Strategic Priority No. 4

By Doug Bruder, Associate Labs Director for Global Security

Photography By Randy Montoya

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Closing the gaps in threat detection capabilities

Doug Bruder, Associate Labs Director for Global Security
Associate Labs Director for Global Security Doug Bruder

It’s tough to hide a nuclear test.

The array of detection methods used by the U.S. and other countries is designed to capture the flash of light, seismic signal and radioactive isotopes that are characteristic of a nuclear event occurring anywhere in the world. But what if the goal was to detect covert activities in pursuit of a nuclear device before the testing stage? What if the potential proliferant is a rogue actor not yet on the radar?

Sandia’s Strategic Priority No. 4: Detect Threats, is aimed directly at this scenario. This priority seeks to marshal and enhance Sandia’s capabilities to develop transformational technical solutions that change the playing field for global monitoring and detection to be able to respond to potential threats, whether conventional, nuclear, chemical, biological or cyber. This effort seeks to identify ways that Sandia can detect potential threats not only to the U.S., but also those that could harm our allies.

As threats evolve, so must detection

Existential threats to our national security — those that would cause catastrophic casualties or dramatic changes to our way of life — are evolving, as are the sources of threats. Compared to 30 years ago, the sources of today’s threats are more diverse, ranging from threats posed by superpowers to threats posed by rogue states that threaten the U.S. and world peace.

The Detect Threats strategic priority is focused on transforming Sandia’s detection capabilities from exclusive, exquisite and targeted sensing, to ubiquitous and adaptable systems that sense what we cannot readily see. In other words, we intend to move from the development of specifically designed sensor technologies tailored to a known set of threats and signatures to develop detection capabilities that can be deployed rapidly, used to detect a broader range of threats, and share information to behave as an intelligent network.

To this end, Sandia must continue to lead the nation in developing capabilities to monitor activities related to threats as they occur, whether that is cyber threats, threats to critical infrastructure (such as the energy grid) within the U.S. or threats related to the use of weapons of mass destruction anywhere in the world. Through this priority, Sandia seeks to advance our nation’s ability to detect threats before they are actualized.

The science of detection is also evolving. For example, the proliferation of all sorts of sensors (e.g., cameras, satellites, Apple watch data, seismic monitors) presents opportunities and challenges for the future of detection, as does the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning to sensing technology.

Sandia’s involvement in NNSA’s Low Yield Nuclear Monitoring project is an example of an ongoing research and development efforts to advance detection capabilities, specifically for monitoring low-yield nuclear testing. Funded by NNSA’s Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, LYNM also involves Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Pacific Northwest national laboratories.

Sandia’s role focuses on applying big-data analytics to untrusted data sources to obtain actionable information on low-yield events.

Deliverables for FY19-FY20

Strategic Priority No. 4 calls for the following specific actions and deliverables over the next year:

Develop a threat detection R&D roadmap for innovative signature-sensor-analysis solutions. We need to better understand the spectrum of threats (e.g., biological, chemical, radiological), environments (e.g., space, cyber) and detection characteristics such as time of relevance. From there, we will look for potential gaps in threat detection capabilities and how we could be more effective at detecting novel signatures through sensing and analysis.

Identify research areas in support of developing and deploying adaptable and reconfigurable sensors and sensor architectures. The goal of this phase is to leverage the Science and Technology Advancing Resilience for Contested Space mission campaign as well as Intelligence Science Strategic Priority No. 3 (see the July 5 Lab News). We will seek to develop laboratory directed research and development proposals that address identified research needs, including proposals in support of STARCS, which seeks to advance the nation’s capabilities for protecting its assets in space from adversary attacks. This phase will focus on identifying research areas to increase autonomy, reconfigurability and real-time responsiveness of sensors and sensor architectures.

Identify the requirements for the development of a testbed. By developing a synthetic environment in which to evaluate sensors, architectures and analysis capabilities, we hope to increase the pace of innovation and lower risk.

Building on the Labs’ legacy

In his 1961 State of the Union address, President John F. Kennedy warned that “We must prevent the arms race from spreading to new nations, to new nuclear powers and to the reaches of outer space.” Fast forward nearly 60 years and the threats have expanded to include chemical, biological and cyber. A key pillar to preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction involves detection. Sandia’s involvement in detecting and monitoring atmospheric nuclear weapons tests dates back to the late 1950s. As Sandia seeks to expand the nation’s threat detection capabilities, whether from known entities or from as yet unknown rogue actors, we will be building on this legacy and Sandia’s deep knowledge base.