The deterrence issue

Los Alamos National Laboratory’s nuclear weapons work plays a vital role in keeping the nation safe.

By Bob Webster | April 2, 2024

Nss   Deterrence Issue   Feature
B-2 Spirit stealth bombers taxi at Whiteman Air Force Base during an exercise in November 2022. “The B-2 is the only aircraft on the planet that combines stealth, payload, and long-range strike,” said 509th Operations Group commander and former Los Alamos Air Force Fellow Colonel Geoffrey Steeves in a news release. “We are charged with delivering the nation’s most powerful weapons for our most important missions.” The B-2 can deploy the Los Alamos­–designed B61 nuclear gravity bomb—a key component of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. U.S. Air Force/Bryson Britt

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the first director of what is today Los Alamos National Laboratory, once said that “it did not take atomic weapons to make man want peace.”

Yet, he went on to explain that the creation of the atomic bomb—for which he was largely responsible—was “the turn of the screw” that “made the prospect of future war unendurable.” That, in a nutshell, is nuclear deterrence theory.

Deterrence, however, is nuanced and multifaceted. Even here in the United States, its meaning often varies between individuals, organizations, and administrations. (We offer our own definition here.) But what is consistent—and has been consistent for the nearly 80 years that nuclear weapons have existed—is the role of Los Alamos National Laboratory in creating and sustaining the nuclear deterrent.

Bob Webster
Bob Webster discusses stockpile stewardship during a visit to Nevada National Security Site.

Los Alamos has designed and maintained the majority of the weapons in the past and present U.S. nuclear stockpile. Today, the Laboratory is responsible for four of the nation’s seven weapons systems: the B61 family of gravity bombs, the W76 family of warheads, the W78 warhead, and the W88 warhead. Los Alamos scientists and engineers continually evaluate the health of these weapons, all of which are decades old. We scrutinize the smallest details—such as how a material is aging or how a component will function at certain temperatures—to ensure the weapons are safe (that they will not go off by accident) and that they will perform as intended if the president orders their deployment.  

The credibility of our weapons—which includes their safety, reliability, and effectiveness—is backed by technical data that is uniquely generated, documented, and analyzed at the Laboratory’s state-of-the-art experimental and other facilities. Using this data, we create high-resolution, 3D computer simulations of the inner workings of weapons to better understand their health and what’s necessary for optimal safety and performance. Innovative, responsive, world-class science, engineering, and technology are the backbone of national security, and you can read more about our science-based stockpile stewardship program—how we maintain our weapons without nuclear testing—in "Deterrence defined."

Although Los Alamos is primarily a research and development institution, we do produce some weapons components, including plutonium pits, which are essential to all nuclear weapons. In 2024, the Laboratory will transition from making development (practice) pits to war-reserve (stockpile-quality) pits. The new pits add another layer of credibility to our already very robust and dependable weapons. Learn more about this upcoming milestone here.

Understanding what happens once a weapon is detonated—the weapons effects, as we say—is also part of having a credible nuclear deterrent. Our adversaries know that our weapons are designed to hit specific targets and have certain consequences. The reverse is also true. Decades of weapons effects data help Los Alamos scientists anticipate what might happen to U.S. troops, military targets, and even infrastructure in the event of a nuclear attack on American soil. Read more about these efforts here.

This issue of National Security Science also highlights the relationship between Los Alamos and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), which owns and operates the delivery systems for all nuclear weapons systems. You will read about Los Alamos manufacturing manager David Flores, a Navy veteran who served on the USS Tennessee, a submarine capable of launching the W76 and W88 warheads. In "A bomber's point of view," our junior Air Force Fellow, Major Chandler Anderson, discusses the bomber aircraft that support deterrence.

Because nuclear weapons are at any given moment atop ICBMs, onboard submarines, or loaded in the bomb bays of aircraft, many people here at the Laboratory and across the nuclear security enterprise like to say that “nuclear weapons are used every day.” That is also deterrence in a nutshell. Having credible, ready-to-launch nuclear weapons actually helps keep the peace. It goes without saying that the best war is the war that’s never fought, and we’ve not experienced warfare on a global scale for more than 70 years. That’s a testament to the vital deterrence work taking place daily at Los Alamos. ★