The United States’ nuclear weapons complex is large and complicated. The agencies involved in varying aspects of nuclear weapons issues include the Departments of Energy, Defense, State, Commerce, and Homeland Security. The Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration is the principal U.S. Government agency responsible for the design, construction and maintenance of U.S. nuclear weapons. The Department of Energy was established by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 in response to the energy crisis affecting the country during his term in office. While many Americans identify nuclear weapons with the Department of Defense, the role of which will be discussed, the Department of Energy inherited responsibility for all nuclear energy related matters previously assigned to the Atomic Energy Commission established after World War II, which had been given responsibility for the vast infrastructure built during the war under the Manhattan Project, the country’s secret effort at developing atomic bombs, two of which were used against Japan in August 1945, effectively ending war in the Pacific. Today, the National Nuclear Security Administration oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons design facilities at Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, Savannah River, and a host of other national laboratories spread across the continental United States. These laboratories design and build prototype weapons, operate the nuclear reactors and reprocessing plants that generate the enriched uranium and plutonium used in nuclear weapons, and develop safety measures to prevent the weapons’ accidental detonation or deliberate detonation of a stolen weapon in the hand of terrorists or hostile foreign nations (e.g., “permissive action links” that are designed to prevent tampering with a nuclear weapon).
The next federal agency responsible for nuclear weapons is the Department of Defense, which, of course, oversees the nation’s armed forces, including those military units trained to operate nuclear weapons and their “delivery vehicles” (i.e., the missiles, bombers and submarines that are used to “deliver” the weapons to their intended targets). Within the Department of Defense are a series of unified commands, including U.S. Strategic Command, based in Omaha, Nebraska, which is responsible for coordinating the use of each branch of the armed forces’ nuclear weaponry. During the Cold War, and for both legitimate military and less legitimate bureaucratic reasons, the United States developed what is called the “Triad,” the nuclear forces unique to each branch of the military. The Navy’s ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs, or “boomers”) and the Air Force’s land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and manned bombers (B-52s, B-1s and B-2s) comprise the Triad, the theory for which is predicated upon the notion of synergy wherein the difficulties inherent in planning an attack on each “leg” of the nuclear triad ensured their security against any such coordinated attack. In other words, an adversary – the former Soviet Union – would not be able to cripple the U.S. ability to retaliate for a nuclear attack by the USSR because of the diversity of our means of delivering nuclear weapons to their targets. The Soviets, as the theory went, could knock out our land-based missiles, and shoot down some of our bombers, but could never get all of them, and couldn’t target our ballistic missile submarines because of the opacity of the oceans and the development of highly sophisticated means of communicating with those submarines while they remained submerged and hidden from view.
The U.S. Army, while not possessed of “strategic,” or long-range nuclear weapons, was armed with thousands of “tactical,” or short-range nuclear weapons, including on missiles, mortars, and in so-called “backpacks” that were small enough to literally be transported in a backpack and be used for blowing up mountain passes to block the advance of Soviet armored divisions, and for other purposes.
Within the Office of the Secretary of Defense – the civilian Department of Defense officials who oversee the uniformed military – are a number offices and agencies that deal with nuclear weapons issues from varying perspectives, including the Missile Defense Agency, the mission of which is the development of technologies for shooting down incoming nuclear missiles fired by hostile governments, the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy, which is involved in drafting policies guiding the use of nuclear weapons as well as in negotiating nuclear arms control agreements with foreign governments. The principal official for day-to-day responsibility within the Office of the Secretary of Defense is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Missile and Defense Policy, a relatively new designation, as different presidential administrations change the organizational structure to suit their needs and priorities.
The Department of State, as the official diplomatic arm of the United States, is responsible for the negotiation of nuclear arms control agreements, during which it works closely, if not always amicably, with the aforementioned Defense Department and military officials. Within the Department of State is the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, which has day-to-day responsibility for the negotiation of agreements limiting or banning certain types of weaponry. The issue of nuclear weapons encompasses the broader problem of limiting the spread of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear weapon countries that aspire to attain that capability. Known as “nonproliferation,” this division within the State Department works with other federal agencies and with friendly foreign governments to fight the spread of nuclear technologies to countries like Pakistan and Iran, the former having defeated those efforts and currently possessed of a number of nuclear weapons, primarily aimed at its historic foe India, which similarly maintains a robust nuclear weapons infrastructure aimed primarily at Pakistan (with an eye on China).
The Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security, overseen by an Under Secretary of Commerce for Industry and Security, an Assistant Secretary for Export Administration, and an Assistant Secretary for Export Enforcement, also has a role in the nuclear weapons field, primarily in terms of licensing exports by U.S. companies seeking to ship goods to certain foreign destinations that have legitimate commercial applications, but which also have military uses. Many such items involve nuclear weapons technologies. Certain types of metals and electronic devices that can be used for seemingly benign purposes can also be used in the manufacture of nuclear warheads and ballistic and cruise missiles used to deliver those warheads to their targets. It is the responsibility of the Commerce Department to examine all applications submitted by American companies to export sensitive items and either accept or reject those applications. It does not do this alone, as the Departments of Energy, Defense and State all play a role in that process as well, but Commerce is the lead agency and final arbiter.
The relatively new Department of Homeland Security, established in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, includes a number of subordinate agencies that are involved in one way or another in nuclear weapons issues, including Customs and Border Protection, which monitors incoming travelers and cargo – very important for guarding against the smuggling into the United States of a nuclear weapon by terrorists – and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is responsible for coordinating U.S. Government responses to disasters, including the detonation of nuclear weapons on U.S. soil. The responsibility of monitoring the nation’s borders for evidence of nuclear smuggling (as well as the smuggling of biological and chemical weapons) intended to harm Americans cannot be overemphasized. The United States has long maritime and land borders, and millions of large cargo containers cross those borders every year. The Department of Homeland Security oversees the development of technologies designed to detect the presence of nuclear materials at the nation’s ports – a daunting task given the amount of maritime traffic coming and going every day.
The U.S. Intelligence Community is responsible for gathering and analyzing information on foreign nuclear weapons programs, as well as on efforts by terrorist organizations to develop, steal or buy nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. As noted, nonproliferation of nuclear weapons is one of the government’s most important and difficult national security objectives. Monitoring Iranian, Pakistani, Israeli, Indian, and Chinese nuclear weapons programs, as well as the nuclear energy industries of other countries, is a full-time task. The imperative of providing timely warnings of developing threats involving weapons of mass destruction, however, is paramount, and many agencies within the intelligence community contribute to this mission.
Finally, the National Security Council within the Executive Office of the President, overseen by the president’s Advisor for National Security Affairs, coordinates efforts among federal agencies – or tries to, anyway – to limit the spread of nuclear weapons and to develop negotiating positions for the country’s senior diplomats involved in arms control talks. NSC officials, particularly the Senior Directors for Nonproliferation and Export Controls and for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Threat Reduction are heavily involved in establishing U.S. policy for these areas, for attempting to coordinate interagency activities, and for advising the president, through the person of the National Security Advisor, on options and recommendations.