Research Brief

To meet the challenges of the Cold War, the United States built a large and expensive nuclear infrastructure that included unique skills and facilities. That infrastructure is widely dispersed, both geographically and bureaucratically. In the aftermath of the Cold War, nuclear weapons play a different role in the nation's security, and Congress has turned its attention to reducing the size and cost of the nuclear infrastructure. It recently focused on one element of that infrastructure, the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA), requesting RAND to conduct an independent examination of five options for accomplishing the functions of that agency. Options proposed were transferring DNA's functions to individual services and the Advanced Research Projects Agency; maintaining DNA as a separate agency but tailoring it to today's national security environment; transferring functions to Department of Energy weapon laboratories; combining any of these options; or reorganizing DNA to reduce its costs significantly.

RAND's National Defense Research Institute formed a study team in answer to the congressional request. The results of that examination appear in An Assessment of Defense Nuclear Agency Functions: Pathways Toward a New Nuclear Infrastructure for the Nation. Early in the study, it became clear that all the options for accomplishing DNA's functions had to be assessed in the broader context of the emerging national security environment and the overall nuclear infrastructure.

Nuclear Weapons and the National Security Environment

Although the future course of international events is uncertain at best, clearly nuclear weapons will not disappear. Those who have them will be unlikely to give them up, and those who want them will not abandon their attempts to acquire them. To define the national security environment for nuclear weapons, the study team examined a spectrum of future nuclear contexts, ranging from a relatively benign extreme of a few hundred nuclear weapons controlled by responsible states to a much more threatening possibility of thousands of weapons, some in irresponsible hands. The United States should expend every effort to achieve the benign extreme. However, it cannot gamble that it will be successful, nor can it afford to put itself at a nuclear disadvantage relative to any other country. Thus, the study team identified three continuing requirements:

  • Stewardship of the nuclear stockpile
  • A capability to understand and deal with the use of nuclear weapons
  • Pursuit of opportunities to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons.

DNA Assessment

Examination of DNA reveals it performs a variety of functions that can be grouped into four categories. The first three pertain to the three continuing needs identified by the study team: stockpile stewardship, understanding weapons' uses and effects, and threat-reduction activities. The fourth category relates to conventional defense technologies that use DNA's nuclear expertise. One of the alternatives Congress proposed for carrying out DNA's functions is to transfer the functions to individual services or other organizations in the Defense Department. The study team found no other single organization that could accomplish all DNA functions without incurring substantial risks in areas such as stockpile support. However, the team concluded that the risks would be manageable if the functions were distributed across the services, the Department of Energy, and other agencies. But that approach would exacerbate a trend toward fragmentation of the infrastructure. Increasing DNA's involvement in nonnuclear activities could dilute its focus on nuclear issues, but strong management could offset that potential. The final option, a leaner organization for DNA, seems feasible.

None of the options promise significant cost savings. The study team estimates that transferring functions might save at most between $10 and $20 million annually. DNA has already taken steps to reduce personnel and expenses over the next several years, and these actions will ultimately yield annual savings of $20 million.

The Larger Issue: A Fragmented Nuclear Infrastructure

DNA is only a small part of the nation's nuclear infrastructure (less than 10 percent in budgetary terms). Much larger are the Department of Energy nuclear research, development, and production activities scattered across the country and the stockpile-stewardship pursuits throughout the Departments of Energy and Defense. The interlinked nature of these activities underscores the importance of assessing DNA functions within this larger framework. The study team thinks the most important question is how to transform the nation's nuclear weapon infrastructure into a less expensive, more compact one that can still meet the continuing requirements of various future worlds.

Of major concern to the study team is the ongoing fragmentation of the infrastructure that is taking place within an atmosphere of declining budgets. Each organization is rethinking priorities and recasting budgets. Normal individual and organizational responses to the drawdown are shifting nuclear issues from uniformly high priority to relatively low priority at many if not all of these organizations. Drawdown reductions could cause the quantity and quality of the necessary expertise and resources to fall below critical levels. The United States cannot afford to lose nuclear core competencies in designing, producing, manufacturing, maintaining, and testing nuclear weapons, and in assessing the effects of nuclear weapons.

A fragmented infrastructure will not answer the needs of the new era for a number of reasons. First, across-the-board budget reductions pose the risk of some elements losing effectiveness. Second, one of the most demanding tasks of the future⁠—disposing of U.S. and former Soviet Union stockpiles—may demand a consolidated approach. And, finally, having such a consolidated approach would set a useful example as the United States urges other nuclear nations to maintain strong centralized control.

Consolidation as an Antidote to Fragmentation

Consolidating the disparate parts of the infrastructure is an obvious option to counter the effects of fragmentation. Gathering the people and functions essential for maintaining critical intellectual mass and ensuring management attention and authority could provide the type of organization needed to meet the continuing requirements of whatever future world evolves. The details of any consolidation would require further analysis.

The study team makes three recommendations:

  • First, the United States should decide how it wants to consolidate and stabilize the overall nuclear infrastructure, then decide what to do with DNA. This recommendation does not preclude incorporating selected nonnuclear activities into the infrastructure.
  • Second, in the near term, the Department of Defense should tighten its management of nuclear matters by consolidating all nuclear activities (stockpile support, nuclear-effects research, and threat-reduction activities) under one senior federal executive in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and within a single agency (or at most a small number of agencies) reporting to that executive.
  • Third, over the longer term, the United States should seriously consider, as a primary organizational option, consolidating within the Department of Defense all activities related to nuclear weapons. This approach would lead to a smaller but more enduring and robust nuclear infrastructure capable of meeting the needs of the nation into the twenty-first century.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.

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