Powerful partnerships

At Los Alamos National Laboratory, FA52 Army officers further their understanding of nuclear weapons effects.

By J. Weston Phippen | April 2, 2024

Nss   Powerful Partnerships    Feature Alt
After three years at Los Alamos, Gilbreath now works at U.S. Strategic Command, where he advises military leaders on nuclear effects. Los Alamos National Laboratory

Not long ago, the U.S. Army regularly sent FA52s—officers who specialize in various aspects of nuclear operations and efforts to counter weapons of mass destruction—to Los Alamos National Laboratory. For several years, these officers worked alongside scientists on special projects as National Nuclear Security Administration stockpile associates.

“Los Alamos is an excellent place for an FA52,” says Major R. Boone Gilbreath, who recently spent three years at the Lab while also completing a doctoral degree. “You’re in an environment surrounded by some of the best minds in nuclear physics, weapons effects, and many other topics that pertain to nuclear weapons.”

Although the stockpile associates program officially ended in 2015, Los Alamos still sees the occasional FA52. “A lot of people might ask why the Army has nuclear specialists, despite having no organic means to employ a nuclear weapon,” Gilbreath says. “The Army doesn’t have stealth bombers, submarines, or nuclear missiles. But it’s imperative that we develop and maintain nuclear weapon effects expertise because if nuclear weapons are ever detonated on a battlefield, by an adversary, or by the United States, the Army must be prepared to operate and dominate in large-scale combat operations.”

FA52 officers are a specialized few—only about 300 exist. Their purpose is to advise senior military leaders and policymakers on nuclear matters and how to counter weapons of mass destruction.

“We are the Army’s only subject matter experts on nuclear weapons and weapons effects,” says Lieutenant Colonel Daniel “Baha” Bahaghighat, an FA52 who completed the stockpile associates program in May 2015. “In my current capacity, I advise military leadership on how we train for and what we would do in a theater of war if an enemy or the United States deployed a nuclear weapon.” Of his experience at Los Alamos, Bahaghighat says “there are other avenues to train people like us, but there’s nothing like national lab training.”

Gilbreath agrees. “My time at Los Alamos trained me to think in a different way,” he says. “That’s what happens when you sit in a room of scientists with a combined 100 years of experience thinking critically about nuclear weapons and weapons effects.”

At Los Alamos, Gilbreath focused on specific questions: What capabilities (including soldiers, communications devices, and vehicles) would a modern-day military fighting force retain on a battlefield after being hit by a nuclear weapon? What assets would be degraded—and how?

“I was able to lean on the expertise of scientists, engineers, and nuclear testing data available at Los Alamos to address these problems,” Gilbreath says. “With the benefit of this expertise and 15 years of military experience, I developed an analytical method and computer application to provide answers to these important questions.”

Gilbreath produced the Nuclear System of Systems Capabilities Analytic Process (NuSCAP), a software program that incorporates detailed information on human and hardware elements of a military unit, as well as a variety of detailed nuclear weapon environment data (everything from the yield—explosive power—of various weapons to how much radiation—gamma rays and neutrons—are emitted during a detonation).

“I combed through thousands of pages of reports made when the United States still conducted nuclear tests, as well as current U.S. Army regulations and technical manuals, in an attempt to better understand nuclear weapon effects on current military systems,” Gilbreath says. 

While more work remains, Gilbreath’s research has demonstrated the ability to evaluate the vulnerability of U.S. forces on a hypothetical nuclear battlefield. During wargames, in which leaders try to plan out and respond to different scenarios, the NuSCAP approach can more accurately convey what capabilities are maintained by a military unit. Previously, a vehicle might have been labeled as “functional” or “not functional.” But with NuSCAP, an entire new level of granularity is available. Now, for example, NuSCAP can determine if a vehicle is damaged and to what extent the vehicle functions—maybe it can only drive a certain speed or fire its weapon a reduced distance.

In September 2023, Gilbreath completed his time at Los Alamos and was reassigned to U. S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), where he incorporates what he learned at the Lab into his new duties. “My experience at the Lab is invaluable,” he says. “And now I’ve carried that knowledge forward to my new post at STRATCOM, where I work on a team responsible for communicating to senior U.S. officials the consequences of U.S. or adversary nuclear weapon employment.” ★

To learn more about weapons effects, click here. 

To meet another FA52, click here.