The warfighter Issue

Science and the military have been intertwined since the Manhattan Project.

By Bob Webster | March 19, 2020

2022 11 10 Veterans Day
Three active-duty members of the military raise the American flag in front of the Lab’s National Security Sciences Building. Every year, airmen, missileers, and soldiers come to the Laboratory to learn more about the partnership between Los Alamos and the military. Los Alamos National Laboratory

In the early 1940s, Los Alamos was Project Y of the Manhattan Project. The project was named for the Manhattan borough of New York City, home to the Army Corps of Engineers, which was tasked with the top-secret effort to design and build an atomic bomb to end World War II. In charge of the entire project was Army General Leslie Groves, who oversaw scientific and technical developments, construction, security, military intelligence, and more with a gruff demeanor that kept the difficult work on track.

Although portions of the project were spread across the country, General Groves spent much of his time at Los Alamos, where he was far from the only soldier. The Army’s Special Engineering Detachment was brought to Los Alamos because of its experience in technical areas such as engineering and welding. Members of the Women’s Army Corps typically filled clerical jobs.

After World War II, Project Y faced an uncertain future. It had a product (nuclear weapons) but lacked a customer until the Navy arrived on the scene in late 1945, needing to know if its ships could survive a nuclear blast. The Navy collected dozens of captured and surplus ships of various types, and Los Alamos prepared nuclear weapons to use against them in an operation code-named Crossroads. Crossroads was conducted at the Marshallese atoll of Bikini in July 1946. The operation’s important weapons-effects tests confirmed naval vessels were vulnerable to atomic attack.

In the decades that followed, Los Alamos continued to pioneer weapons technology for the military. During the Cold War in particular, deterrence theory—the idea that nuclear weapons deter attacks—became the dominant military strategy and drove the Laboratory to design and deliver increasingly more powerful and compact nuclear weapons for ever-improved delivery systems. With the development of these weapons came the responsibility to make them safer. Innovative science and engineering were—and still are—necessary in both the development and safety of these complex weapons.

Today, much of our work revolves around maintaining four of the seven types of nuclear weapons in the current U.S. stockpile: the B61 gravity bomb and the W78 ballistic missile warhead deployed with the Air Force and the W76 and W88 ballistic missile warheads deployed with the Navy. 

Los Alamos not only partners with the military to bolster America’s national security, but the Laboratory has also become a way for many veterans to continue their service to the nation. More than 10 percent of our workforce is former military. We also have a handful of active duty military at the Lab, including our Air Force Fellows and the men and women enrolled in the Department of Defense’s Training with Industry program. We are thankful for their service and grateful that they’ve chosen to continue their careers at Los Alamos.

This short letter has highlighted only a fraction of the ways Los Alamos and the military have partnered over the years and continue to rely on one another today. Our relationship is storied and robust, and I hope this issue of National Security Science helps you see the power of partnerships between these two institutions.