In post-9/11 world, Labs’ strategic objectives leverage diverse capabilities to serve nation
Sandia President and Labs Director Paul Hommert talks about impact of 9/11 on national security mission
By Bill Murphy
Note: The Lab News recently sat down with Sandia President and Labs Director Paul Hommert to talk about how the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the nation’s subsequent response have shaped Sandia’s strategic direction over the past decade and how those attacks have framed the discussion about the just-completed 2012-2016 strategic plan.
Sandia President and Labs Director Paul Hommert talks about Sandia’s 2012-2016 strategic plan.
Lab News: In September 2001 you were working in the UK. Did you happen to be in England on 9/11 itself?
Paul Hommert: Yes, I was in England. I’d been in the States and had flown back to England the Sunday before, the 9th. Like anyone, I can remember 9/11 precisely. In the UK, it was a little after lunch, in the early afternoon. I was in a meeting when one of my colleagues came in, grabbed me and said, “You have to come and see this.” As I watched the events unfold, I was just staggered; I mean I actually couldn’t stay at work, I had to leave because I was glued to the television. And you have such a range of emotions. One of the most telling things is the enormous outpouring of respect, the true depth of caring that came from my British colleagues. It’s something I will always remember. It was genuine and immediate; it was especially meaningful because I think they understood that in a situation like this, I wanted to be home. That was hard to wrestle with, that I couldn’t do anything.
LN: Did experiencing 9/11 while you were overseas and away from home perhaps give you a different perspective on America’s vulnerabilities in the post-Cold War environment?
PH: Being in the UK when it happened, I think maybe I had a better sense of how much the world looks to America, and here the world looked to an America that was damaged, that was not as invincible as it might have been on the 10th of September. You also gained a sense of how important America is in the world.
LN: Has the post-9/11 security landscape shaped your thoughts about Sandia’s strategic direction?
PH: Absolutely. As you know, our leadership team recently finalized a set of strategic objectives that project us forward based on where we are as a laboratory today. And certainly, where we are in 2011 has been fundamentally affected by the events of 9/11. Just take a look at the aggregate defense budget, including intelligence. That budget has increased dramatically — and I’m not even talking about the money that’s been allocated to conduct two wars. That increase has definitely had an effect on us; it’s given us the opportunity to work on a broader set of challenges and make broader contributions to the nation’s security. But beyond that, and in a more basic way, the past decade has changed how we view ourselves relative to both our nuclear weapons mission and to our broader set of missions. Our strategic objectives reflect that changed perspective, emphasizing that in the post-9/11 world, our mission diversity is an asset in our ability to serve the nation. But we have to be mindful of leveraging our diversity in a constructive way. If we treat our nuclear weapons mission and our other national security work as separate and unrelated, I think we lose a critical focus. That’s why we now have only one programmatic executive VP [Jerry McDowell]; in my view we are a national security laboratory first and foremost that has a unique nuclear weapons responsibility and then has other programs it executes that are part of an overall national security mission. Our weapons work and other national security work should never and cannot be thought of as separate; they have to be managed in an integrated way.
LN: You and the leadership team have identified five strategic objectives. Can you get specific about how the objectives are going to move us in a strategic direction that emphasizes our role as a national security laboratory?
PH: As we’ve just discussed, most Sandians understand how the post-9/11 world has helped define us as a national security laboratory. It’s important to emphasize, though, that we still have a unique nuclear weapons mission that is very much a core part of who we are. Our first strategic objective makes the point plainly: “We will deliver with excellence on our unique nuclear weapons mission.” Some — not necessarily at Sandia — have asked whether nuclear weapons are as important to national security today as they were in the Cold War. After all, they say, what do nuclear weapons have to do with the world as it is now? Aren’t they a relic of the Cold War? If you probe deeper and think about Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear capability, think about the issues of proliferation, a dynamic that was very much affected by 9/11 and our nation’s response to it, you have a world in which nuclear weapons still have a hugely important role in strategic deterrence. That role has been recognized explicitly in the president’s 2009 Prague speech [on nuclear disarmament as a worthy goal] and in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. In pursuing that first strategic objective, we’re in the midst of a modernization effort in the nuclear weapons program. In that effort, Sandia will be called upon to both lead and produce in an unprecedented way, in a way we have not had to do since before the end of the Cold War. So the first objective calls us to a higher level of leadership. I can’t overstate how big a challenge this effort will be, what a stretch it will be for us. If we are to succeed, we’ll have to bring to the task everything we’ve got, everything we’ve become good at in this diversified Laboratory over the years. Needless to say, the prerequisite for success in our first objective is that we also succeed in objective number four, that we excel in the practice of engineering. Our customers in the weapons program and our other major programs demand the absolute highest standard of excellence, as they should, because there is just no margin for error in matters that affect the security of this country. As we move forward, we need to recognize that engineering in the 21st century assumes a base of exceptional science and the ability to integrate science into our engineered products. The post-9/11 world has presented us with a new set of national security challenges that require new solutions and new engineering approaches. The nation expects, and we must demand of ourselves, that we deliver those solutions by building on and continually improving the base of excellence we are known for.
LN: The new set of strategic objectives talks about amplifying our national security impact. Isn’t that implicit in the objectives you’ve already mentioned?
PH: Probably, but we [the Labs’ leadership] felt it important enough to explicitly make it an objective. We have so many skills and abilities that we can go in many different directions, some of which we should go in, some of which we shouldn’t. To me, amplifying our national security impact is all about how we leverage our diversity in a strategic way, gaining a greater focus, a greater recognition in Washington and amongst ourselves about where should we concentrate our capabilities for maximum impact.
LN: We’ve talked about three of the five objectives; there are a couple of others.
PH: The third objective [i.e., objective number 3 in the list of five, “Lead the weapons complex as a model 21st century government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) national laboratory”] is, to me, about both taking advantage of an opportunity and then holding ourselves to the highest standard of operations. The leadership in DOE and NNSA want to reinvigorate the GOCO model, a model developed in the very different operational era of the 1950s. That model, useful as it has been, cannot be just taken from the 1950s and dropped into our current environment. As the largest laboratory and certainly the largest laboratory when you look at nonnuclear operations, one should expect us to lead, the Department should expect us to lead, in bringing this model into the 21st century. As leaders, we need to be mindful about the standards we have for the efficiency of our business processes, and for the strength of our cultures of security and safety. While I think those cultures are strong, they can always be stronger. And also I think we face the challenges any commercial business faces today in dealing with our cost parameters and the effectiveness of our operational space and business space. Our workforce has seen us take on some of those challenges on health care, the pension plan, the way we do performance compensation and job classification. All of those efforts are intended to take us to a higher level of performance that includes being on a stable financial basis as an institution. People should not underestimate the importance of excelling in this objective as almost the entry ticket for the continued strength of our programmatic position.
LN: Okay; and the fifth objective?
PH: The fifth objective [“Commit to a learning, inclusive, and engaging environment for our people”] might sound like a statement of the obvious but sometimes the obvious is so obvious you forget about it, right? Even with the challenges I talked about earlier, we must constantly ask how we can make sure we’re focusing on things that strengthen the work environment for our people. And that has to do with how we support learning programs, how we support the facility base and the environment where our work is done, how we support engagement in the community, how we support work-life interaction. Any of these elements has a soft character to them, but in aggregate, ensuring the environment for our people requires focused leadership attention and concrete actions. That is why we’ve made this issue one of our five strategic objectives.
LN: In thinking about our strategic objectives and where we’re going as a laboratory, I wonder: In the post-9/11 world is there anything like the sort of day-to-day urgency in our mission work that characterized our work during the Cold War?
PH: Oh yes. It’s sometimes hard for us to talk about all of the things that we’re doing post-9/11, but I can tell you that there are many activities here that have saved the lives of our military personnel. When you’re working on things that have that kind of realness to them, there is a sense of urgency. Absolutely. And when you know you’re on the hook to put in place a technology that has a fundamental impact on our national security capabilities at large, there’s an urgency to that. I would remind everybody, too, that in the work we do in nonproliferation and in energy, for example, the faster we bring solutions, the sooner we can provide the policymakers with technology options that bolster the nation’s security. So there’s an urgency there, and I think the folks working in those areas feel that urgency. And then I would come back to our unique nuclear weapons mission: I don’t view the importance of that deterrent as any less significant than it was during the Cold War. If anything, today, we’re in a more complex environment, more dangerous, and the nation’s extended strategic deterrent is still vitally important to the world and to our allies. In this post-9/11 world, our allies — and our adversaries — are looking to us, watching how we take on modernization [of our weapon stockpile], because they see that as an indicator of the strength of our deterrent and of our commitment to that deterrent. That falls right in this Laboratory’s lap. And I know our workforce senses that because I know how hard they’re working right now on these programs. So, yes, that spirit of urgency is there; very clearly, it’s there.
LN: You have described our new strategic objectives as game-changing. What do you mean by that?
PH: That phrase is perhaps overused. In this context, for me, it means that in three to five years in every one of those five areas [defined by the strategic objectives], the way the Laboratory operates must be different; we must be changed in each one. We have to deliver and train and bring a whole new generation to the stewardship of our deterrent; we have to effect that change. We have to bring a new level of focus, strategic recognition, and investment to our diversity. We must be a more effective, efficient, and stronger cultural organization with respect to the way we operate under the GOCO model. When someone asks where to find the best national security product engineering, based in science, the answer rolls off their tongue — it’s Sandia. And then, five years from now, we want our people to recognize that we’ve created an environment that amplifies the uniqueness of what Sandia has to offer and it recognizes them in a way that’s more tangible than we’ve done in recent years. All of these things are about being at a different place than we are now.
LN: Do you think we’re anywhere near there?
PH: Oh yes, absolutely, we’re near there, without question. But near there, occasionally there, isn’t as good as always there. And that’s where we’re headed. It’s not that where we are today is bad in any way. This is a great place. We do phenomenal things. But the nation needs for us to be even better, our people need for us to be even better, and we will be.
LN: How confident are you in that?
PH: I’m very confident. We have a great leadership team. If you look at the talent we’ve brought to the Laboratory in the last three years, I mean, it’s just phenomenal. The new talent we’ve brought into this Laboratory is nothing but exciting. So I don’t know how not to be optimistic about us moving forward. I am very optimistic. Between our mission, our talent, and unfortunately, the diversity of the nation’s challenges, Sandia is an important and great place to be. And we just want to make it an even better place to be. – Bill Murphy