Sandia LabNews

Sandia National Laboratories applies rich legacy of engineering, science, and technology to today’s most pressing national security challenges


The formation of the Defense Systems & Assessments strategic management unit at Sandia National Laboratories last year from the merger of the Military Technologies & Applications SMU and most of the Nonproliferation and Assessments SMU represents the latest chapter in a long history of the Labs’ national security work for agencies other than DOE.

From its humble beginnings in 1950, Sandia’s military work for others (WFO) has grown to represent the majority of its “work for others” funding and a mainstay for the Laboratory, where once it was considered peripheral, even controversial, by some who thought Sandia should stick to its core business — nuclear weapons engineering.

Today it represents a growing line of business for Sandia at a time of declining nuclear weapons funding. The 2005 reorganization put most of Sandia’s work for the Department of Defense and other national security agencies in the DS&A SMU, with the goal of further enhancing the management and growth of this work.

‘As if we’ve awakened from a deep sleep’

“The work that we’ve done for other federal agencies [besides DOE] has historically been at a relatively small level, a fraction of what we do overall at the Lab,” says DS&A VP Jerry McDowell. “Today, it’s as if we’ve awakened from a deep sleep to discover we’re a much larger piece than we were in the past . . . so the management of the work that we do deserves more rigor and more interaction at the national level than we’ve probably ever done before.”

Sandia’s military WFO represents about 80 percent of DS&A’s budget. In FY06, DS&A managed $490 million, or 65 percent, of the Labs’ $759 million WFO funding. DS&A’s WFO work is expected to continue to grow in coming years, with FY07 projections bringing it to 71 percent of total WFO.

The history of military WFO at Sandia is studded with numerous high-profile programs and accomplishments, such as work on the VELA satellite program in the 1960s, development and testing of reentry vehicles spanning four decades, the invention of the clean room, arms control and treaty verification work, and development of numerous technologies used in conflicts in Vietnam, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

In many WFO projects for defense community customers, Sandia typically plays a supporting role, a small but integral cog in a bigger machine.

“Is there a Sandia thunderbird stamped on the side [of these various systems]? No,” Jerry says. “We have contributed key parts and components and in that spirit we’re part of a team that serves the interest of the defense community, and that’s the theme that pervades everything we do.

“Sandians, both past and present, have to get satisfaction in knowing they influenced a system,” he says. “We’re likely not to be known as having created a system — we don’t do operations work. But we can take tremendous pride in serving as supporters of the guardians of peace and freedom.”

Defining WFO

Many people think of WFO as “nonnuclear” work, such as work for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Department of Homeland Security. But all of Sandia’s military WFO traces its roots to capabilities developed through the nuclear weapons program.

“I know of no venue that we are involved with today in the defense and national security community that isn’t directly related to a nuclear weapons activity in some way,” Jerry says. “Our ability to help these customers has flowed from the investment in the engineering, science, and technology capabilities that underpin the nuclear weapons program.”

The widely accepted definition of WFO focuses on the funding source: Basically, any work funded by an agency or entity other than DOE/NNSA is considered to be WFO.

While not disputing the close ties between military WFO and nuclear weapons work, retired Sandian Jerry Allen also sees a reciprocal benefit between the two types of work.

“There’s another side of the equation that says . . . the weapons program is greatly helped by the WFO program,” says Jerry, who managed both weapons and WFO programs during his Sandia career. “In other words, we couldn’t be the lab we are today had we not had the WFO program because it provided the funding to develop these capabilities which are used in the weapons program.”

A controversial program

WFO started inauspiciously in 1950 with Sandia’s first “reimbursable” project. With the Atomic Energy Commission’s permission, Sandia received money from the Defense Department to study nuclear weapons effects. The weapons in existence at that time were low yield compared to later designs, and the military wanted to understand their effects on adversaries.

When the US and the Soviets agreed to suspend nuclear testing in 1958, many worried about its impact on Sandia and its funding. Sandia managers began to explore branching out into other areas. The Labs’ early opportunities to diversify came from its partner laboratories requesting engineering assistance for peacetime projects. In 1961, Sandia President Monk Schwartz formed a small directorate to examine a variety of areas of potential work for Sandia.

By 1976, reimbursable projects funded by other agencies had grown to approximately $50 million, or 18 percent of Sandia’s $280 million budget at the time. The growth was spurred in part by a concerted effort on the part of Sandia President Morgan Sparks, and later by his successor, George Dacey, to cultivate new business and new sponsors in the wake of a 10 percent “reduction-in-force” that occurred in 1973.

Despite the funding boost the programs provided, in the 1980s a cadre of people argued “vehemently” against having a WFO program, says Jerry Allen, regarding it as “distracting” to Sandia’s core mission. Some supported the program if it was kept to 10 percent or less in dollar value of the Labs’ budget. Its champions regarded it as “insurance” against what they saw as inevitable nuclear weapons funding declines and fought not only to keep the program but to expand it.

“I can remember many arguments about whether the satellite program ought to be any kind of mainstay for the laboratory,” Jerry says. Much of that perspective was driven by the desire to keep the laboratory small and fears among those who had gone through the painful layoffs of 1973 of taking on a program where funding could fluctuate year by year. With nuclear weapons funding, Sandia had a year or two advance notice on funding based on congressional appropriations, but in the WFO program, “they [the customers] don’t have to come back to you . . . We used to say we earn our bread every year,” Jerry says.

“It took a lot of the Roger Hagengrubers and Gerry Yonases to say ‘Look, industry can manage those kinds of things and so can we.’ Do we provide exceptional service to the nation only through the nuclear weapons program or do we take some risks?” Roger (ret.) led Sandia’s national security work for others efforts in the mid-1980s. In 1993 the DoD portion was split off and assigned to Gerry, now 7000 vice president and principal scientist.

WFO eras

Placed on a timeline, Sandia’s major military WFO efforts would mirror capabilities developed at Sandia from the nuclear weapons program, says Jerry McDowell. “It was always deliberately our intent that work we did for the military or national security community drew on the fundamental capabilities of the laboratory that were part of the nuclear weapons program because doing so exercises them and makes them stronger,” he says.

Early on, WFO focused on testing because “testing was what was known and understood and we were really good at it.”

Missile defense work also started about the same time, growing out of Sandia’s experience using rockets to launch instruments used to observe nuclear explosions. In 1962, the Kauai Test Facility, which had been serving as a launch site for these instrumentation rockets, was established as a resource Sandia could use to do research for other agencies as well.

Military space work, which includes Sandia’s satellite work, arose in the 1960s from Sandia’s capability to detect and characterize “optical transient events,” — flashes of light — which in turn stemmed from analyzing the flashes of light accompanying a nuclear detonation.

“You’d think it would be easy to detect a nuclear explosion, but when you’re in space staring at the earth that’s illuminated by the sun, that’s a fairly bright object, so the flash from a relatively small, or even megaton-class bomb, is a dim flash,” says Andy Boye, senior manager of National Space Programs at Sandia. “On top of that, the flash lasts only thousandths of a second.”

Sandia continues to provide sensors to the military to detect atmospheric nuclear tests, supplemented by ground stations for gathering sensor data, and assistance to the military in interpreting the data gathered by the sensors.

VELA signaled the start of Sandia’s arms control and nonproliferation-related work, but it picked up momentum during the late 1980s and early 1990s as the Cold War thawed and eventually ended. Sandia provided not only technologies and hardware but also consultation.

Sandians participated in managing and advising on treaties that involved nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons all over the world. In several instances Sandians, such as Paul Stokes, Roger Hagengruber, and Stan Fraley, were directly involved in treaty negotiations in Geneva and the Soviet Union.

“Sandia recognized this obligation as a part of its custodianship of the stockpile. Custodianship doesn’t just mean you make them [nuclear weapons] reliable and safe and secure,” says John Taylor, manager of Integrated Technologies & Systems Strategic Planning. John joined Sandia in 1975 and began working in nonproliferation starting in 1983. “It also means that you understand that controlling them is an international obligation and you work to do that responsibly.

“I think we can be justifiably proud of this work because it reflects the real classic case of what I consider ultimate stockpile stewardship and that is, we build these weapons but we also understand that you have to work to eliminate them in a reasonable and appropriate way.”

Technologies such as development of the laminar airflow clean room grew out of internal needs that could not be met by technology available at the time. The advanced manufacturing group needed a way to remove dust that might contaminate close-tolerance weapons parts. Willis Whitfield had the idea to use a uniform flow of filtered air from the ceiling to the floor, or wall to wall, to remove dust from the air. His idea, which was patented in 1964, became the foundation for the $1.2 trillion electronics industry, according to figures from SEMATECH.

Sandia’s current research on synthetic aperture radar and automatic target recognition can be traced back to Sandia’s work on radar fuzes and advanced navigation, guidance, and control systems for missile-delivered nuclear weapons applications. Sandia-developed SAR systems and image processing techniques are routinely deployed around the world in high-profile conflicts and have operated under every US military command. Key Sandia firsts that have pushed the envelope in SAR technology include advances in real-time, fine-resolution image formation and autofocus, fine-resolution 3-D terrain mapping, and leading-edge data exploitation techniques such as the detection of ultra-fine changes in the surface of the earth.

Another longstanding program comes from the Conventional Munitions Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), signed in 1985 between DOE and DoD. The MOU provides a funding mechanism for NNSA and DoD labs to jointly pursue R&D for advanced conventional munitions technology. DoD funds are matched by DOE, effectively leveraging DOE/Sandia expertise and funding. Sandia is slated to receive $14 million in FY07 through the MOU.

“It has allowed us to work collaboratively . . . on munitions technology of interest to both agencies,” says DS&A Deputy David Keese. “It’s an excellent example of cross-agency collaboration.

Looking to the future

Jerry McDowell says the DS&A SMU is at an “interesting junction.” While nuclear deterrence remains the principal strategic national security challenge for the US, the DoD and elements of the national security community are undergoing intense restructuring and transformation in response to changing strategic national security threats. For example, one of US Strategic Command’s (STRATCOM) new mission areas focuses on protecting the nation’s information infrastructure from cyber threats.

Sandia is helping the military assess and counter the threats these computer systems and networks face. “We have a rich understanding of vulnerabilities to computer networks because we have historically worried and continue to worry about use and misuse of nuclear weapons,” Jerry says.

“Defensive counter space” as it applies to protecting US satellites is another emerging mission area for STRATCOM in which Sandia is involved. This might take the form of a laser threat warning system, for example, that would detect an adversary shooting a laser at a satellite. This could disable or confuse the satellite, potentially affecting precision-guided munitions and global-position systems used by soldiers.

“Our military capability depends a lot on our space assets and so if you destroy or deny their use you hinder the military’s ability to execute its mission,” says Andy.

Sandia will continue to build on its legacy of success in anticipating, understanding, and addressing such challenges, says Jerry.

“The tradition we’ve always turned to and will continue to turn to is to anticipate the strategic threats our nation faces, to rely on our rich science and technology community to create new ideas and discover new capabilities, to challenge our engineers to convert that technology into something useful and innovative for our customers, and to be engaged throughout the national security community in helping inform the national debate on security choices, because technology enables a whole new way of thinking about our future,” Jerry says. “The DS&A SMU is at the forefront of meeting these new challenges and as this work grows, the DS&A will increasingly be called upon to establish relationships with the defense and national security communities that strengthen investments in science and technology, and Lab infrastructure. This is a great time to be at the Lab and to be involved in the work of the DS&A SMU. As the motto on our seal says, we are the ‘new order for the ages.’”