: either to fund a very expensive, downsized version of a Cold War nuclear weapons complex or redeploy that same scientific infrastructure to addressing a burgeoning menu of national security challenges.

Based on a study conducted by the Henry L. Stimson Center over the past year, the latter option ensures needed weapons capabilities are not lost in our rush to downsize the nuclear weapons complex while maximizing the taxpayers’ return on investments.

A confluence of factors gives rise to the need for reassessing stewardship of the nuclear arsenal. The first is the dilemma that has faced every secretary of energy since the department’s creation in 1977. How could any secretary of energy devote adequate attention to the responsibilities of addressing the nation’s energy needs when at least a third of their budget and an even greater percentage of their time are devoted to stewardship of the nuclear arsenal?

The Obama team recognized this early on and requested that the Department of Energy and the Pentagon conduct a study that addresses future ownership of the nuclear complex, and, among other alternatives, assesses the viability of moving it out of the Department of Energy.

From a policy perspective, however, the crux of the issue is more deep-seated than the agency umbrella that houses the weapons complex. We need to devise a strategy that addresses the tension between two seemingly contradictory policy goals.

On the campaign trail, President Obama embraced the vision of a nuclear-free world, but he made clear that until the time such a world was possible, the U.S. would maintain a “robust deterrent.”

Resolving the tension requires recognizing that the nuclear weapons expertise resident within the complex is multiuse. The president can formulate a strategy to fully leverage that science-and-technology base to address security issues well beyond the safety and reliability of the arsenal.

More than four decades of robust nuclear weapons budgets allowed for a significant amount of high-risk, long-term basic research at the weapons laboratories — much of it growing out of but diverging from the core weapons-related capabilities. Most important, the extensive competencies resident at these laboratories permitted other national security agencies to tap into this expertise on an “as needed” basis without requiring long-term investments to build and sustain it.

For example, the intelligence community relies on the laboratories to assess foreign nuclear weapons programs, and the Department of Homeland Security utilizes the labs to evaluate the vulnerabilities of our nation’s critical infrastructures to both terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

In short, generous Cold War investments created these robust, multidisciplinary laboratories brimming with critical capabilities that could be leveraged on the cheap.

These capabilities are at risk. A major adjustment in governance and budgetary sources for the laboratories will be required to avoid erosion of our national science-and-technology base and core nuclear weapons capabilities. We need a new vision and mission set that retains needed capabilities while applying them to today’s critical national security challenges. This will require making some hard choices in the coming year, including the institutional changes necessary to achieve such a strategy.

The potential for a win-win outcome does exist. The objective should not be a modernized, downsized version of a Cold War complex. Real transformation requires moving the complex from an industrial age mind-set and culture to a more flexible and adaptable organizational structure.

In addition, organizational changes must achieve a multiagency planning-and-investment strategy in order to fully achieve such a transformation. Stewardship of our nuclear arsenal will remain a key mission for many years to come, but one would hope that it will decline as a relative part of the scientific enterprise. Achieving this vision requires a governance structure that goes well beyond a government-as-usual approach.

Three recent studies all urge a bold, unconventional approach to achieving this transformation. The recent Stimson study, the Congressional Commission on the U.S. Strategic Posture’s recent report, and the Defense Science Board “Nuclear Capabilities” study all called for multiagency investments to ensure stockpile stewardship can continue to succeed, while applying these capabilities to a mission set appropriate to today’s security challenges.

The institutional status quo is not an option with respect to stewardship of the nuclear arsenal. Moving it to the Pentagon is not the right solution either. Such a research-and-development strategy must ensure that needed national security science-and-technology capabilities are not eviscerated as the nuclear weapons “footprint” is significantly reduced.

Conversely, it must ensure retention of core nuclear weapons competencies at the national laboratories while better leveraging their scientific-and-technological capabilities to service an array of 21st-century national security needs.

This can only be achieved by establishing a fully independent agency with the institutional mechanisms and oversight in place to achieve the envisioned transformation and fully leverage the taxpayer’s investments in the science-and- technology infrastructure for governmentwide national security.

• Elizabeth Turpen is a senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center and recently directed the Stimson Task Force on “Leveraging Science for Security: A Strategy for the Nuclear Weapons Laboratories in the 21st Century.” The Henry L. Stimson Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan institution devoted to enhancing international peace and security through a unique combination of rigorous analysis and outreach.

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