Dr. Thom Mason: America’s Security Depends On Its Scientific Superiority

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security got wind of a possible bomb threat: a terrorist planning to smuggle an explosives-packed toothpaste tube onto an airplane headed for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Within 24 hours, Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists in the Explosive Science and Shock Physics Division determined that the threat was credible. And judging by the hole their improvised toothpaste-tube bomb made in this blast plate (shown here actual size), it could have brought down an airliner. Photo Courtesy LANL

Los Alamos National Laboratory

Not every major strategic threat to our country will likely come on the tip of a nuclear warhead. How can we prepare for such unanticipated threats? By staying scientifically and technologically ahead of everyone else on as many fronts as possible.

Scientific and technological superiority has always been essential for success in a competitive, sometimes dangerous, world. That point was made in World War II by the impact of the Manhattan Project and the development of radar. It was also made by such historical efforts as the British Navy’s accurate measurement of longitude and, even further back, by the military and economic advantages of Iron Age civilizations over their Bronze Age or Stone Age rivals. Today, overwhelming scientific and engineering superiority gives us the advantage of being able to detect, analyze, and counter direct challenges, particularly unforeseen challenges, from adversaries taking advantage of new or emergent technologies.

This critical advantage—what author Richard Rhodes has called the deterrence of knowledge—depends on our nation committing to a long-term investment in science. Without that commitment, we risk abdicating our nation’s superior position to adversaries and exposing ourselves to new, unimagined attacks in the coming decades. Simply put, we need the deterrence of knowledge to prevent the next Pearl Harbor.

The notion of a deterrence of knowledge is built into nuclear stockpile stewardship, the program that ensures the safety, security, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear stockpile in the absence of nuclear explosive testing. Stockpile stewardship depends on advanced capabilities in nuclear science and technology, materials science (especially the study of materials in extreme conditions), and high-performance computing in the form of modeling, simulation, and data analysis.

These capabilities are found here in Los Alamos, as well as at the other NNSA laboratories, and those capabilities have sparked breakthroughs in areas as diverse as nuclear astrophysics, the behavior of fluids and materials, the inner workings of the human genome, and the mysterious mechanisms of high explosives.

Studies across such a panorama of scientific fields keep researchers sharp and ready for projects large or small, so we can respond with unique agility to new, unanticipated threats. For instance, when reports emerged about the possibility of a bomb in a toothpaste tube that could bring down an airliner, Los Alamos devised a prototype within a day, tested it, and came back with the answer: Yes, a toothpaste bomb was a legitimate threat. That information led to tighter airport security protocols limiting toothpaste tubes and other liquid containers to 3.4 ounces.

The NNSA laboratories have also developed sophisticated sensors for detecting nuclear detonations anywhere on the globe, devices for pinpointing any kind of bacterial infection, scanners for spotting nuclear material in closed shipping containers, and spectrometers for analyzing materials from a distance.

In the realm of computer security, Los Alamos has called on its expertise in physics and information science to create an unhackable communications device that exploits the strange properties of quantum mechanics. Our research in genomics has given us the tools to detect and potentially neutralize new biological threats, and our expertise in all things nuclear gives us the unique capability to trace any nuclear bomb and its materials back to their origin. That attribution capability could very well deter rogue states and even terrorists from detonating a weapon in the United States because the bad guys know we will find out who they are and come after them.

Our adversaries recognize that the United States has the scientific power to potentially nullify and counter their attacks. That’s the deterrence of knowledge in a nutshell. Only science can overcome the profound challenge of predicting how an attack might come, what technological form it might take, and how we could thwart it.

In decades past, the United States was such a dominant force economically and scientifically that we naturally captured benefits flowing from research across almost all fields. Today, a much larger share of scientific and economic activity happens outside our borders. Last year, nearly 80 percent of the submissions to the premier journals of the American Physical Society originated in other countries. In response to that trend, we must engage with developments elsewhere, as partners when appropriate but always as leaders.

As long as we have access to the most advanced science and technology, our collective knowledge is both the deterrent and, if an adversary crosses the line, the recourse. But that deterrence will be ours only as long as we maintain our lead in science. We must guard, nurture, and extend that lead with unwavering commitment. Then, no matter what threatens us, we will be up to the challenge.

Editor’s note: This analysis was initially published in the National Security Science Winter edition.