Voices of deterrence

Los Alamos National Laboratory employees weigh in on the Lab’s national security mission.

By The NSS staff | April 2, 2024

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An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile equipped with a test reentry vehicle launches from Vandenberg Space Force Base in February 2023. U.S. Air Force


Thom Mason
Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory

I’ve always been interested in those aspects of physics that have real-world impacts. My high school yearbook says I wanted to study applied physics, and I don’t think there is any more applied physics than nuclear weapons. Science is wonderful and beautiful and lifts the human spirit, but in the end, science is worthy of public investment because it can solve problems that are important. The idea that public investments in science and technology are a worthy thing was really an outcome of the Manhattan Project; what we learned as a consequence of that crash program to bring to bear the most cutting-edge science in a timely way was that an appropriate public investment can achieve public aims. That is certainly true for national security and a variety of other areas. That was the secret sauce that won World War II and the Cold War, and I think that’s the secret sauce that’s going to get us through the current, very fraught geopolitical environment.

Josh Carmichael
Geophysicist, National Security Earth Science

My view as an explosion monitoring scientist is that a strong technical capability to monitor for signatures of threats creates an environment of deterrence from potential belligerents. When a state or agent believes that the United States has a scientific ability to detect, identify, and characterize a signature of a weapon, that state or agent is less likely to test or use that weapon. An optimal deterrence is an environment in which such a state or agent believes that U.S. technical ability is both incompletely known to them and beyond what they can evade.

Alan Carr
Senior historian, National Security Research Center

To me, nuclear deterrence means relative peace and an opportunity to continue nurturing more effective patterns of behavior in an ever volatile and increasingly complex world.

In a 1965 CBS news interview, our first director J. Robert Oppenheimer noted that the existence of nuclear weapons helped alter long-standing destructive patterns of human behavior, such as increasingly devastating wars fought between the great powers. When we forget what nuclear weapons are capable of, nuclear deterrence is at risk; when nuclear deterrence is compromised, civilization runs the risk of reverting to patterns of behavior likely to bring unthinkable calamity.    

The Laboratory’s historians identify and interpret information useful for today’s stockpile stewardship mission. And we help Los Alamos staff, stakeholders, and the public to remember the delicate nature of the peace made possible, in part, through nuclear deterrence. 

Miguel Santiago Cordoba
Scientist, Weapon System Surveillance

I am reminded of a 1983 speech by Ronald Reagan:

“The most fundamental paradox is that if we’re never to use force, we must be prepared to use it and to use it successfully. We Americans don't want war and we don’t start fights. We don’t maintain a strong military force to conquer or coerce others. The purpose of our military is simple and straightforward: We want to prevent war by deterring others from the aggression that causes war. If our efforts are successful, we will have peace and never be forced into battle. There will never be a need to fire a single shot. That’s the paradox of deterrence.”

In this context, deterrence stands as a powerful force and living example of what can be accomplished through the fusion of cutting-edge technology, strategic vision, and precise execution in support of democracy. The Laboratory, as the design agency of four of the seven weapons systems in the on-alert deterrent, has played a central role ensuring the safety, security, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. This task, far from trivial, requires the integration of multiple technical fields crossing the boundaries of conventional scientific and engineering disciplines and delving into strategic foresight in an intricate global landscape to ensure agility in our ability to respond to emerging nuclear threats and foster stability and security in our nation and the world.

Mark Davis
Chief operating officer, Weapons Production

Our mission is more important than it’s ever been. Deterrence is only good if it’s credible and reliable, and that’s why we’re making new pits, building new detonators, performing research and development, advancing materials science, and all kinds of other things. I’m humbled and honored daily to be involved in something so essential—and at the only place in the nation where that vital work occurs.

Chris Gerthe
Team lead, Weapons Mission Technology

In the United States Constitution states that “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…provide for the common defence.” This means the United States has the power and authority to form military units to protect the country from its adversaries. This protection frequently takes the form of deterrence. For military units to project a credible, believable deterrent, they need to be provisioned with appropriate instruments. Some of those instruments are provided by Los Alamos. The Laboratory ensures the safety, security, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent—specifically the B61 gravity bomb, the W78 warhead, the W76 warhead, and the W88 warhead. Los Alamos designed and currently maintains these systems through modifications, alterations, life extension programs, and other science-based stockpile stewardship work.

Martin Herrera
Deputy division leader, Prototype Fabrication 

I am fascinated by the skill of our machinists to take material and transform it into complex geometry with very tight tolerances. Being a part of that has been truly rewarding, and knowing the role it plays in our nation’s stockpile is inspiring. Even though my career has been dedicated to making weapons, my goal is that we never have to use one of those weapons. That’s what deterrence means, and why I’m proud to be a part of it.

Matt Johnson
Division leader, Pit Technologies 

This is really important to me. You can look at world events today and see it’s as dangerous as it’s been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Without a reliable nuclear deterrent, which includes plutonium pit manufacturing, we can’t be credible. If our allies can’t depend on us to produce pits in the quantities needed to support the global need, they’re going to do it themselves. That could lead to an arms race, and the world would become a much more dangerous place. Our allies could develop these capabilities, but they don’t because they count on us. It’s safer and more secure if we do it and let our allies depend on us.

Nicholas Lewis
Historian, National Security Research Center

Deterrence is the framework of securing peace by establishing and maintaining the capacity to respond in kind to, or in excess of, potential hostile action from an adversary.

As a historian, I use historical source materials from both inside and beyond the Lab to demonstrate the crucial role that the nuclear deterrent has played in preserving national security, and to provide Los Alamos researchers with the informational resources they need to maintain the deterrent in the present.

Quaye Quartey
Technical program manager, Plutonium Infrastructure

I believe deterrence is the ability to alter a behavior and/or action through the credible threat of retaliation. At Los Alamos, as a recent hire, I’m learning ways in which I can demonstrate data-driven continuous improvement initiatives to support the rapid modernization of the Lab’s plutonium infrastructure and associated products. I constantly read literature, meet with subject matter experts, and pose questions to senior leaders in order to develop a more complete understanding of current processes, challenges, and limitations.

“Integrated deterrence means using every tool at the Department’s disposal, in close collaboration with our counterparts across the U.S. government and with allies and partners, to ensure that potential foes understand the folly of aggression.”
—Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in his introduction to the 2022 National Defense Strategy

Tessa Rose
Learning specialist, Weapons Mission Services

I have a pacifist worldview, and I don’t believe that the nation’s weapons stockpile is in itself the answer to the world’s problems. However, I do believe the deterrence created by a viable stockpile is one strong answer to those problems. Our mission to support that deterrence is in alignment with my pacifist sensibilities, and I’m proud to be a part of it. I teach servant leadership and emotional intelligence skills to the Weapons Production workforce. Without positive leadership, strong interpersonal relationships, and healthy minds, there’s no mission.

Madeline Whitacre
Historian, National Security Research Center

Deterrence is the ability to avoid conflict due to the threat of retaliatory action.

The Laboratory’s historians work to perform research and educate the Laboratory on the history of Los Alamos’ deterrence efforts. Our work ensures that the Lab’s deterrence efforts are preserved and interpreted for the benefit of the current and future workforce. Our job is to illustrate for the current Laboratory staff how our institution has responded to evolving threats for the past 80 years, ensuring our stockpile remains a viable deterrent. ★