Defenders of deterrence

Los Alamos National Laboratory is developing a new generation of nuclear thought leaders.

By J. Weston Phippen | April 2, 2024

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In August 2023, MEDAL participants toured the Spirit of Kitty Hawk, a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, at Whiteman Air Force base. Los Alamos National Laboratory

Developing leaders who understand the nuances of nuclear deterrence and can bridge the gap between science and policy contributes to the success of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s national security work.

“People may not be paying attention,” says Avneet Sood, a senior scientist with the Lab’s Weapons Physics associate directorate, “but there’s a large community dedicated to nuclear deterrence in the United States that is just as active as ever, and at Los Alamos we’ve taken several steps to ensure this next generation is ready to meet future challenges.” 

In fact, Los Alamos has several programs dedicated to developing the next generation of nuclear deterrence leaders. Here are a few:

National Security and International Studies Fellows Research Program

The Lab’s Office of National Security and International Studies (NSIS) is akin to a think tank: a bridge between the technical work being done at Los Alamos and policymakers in Washington, D.C. In 2022, NSIS started its Fellows Research Program to fund up-and-coming technical experts as they explore a research topic at the intersection of nuclear science and security policy. The current cohort includes 15 fellows, each of whom will spend up to two years pursuing research that addresses a current national security policy challenge. For instance, Nora Jones, a program director with the Lab’s International Threat Reduction group, is researching how Los Alamos has participated in past denuclearization agreements.

“In tumultuous times—those like the world currently finds itself in—we often turn to arms control agreements,” Jones says. “The Lab plays an important role in these moments, but when I investigated what we’d done there was no easily accessible documentation. With the Fellows Program, I’m compiling a case study of how the Lab has helped in the past because we’re likely to turn toward this strategy in the future, so that going forward we are prepared to stand up and offer that same support.”

The National Security Affairs Program

In addition to being one of the Lab’s operators, Texas A&M University (TAMU) offers a course to train future deterrence leaders that was set up, in part, by Los Alamos experts. The program is run by Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service and is called the National Security Affairs Program. The program is offered annually and includes four graduate-level classes.

“This initiative was started by the Lab to take mid-career professionals to the next level,” says Andrew Ross, who holds a joint appointment with TAMU and Los Alamos. “Many of the courses are taught by a combination of professors and working scientists, some of whom are from Los Alamos.”

So far, 85 people have completed the course and received a certificate in national security affairs. Some of these graduates have gone on to leadership roles at the U.S. Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the U.S. Department of State, and the Lab. 


Since 2018, the Mid-/Early career Deter-detect-prevent Advanced Leadership (MEDAL) program has offered promising young Los Alamos leaders a chance to explore how their work intersects with national policy, emphasizing the Lab’s core missions of deterrence and countering global threats, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism.

The program includes meetings with senior Los Alamos staff and culminates in a trip to Washington, D.C. that includes meetings at the NNSA, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and other organizations. Since 2018, 49 Los Alamos leaders have completed the program.

“The D.C. trip provided great perspective on where the Los Alamos mission fits into the greater national security landscape," says Michelle Bourret, a team leader in the Geophysics group. “I found it valuable to see different ways that someone like me can serve the Laboratory and the nation.” ★