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Imaginary Weapons

Posted on Nov 16, 2007
Pentagon building

James Harris and Josh Scheer

(Page 3)

Weinberger: You’re right.  In fact, you remember there was the huge coverage of security violations at the Los Alamos lab in New Mexico, and the contract was put up for competition, and there was a Lockheed-led team against a University of California team.  One of the arguments is essentially what you ...

Scheer: Hold on. 

Weinberger: ... said.

Scheer: But also to clarify on that one contract that Bechtel was also with the University of California—.


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Weinberger: Exactly.  Yes.

Scheer: So they bet up a little bit.

Weinberger: Right.  It’s not that either side was devoid of a defense contractor element.  And ultimately the University of California, that’s [unintelligible] the defense contractor.  But regardless.  The issue is—.  There’s two different issues: what’s best for perhaps the universities and what’s best for the laboratories.  At some point the University of California system may decide that they don’t want to run the laboratory, and that’s their choice.  I think there’s a strong argument to be made that while their efficiencies and perhaps some advantages of having a traditional defense company to run the labs, the nuclear weapons enterprise is important enough that you want to make sure you have the highest level of scientific debate, of scientific expertise.  Then, again, Lockheed has run Sandia with an excellent record over the years.  So it’s not a debate that’s easy for you to decide.  As I said, I fall down on the side that—I think there’s a strong argument to be made that scientific credibility is best preserved under a university-led contract.  Is that a 100 percent correct now and in the future?  I don’t know.

Scheer: I understand your point, but I go with the scientist—with debate and science.  We see with, like Albert Einstein—.  You have these people, they think about science in scientific terms; they don’t think of the humanities.  And then, years later, after these terrible things have been invented.  They think about, “Oh, God, we shouldn’t have built that.”  And I know you know more scientists than I do, but I know a few physicists, and their dream—and these people were not militant people—but their dream was to work for Raytheon, their dream was to work for Bechtel, work for these kinds of companies, Lockheed, to design weapons systems.  And they never thought—even with the good scientific debate. ...  They were great physicists, but they’d never debated, “Oh, God, maybe I’m creating something that’s going to kill thousands of people.”

Weinberger: It’s a personal issue.  I think there are certainly scientists who, if you look at some of the Manhattan Project veterans who have given interviews, a lot of them were—they were very focused on the task at hand.  I certainly think there was a lot of debate among scientists after the war [World War II].  And that’s why, in fact, you have things like the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Federation of American Scientists, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.  You had scientists who did not want to work on nuclear weapons.  You have had scientists who have left the laboratories.  But I think that goes back to the basic question.  I’m not saying—I’m not an advocate for the universities controlling the weapons laboratories, and in fact their legacy and record of controlling laboratories, of managing laboratories, have been mixed at best.  But I guess I would raise the question of—.  You want precisely what you talked about.  You want scientists to question the things they’re working on, the science of it and perhaps also the morality of it.  And so I guess I would raise the question of what sort of atmosphere is better going to promote that debate.  Is it going to be a defense company running a laboratory or is it going to be a university running a laboratory?  And as I said, right now, in the here and now, I think that perhaps university management promotes that debate.  I’m certainly open to changing my mind on that, depending on what happens.  And I think one of the unfortunate things of the re-compete, is that, as you pointed out, it was a University of California-Bechtel team ...

Scheer: Yeah.

Weinberger: ... and it’s now being run as an LLC, so it’s not really a university—it’s not a university alone running the labs anymore.

Scheer: I want to talk about—.  I know you wrote, obviously, this book, but you also write for the Danger Room, Wired’s blog ...

Weinberger: Right.

Scheer: ... military blog.  And you do a pretty good job there.  And I want to know: what kind of ideas—I know you wrote recently about the Air Force bomber.  “Will it fly in 2018?” [subscription required]  is one of your pieces, and a few other ones.  What are the big ideas?  What are—the next 20 years, scientific—DARPA’s putting money into now to try and get out there? What are the big ideas?  What are we going to spend our money on and what are we going to be seeing?

Weinberger: I think because they’re so costly, we’re still going to see a lot of funding going into major weapons systems.  That means fighters.  That means this bomber if indeed it goes forward.  Satellite systems, intelligent satellites are extremely costly.  We’re seeing a lot more money going into that.  If you want to talk about—it’s not as much money but an interesting focus that the Pentagon is looking at as well as other agencies.  There’s this concept of the human terrain, this idea that perhaps we can develop science and technology to better understand the human problem.  We’re not talking billions of dollars, but we are talking perhaps in the hundreds of millions of dollars, which is everything from software to understand what are the ethnographic and anthropological problems in some of these countries, to mathematical programs that can try to predict who is going to join a terrorist insurgency or who is going to become a counterinsurgent.  And it’s this idea that if only we have enough information about all of the people who are potential adversaries, that we can pinpoint the terrorists among us or the terrorists among them.  I think some of this work is interesting.  I think some of it is far-fetched.

Scheer: [There is] a Web site that’s really doing a hatchet job —right?—against your book, and on Amazon you have a mixed review of five stars to one star.

Weinberger: Oh yeah.

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By purplewolf, December 7, 2007 at 11:41 am Link to this comment

The United States spends more money per year on the war machine than all of the other countries on the earth combined. Just think how much good all that wasted money and effort on the wars and weapons could actually do to solving the problems the whole world faces. If even 1 percent of that was put to a positive use rather than what it now is the difference would be obvious. Sounds like the shades of paranoia have run out of control and have made the whole world the enemy of the United States

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By SteveL, December 6, 2007 at 2:34 pm Link to this comment

What other countries are wasting their money on these kind of things?  Note that even Iran does weapons programs on a cost/benefit basis.

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By purplewolf, December 5, 2007 at 12:55 pm Link to this comment

Imaginary weapons must now be paid for with imaginary money!

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By nils cognizant, November 24, 2007 at 4:04 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think people are afraid to comment on these dark programs. The project designers might want to raise their sights, though. There are cheap strategic advantages which can be gained through employment of technologies meant to bring contentment to unstable populations. One example I’ve dreamed up is a small, cheap 10-inch laptop computer operating off Linux and loaded with specialized modules: alternative farming for profit, high-production fishfarming strategies for areas requiring coral-reef protection, etc. The specialized modules will include video instructional lectures in the local language and will be aware of resources which are available locally.

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By rodney, November 22, 2007 at 12:31 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s nothing but a bunch of drunkin cowboys sitting around thinking of new and better ways to kill and destroy society as if they haven’t already discovered enough ways. Just another way to steal and loot our taxpayers dollars without accountability. If we spent the money we spend on education instead killing and incarcerating,then maybe we would have to kill and incarcerate. Oh I totally forgot about imperealism,capitalism,colonialism,greed,power,and control.

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By Douglas Chalmers, November 20, 2007 at 6:01 am Link to this comment

Isomers? Sounds like some kind of hairspray, ha ha. Oh, you mean the “Hafnium bomb” ......well, that’s different!

But isn’t it amazing how what can be described as “devastating” in another country’s hands is blithely seen as “useful” if it is developed by the USA?!?!

And the mad scientists are demanding to do whatever they wish by making excuses about a free country while the critics are trying to “fight the science in the press because they don’t like the politics”.......

Quote: “Hafnium could be used to build a more powerful bomb or, more to the point of what the military was looking for, a small bomb with a huge bang, the believers argued. And even better, building a weapon using hafnium wouldn’t violate internationally negotiated restrictions on testing nuclear weapons or congressional limits on developing new nuclear weapons. Because it wouldn’t involve splitting atoms, a hafnium bomb would be a totally new class of weapon…....

“It sure would make a great dirty bomb.”.......

A hafnium bomb, even if it didn’t leave radioactive fallout, still wouldn’t be like an ordinary bomb because, along with an explosive force, it would emit intense, penetrating gamma rays. According to Hill Roberts, a scientist at SRS Technologies in Huntsville, Ala., a gamma-ray bomb is appealing to some because gamma rays can pass through solid material and penetrate living tissue. Theoretically, an energetic gamma-ray burst could penetrate bunkers, killing whatever was inside—be it humans or anthrax stockpiles. Putting it more bluntly, he said, “Tissue turns to goo.”.......

Hafnium bombs could be loaded in artillery shells, according to a copy of the briefing slides, or they could be used in the Pentagon’s missile defense systems to knock incoming ballistic missiles out of the air. He encapsulated his vision of the program in a startling PowerPoint slide: a small hafnium hand grenade with a pullout ring and a caption that read, “Miniature bomb. Explosive yield, 2 KT [kilotons]. Size, 5-inch diameter.” That would be an explosion about one-seventh the power of the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima in 1945…...”

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