LANL Director Thom Mason/Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Thom Mason spoke at length to attendees at a LANL community engagement event Wednesday at the Ohkay Hotel & Casino in Espanola of the Lab’s role and how it contributes to current world events.
“Our missions are important now probably as they have ever been. We’re growing and we’re really pleased to enjoy the interest and support of all of you in the room right now because that’s an essential part of,” Mason said. “I’ll start by putting the Lab into context because I think sometimes it’s hard for us who are very deep in what we’re doing and busy with our lives to step back and ask what is the role of Los Alamos National Lab and how does it contribute to the events going on around the world, which quite frankly are perplexing, I think – challenging some of the assumptions that we’ve held about how countries behave and how they interact, and probably unfortunately reminding us that there are present national security threats and deterrence is important.”
He mentioned a speech given by President Putin Tuesday and said President would be speaking at the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday where he would partly be responding to Putin’s speech. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSAfggtOXxk)
The Lab in various different ways, because of work it has done in the past and work being done right now, is actually quite relevant to what’s happening in Ukraine, he noted.
“There are a couple of different ways that Los Alamos and the other labs play into this. Probably the one that’s maybe front line this morning given Putin’s remarks last night is the nuclear deterrent and what role the deterrent plays in this type of conflict,” Mason said. “In fact some people might say does this mean nuclear deterrence has failed because Russia invaded Ukraine. I think the answer to that is actually no because nuclear deterrence was not on the table as part of that.”
He said the U.S is not treaty-bound to come to Ukraine’s defense and that the President was very explicit that the U.S. and its NATO allies were not going to directly militarily intervene in Ukraine.
“And when you say the U.S. and NATO military allies are not going to directly militarily intervene in Ukraine, it actually means from the U.S. point of view, the nuclear deterrent was not on the table in terms of preventing Russia from invading; what was on the table was the threat of crippling sanctions and support for the Ukrainians. Now the Russians may have underestimated the resolve associated with those sanctions and the support for the Ukrainians but that was what did not deter the Russians from invading Ukraine. They discounted the sanctions and they thought the Ukrainians would be easily defeated,” Mason said.
He went on to explain where the deterrent is relevant.
“First off the Russians can be threatening including last night in terms of the action they’re willing to take. In an effort to deter the U.S. and NATO allies from intervening directly, our actions have been restraining, actually, probably in part because of that risk be in a position for global conflict. There’s an element of deterrence in restraining our actions, Equally important where the deterrent does come into play is when President Biden says, ‘Not one inch of NATO territory”, because we are, under the terms of the NATO Treaty bound to come to the defense of our legal allies in the Baltic States. So when the President says, ‘Not one inch of NATO territory’, to Putin, implicit in that is that would trigger the potential for a direct response.”
Mason said Russia has been restraining by that deterrent.
“There have been threats that have been made saying, ‘Well, If you’re shipping weapons to Ukrainians, that supply chain going through Poland or other NATO countries is a legitimate target’. They have not followed through on those threats. The reason they are not following through on those threats is they know such action would trigger a direct response. If you want to sum that up, the goal that deterrence is playing in the Ukrainian conflict right now is as part of an effort to contain that conflict, to have it not spill beyond as tragic as it is in Ukraine. If it moves beyond Ukraine we know what that looks like,” he said.
He said that’s what happened in 1939 when Nazi Germany, followed by the Soviet Union two weeks later, invaded Poland; that conflict spread to all of Europe and eventually the entire world.
“You saw what happened when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and a conflict that started in one part of Europe spread to the entire continent and then to the entire world. The role of deterrence is to impose restraint and limit the conflict. It’s a scary time. We don’t know if that will be successful but to this point, the conflict has been limited to the Ukrainian battlefield. It’s tragic, it needs to end but it would be even worse if there was not that restraint. That deterrent is a valid consideration in the minds of our adversaries because of work that has been done in Los Alamos over many, many years,” Mason said.
He said that’s the first way the Lab has a role and that a significant element of LANL’s mission is ensuring that the deterrent is safe, secure, reliable and most importantly made credible.
“But there’s more than that. We also do a lot of work in non-proliferation and as part of that have worked for many years in the countries of the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact to secure nuclear sites and install the installation. So when Russians moved into the Chernobyl Site, or the Zaporizhzhra Reactor Site, there are sensors that give the U.S. government and our partners and allies, real-time information about what’s going on – has there been any release. As important as those sensor networks that Los Alamos and other NNSA labs have installed is the fact that we have worked with people in Ukraine so when something happens like the shelling of the Physics Institute in Karkiev….. So that nonproliferation part of our mission is what’s giving decision-makers today real-time information on devolving scary situations like what’s going on in Zaporizhzhra at the power plant.”
The third element he said is if you ask why the threat that the U.S. would impose sanctions and arm the Ukrainians did not restrain Putin.
“The reason was he felt he could ride it out because he thought he had a trump card in European energy supplies and the dependence of many European economies on Russian oil and natural gas. He felt because of the potential to cripple the economies of major countries like Germany, that would fracture the resolve amongst the European and NATO countries that would prevent them from imposing real sanctions and prevent them from arming the Ukrainians because of the ability to turn off the tap on oil and natural gas,” Mason said.
He noted that the Lab’s energy work is also important.
“The work we do in grid and renewable energy as part of the broader Department of Energy mission and so finding alternatives to the supply chain-constrained carbon-emitting technologies that all these countries are highly dependent on is an important part of the work we do at Los Alamos,” Mason said.
He said the final element is, as acute as the conflict in Ukraine is and the blind behavior of Russia, the other big geo-political challenge to the U.S. really comes from China.
“And that’s different, that’s not an active military conflict, there are military dimensions to the competition but it is equally and perhaps more so a competition of economics and technology. And in that technological economic competition with China, it’s things like our national labs and our research universities and our innovative private sector developing new technologies that are part of that infrastructure that ensures that not only does the U.S. have military deterrents but we have economic and technological prominence to compete on the global stage,” Mason said. “All of that is the main reason for why the Lab right now is as important as it has ever been and why we are enjoying pretty strong bipartisan support for our missions and the funding that goes with that with the growth that flows from that funding, which is actually our challenge ahead,”