The National Defense Authorization Act of 2019 directed the Secretary of Energy, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Homeland Security, to commission a study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies) of the U.S. government’s nuclear forensics capabilities. Nuclear forensics is the analysis of nuclear materials, devices, emissions, and signals to determine the origin and history of those nuclear materials and devices. The mandate revisits a 2010 National Academies report, Nuclear Forensics: A Capability at Risk, which characterized the precarious state of the national technical nuclear forensics (NTNF) program at that time: NTNF relied almost entirely on staff dedicated to and residual funding from other related programs. The current study committee found evidence that the agencies responsible for NTNF acted on many of the 2010 report’s recommendations, and although the program never reached the strong, sustainable state sought by the National Academies and the agencies in 2010, it did improve substantially until the end of 2016.
In 2017 and 2018, based in part on changing Presidential and agency leadership priorities, the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency within the Department of Defense reduced NTNF funding. In response, NTNF personnel sought ways to maintain capabilities and chart a path toward a stronger program.
The study committee developed findings and recommendations to provide a road map for improvement through strategic planning, assessments, gap analysis, priority setting, and appropriate funding; a subset of the findings and recommendations are highlighted below (numbered to match their numbering in the report). The U.S. government is already taking some of these steps. If all of these steps are implemented, the committee believes that the NTNF program will be on the right path.
FINDING A.1: A robust U.S. NTNF capability is an important element of deterring, preventing, and responding to an unclaimed nuclear attack or smuggling incident, much as the nuclear weapons enterprise deters overt nuclear attacks and offers response options if deterrence fails.
FINDING A.3: U.S. NTNF capabilities have advanced since 2010 and received increased funding until 2016. Without sufficient and consistent leadership, support, and priority by the White House, NTNF agencies, and Congress, U.S. NTNF capabilities will atrophy.
RECOMMENDATION A.2: To support nuclear deterrence through a robust attribution capability, the NTNF program must be sustainable. The Executive Office of the President should issue a policy memorandum or policy directive elevating the importance of NTNF within the national security enterprise, stating that the mission of the program is both national and global, driving the need to detect, analyze, and support the attribution of nuclear events domestically and worldwide. Following the issuance, the National Security Council should direct, coordinate, and oversee actions to demonstrate commitment commensurate to that importance.
The guidance offered by National Security Presidential Memorandum 35, “National Technical Nuclear Forensics” (NSPM-35), is a good start, and if leaders agree that a robust NTNF program is an important element of deterrence and prevention of nuclear incidents, then more must be done to support, sustain, and advance the program. The committee does not have a specific estimate for the appropriate size of the program—that should come from the process that is recommended below and detailed in the summary of the report that follows—but it is certainly larger than it is now.
RECOMMENDATION A.3: In its annual report to Congress, the NTNF program should provide a description of the steps needed to make the program more effective and sustainable.
WAYS TO IMPROVE NTNF AND A VISION FOR ITS FUTURE
To be effective, the NTNF program needs a clearly articulated mission that flows through the program, guiding decisions and funding, with regular assessments to identify improvements needed to fulfill the mission. A mission-driven approach that sustains coordination, cooperation, focus, and commitment is especially important for NTNF because no single department can accomplish the NTNF mission alone. The Executive Office of the President, federal agencies, namely the National Nuclear Security Administration within the Department of Energy, the departments of Homeland Security, Defense, Justice, and State, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the intelligence community, and Congress should take the steps listed in the following recommendations (elaborated in the body of the public summary report) on interagency functionality, vision and goals, assessment, implementation, and operational capability:
- Interagency functionality (RECOMMENDATION B.1): Coordinate development of the goals, assessments, implementation, and capabilities, and promote interagency cooperation and functionality at all levels within the relevant organizations. An effective interagency function will have clear lines of responsibility and authority and will hold entities accountable for those responsibilities. The program should persistently seek improvement and synergies with other programs.
- Vision and goals (RECOMMENDATION C.1): Issue a coordinated, consistent high-level requirements document for the NTNF program covering the elements of a capable, reliable, sustainable, and improving program, taking into account its interfaces with the attribution process and the other programs that feed into it. The requirements should derive from both minimum needs and goals for the capabilities of the program, agreed to at the highest level of the interagency structure.
- Biennial assessment (RECOMMENDATION D.1): Conduct realistic evaluations of the capabilities, gaps, and opportunities for improvement of the program not less frequently than every two years, resulting in an assessment letter or letters from the heads of the implementing organizations to leadership in the agencies responsible and accountable for the mission, to the Executive Office of the President, and to Congress to drive an iterative process of revision for improvement. In years when full assessments are not provided, a brief update on changes in the program should be included in the annual report to Congress.
- Implementation (RECOMMENDATION E.1): Based on the requirements and the biennial assessments, issue an interagency implementation plan. For their own organizations, the agencies should also issue plans that are consistent with and support the interagency plan. These plans should all derive from the same goals, requirements, and assessments; be consistent with each other; and be updated as necessary based on the results of the biennial assessments.
- Operational capability (RECOMMENDATION F.1): Strengthen an operational NTNF capability based on clear requirements, including the requirement to improve. This requires improved data sharing, mission-driven routine work, exercises and evaluation, sampling, research and development, quality assurance and control and uncertainty characterization, as well as more sustainable human resources and infrastructure. Improvements in these areas, guided by the organization, assessment, and implementation processes detailed above, will reduce timelines, improve accuracy, and ensure that the U.S. NTNF program can respond when needed.
The following summary report addresses the current state of U.S. NTNF capabilities relative to the National Academies evaluation in 2010 and recommends ways to improve the NTNF program through improvements in policy, operations, and research and development efforts, and provides a vision for NTNF’s future. A more unified vision, more reliable support, and a more effective and coordinated NTNF program must be restored and improved to serve this critical deterrent and attribution-support mission.
This page intentionally left blank.