Nuclear Deterrence strategy responds to a changing world

By Michael J. Baker

Photography By Lonnie Anderson

Thursday, October 10, 2019

All-hands meeting lauds accomplishments but keeps the vision looking ahead

Steve Girrens
POINTING FORWARD — Associate Labs Director and Chief Engineer for Nuclear Weapons Steve Girrens addresses a full Steve Schiff Auditorium on Sept. 26 during the Nuclear Deterrence all-hands meeting, “2020 and Beyond.”

A reflection on past successes and a look at future challenges in a changing geopolitical world were highlighted at Sandia’s Sept. 26 Nuclear Deterrence all-hands meeting, “2020 and Beyond.”

“The ND portfolio scope of work is enormous, and sometimes we’re so busy we forget to take time to recognize or realize the really great place we work,” Associate Labs Director and Chief Engineer for Nuclear Weapons Steve Girrens said about the reason for the all-hands.

Steve and other Sandia leaders in Nuclear Deterrence touched on accomplishments, the division’s reorganization and the evolving stockpile stewardship mission of the Labs during the hour-long meeting at a full Steve Schiff Auditorium. More than 500 others watched online.

Accomplishments and challenges

“We’re here to celebrate a little bit,” Steve said, noting numerous group and individual accomplishments, including, among many others, the high number of first production units across all weapons systems; multiple test flights at Tonopah Test Range in Nevada; and the successful High Operational Tempo Sounding Rocket Program, or HOT SHOT, campaign in August.

Steve also discussed overcoming challenges, including heightening safety and security vigilance, the need for increased communication among Sandia and National Security Enterprise partners and the largest most complex nuclear weapons design, development and qualification workload in more than 30 years.

“Great work isn’t great if there’s not challenges,” Steve said. “But, given the challenges, we’re delivering on the priorities outlined.” 

Steve thanked Kent Meeks, program director for Sandia’s Nuclear Deterrence portfolio, who is retiring after 33 years of national service, and introduced two new directors and a new center.

Brad Boswell is the new director of the realigned Nuclear Deterrence Program Management Center, and Ernie Wilson is the director of the new Office of the Chief Engineer.

“The reason for this change is, in my mind, pretty straight forward,” Steve said. “The programmatic, operational and technical duties in (Nuclear Deterrence) just continue to increase, and (we) don’t see an end to it in the foreseeable future.”

Ernie’s group will focus on technical integration, and Brad’s group will focus on programmatic portfolio management.

Before detailing how the Program Management Office will work to seamlessly integrate the Nuclear Deterrence program, Brad joked a bit about Kent’s plans for retirement:

“I am jealous of the time he gets to spend at Disneyland, so my goal is to make the program office into a Disney-like experience,” he said to an amused crowd.

Rethinking how to care for the stockpile

Colin Smithpeter, a senior manager for Advanced Systems and Surety, described the opportunity to provide input to NNSA to explore how the nation thinks of stockpile stewardship, a program developed in the mid-1990s with a goal to preserve nuclear weapons systems in the absence of underground testing. 

“As witnessed by the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, times are changing,” Colin said. “Our adversaries are actively developing both new offensive and defensive systems, and it has now reached the point where we can no longer just rely on the weapons systems we have today.”

The Labs has a chance to contribute to a new stockpile stewardship vision that includes better integration of design development and production capabilities throughout the nuclear weapons enterprise.

“In the future, we may need new capabilities,” Colin said. “We may need them on the timeframes of months and years instead of years to decades. So how do we accomplish that in the coming decades to better respond to national security needs?”

Innovative approaches are needed in attracting and training a new workforce, ensuring we have the facilities that meet future needs and improving work efficiency to sustain national security, he said.

Discovery Science and initiatives such as Laboratory Directed Research and Development campaigns will play a part, as will changing the paradigm for advanced system technology readiness, Colin said. A big part will also be accelerating Sandia’s development cycle, such as has been done with the HOT SHOT program.

Ending with a HOT SHOT

Olga Spahn, manager of Advanced and Exploratory Systems, spoke about the agile technology maturation platform to accelerate development cycles from 15 years to three to five years.

HOT SHOT’s third campaign occurred with two rocket launches on Aug. 28 at the Kauai Test Facility in Hawaii. The two payloads were launched 90 minutes apart, 99.8% of data packets from the flights have been received and analysis is ongoing, Olga said.

“This is a fabulous program for training a workforce to respond quickly,” she said. “Our payloads get integrated over months, not years.”

The complete all-hands meeting videostream is available internally on the Corporate Streaming Library.