Strategic priority No. 2 prepares for future nuclear deterrent

By Steve Girrens

Friday, June 07, 2019

Today, more than ever, there is urgency for Sandia’s Nuclear Deterrence portfolio to implement strategic initiatives that explore, research and refine “big ideas” and innovative approaches for nuclear deterrence on the 15- to 20-year time horizon, and in many cases much sooner. Such initiatives are the focus of our Labs-level strategic priority No. 2 — Maintain an Agile and Effective Nuclear Deterrent.

Steve Girrens sits behind his desk
DETERRENCE STRATEGY — Steve Girrens, associate Labs director for Nuclear Deterrence, said that implementing strategic priority No. 2, Maintain an Agile and Effective Nuclear Deterrent, will take the involvement of everyone at the Labs. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

In developing the Labs’ strategy, senior leadership and the strategic planning team reviewed many national security strategies, including the NNSA Strategic Vision, DOE Strategic Plan, Nuclear Weapons Council Strategic Plan and the Stockpile Stewardship Management Plan, among others.

One fundamental change outlined within the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review is that we must again be cognizant of a return to great powers competition, as well as emerging adversaries in an uncertain, changing global landscape. Labs Director Steve Younger has stated that Sandia’s long-range view can help the nation avoid technology surprise.

As stated in Sandia’s strategic direction document, Creating the Future, we must “become more agile in our development process” in order to meet emerging threats. “We must match and surpass our adversaries’ development speed and find ways to leapfrog technology insertion into our weapons. Our development must be tailored to meet an increasingly dynamic adversarial threat.”

The strategic direction document outlines what we should be doing, and our work on priority No. 2 begins to address how we do this. As Sandia’s core mission, our Nuclear Deterrence imperative is both present and future-focused: deliver a safe, secure and effective U.S. nuclear deterrent today and into the future. Priority no. 2 drives our mission forward, and it must also strengthen all the other priorities.

It’s a symbiotic relationship. Our Labs-level priority has specific goals and objectives, such as dramatically reducing development cycle times and working National Security Enterprise-wide on maximizing production capacity, including figuring out new architectures, materials and capabilities needed for our nation’s future deterrent.

These initiatives also help us fully engage the weapons workforce in exciting, innovative work. The strategic direction document states, “We must be careful not to lose the capability to design new nuclear weapons. If left to atrophy, such a capability would be difficult to reacquire in the absence of nuclear testing. While executing (our core) life-extension programs and alterations, we must find ways to retain and exercise the design capability.”

Forward-leaning programs, such as our HOT SHOT sounding rocket program under NNSA’s direction (see story, Page 1), help us exercise these creative muscles and invigorate staff within the Labs and across the National Security Enterprise. Sandia designed HOT SHOT as a low-risk program to encourage exploration, which further augments NNSA’s ability to flexibly adapt weapon systems to meet urgent needs. This work could help cut research and development time for new weapon systems from as many as 15 years to less than five.

Teaming for results

A multidisciplinary team from across the Labs is working to ensure this strategic priority receives high-level attention and makes ongoing progress toward its long-term goals and 2019 deliverables. They meet monthly to track progress and provide quarterly reports to myself and director Scott Holswade, the Nuclear Deterrence priority team lead who also oversees the HOT SHOT program.

Sandia’s priority No. 2 is effectively a Labswide initiative because it will take the involvement of every mission and mission-enabling division to move forward and get it done. Success will require all of us. If you’re interested in learning more about this corporate priority, you can reach out to team facilitator Donna Robertson.

Programs to extend the life of the current stockpile are Sandia’s top priority but should not be our only focus. Strategic, long-term preparation that starts today is exciting and allows us to manage these programs with the continued sustainment of the engineering and science-based capabilities required to carry out our Nuclear Deterrence mission now and into the future. This balance of immediate mission-critical work and preparation for the future more than motivates me to come to work each day.