Early in the morning, a young Connecticut boy slings a bag of newspapers across his body and hops on his bike to deliver the news to his neighbors. As he pulls out each rubber-banded roll, words catch his eye: “Cold War,” “bomb,” “fusion.” He often unrolls the papers to learn more, and by middle school knows he wants a doctorate in particle physics or nuclear fusion. It’s the science that intrigues him. He chooses nuclear fusion in college, and while U.S. President Ronald Reagan talks of “star wars” on television, he studies.
Today, that young man has become a preeminent nuclear weapons and defense diplomacy expert, often called upon by national leaders to research, analyze and present new ideas to help them manage the demands of 21st century defense. He is Dr. Christopher Yeaw, NSRI’s new research director for nuclear programs, a position he has held since 2018 in addition to other prestigious roles he fulfills throughout the U.S. nuclear enterprise. Dr. Yeaw was hired to lead NSRI’s contingent of nuclear researchers through the evolving missions of its sponsor U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) and other defense stakeholders.
The Modernization of Nuclear Deterrence
U.S. defense efforts in many ways broadened after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Cold War ended, and while foundational nuclear capabilities remained, the nation’s defenders turned their attention to terrorism and counterterrorism, with multiple expanding domains ranging from chemical and biological threats to electromagnetic security and evolving cyber and space threats.
Nuclear weapons again became a leading defense priority with the advancing nuclear capabilities not only of the U.S.’s traditional great power adversary, Russia, but of smaller competitors such as India, Pakistan and Iran, as well as an emerging third great power: China. In this multipolar threat environment, the U.S. government intensified its focus on nuclear deterrence and nuclear command, control and communication (NC3) at a level not seen in the decades since the last nuclear weapons were tested.
To support the government’s ability to lead the U.S. interagency and the worldwide diplomatic community in nuclear areas of national and global security, USSTRATCOM and the government called upon NSRI to expand and deepen its access to technical, analytic and policy expertise in this field. During the two years covered by this report, the institute’s service to American defense has been driven by this intensified focus and the ensuing needs of NSRI’s sponsor and the U.S. Department of Defense.
Anticipating and Responding to Evolving Threats
As a research arm of the University of Nebraska (NU) and in partnership with its University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) sponsor USSTRATCOM, NSRI since its inception in 2012 has mustered a critical mass of the nation’s intellectual capital on nuclear deterrence, defense and diplomacy. In the evolving nuclear environment, these scientists, policy scholars and strategists – including a contingent of brilliant and talented students – are helping advance solutions to the challenges of nonproliferation, nuclear counterterrorism, detection of nuclear materials, consequence management and medical countermeasures, as well as diplomacy, treaty analysis and arms control to reduce nuclear risk.
Some of NSRI’s notable developments during this reporting period are the hiring of Dr. Yeaw, commissioning of the Strategic Mission Systems Directorate and promotion of Lt. Col. (Ret.) Dr. James Taylor, to lead the new directorate. This dual emphasis represents a balance needed between diplomacy and technology to ensure the success of the nuclear enterprise.
Dr. Christopher Yeaw became the institute’s research director for nuclear programs in September 2018. He brings a rich background of scholarship, innovation and collaboration with top researchers and senior officials at the highest levels of the U.S. government, including USSTRATCOM. This broad directorial role encompasses activities such as extremely time sensitive research on future arms control options, nuclear weapons research, intelligence and threat assessment, policy planning, decision-support, wargaming and red teaming plans.
“You can’t put a price on [Dr. Yeaw’s] ability to be concise and clear with very high-level officials. Though this might sound like an overstatement, it isn’t … his work for us directly advances the peace and security of the United States, our Allies and the world.”
— Senior Government Official
Strategic Mission Systems Directorate was established in spring 2019 to unite efforts to support USSTRATCOM’s mission. The new directorate is led by Dr. Taylor through research task order development and execution. Dr. Taylor previously served as a university research coordinator and 20-year USAF officer in developmental engineering. He worked on projects in air defense modeling, space nuclear power, airborne laser flight-testing, low observable technology development, information warfare research, aircraft survivability, wargaming and leadership development.
To further align NSRI resources and services in support of USSTRATCOM and 21st Century deterrence and defense needs, in this reporting period the institute convened an interdisciplinary research team that is harnessing the intellectual capacity of the University of Nebraska to benefit and support the future nuclear command, control and communications (NC3) capabilities of USSTRATCOM. The team’s goal is to collect modeling and simulation capabilities and expertise within the NU system, then identify and fill gaps.Learn More
Tangible Steps Toward 21st Century Deterrence Solutions
Technical, Analytic and Policy Support
Through a series of research efforts and strategic intelligence projects led by Dr. Yeaw, NSRI is bringing to bear expertise from NU, U.S. academia and the wider nonprofit and NGO community to provide the U.S. Department of State with extremely time-sensitive research on future arms control options: treaty architectures, core principles, national security implications, new technologies supporting treaty verification, and foreign nuclear threat and treaty compliance assessments. It is in this capacity that Dr. Yeaw served as special advisor to the head of delegation at the bilateral working group on warheads and doctrine in Vienna, Austria, during the summer of 2020. Dr. Yeaw and the NSRI team of experts continue to provide real-time, extensive support to these ongoing diplomatic negotiations.
Nuclear Certification Program Enhancements
NSRI recently convened an interdisciplinary team of nuclear enterprise and software engineering experts to examine complex issues surrounding the need to efficiently and effectively certify nuclear weapons and weapon systems and ensure their readiness. The project identified areas where streamlining could occur, including leveraging broad commercial software engineering practices where appropriate to enable innovation. The nuclear certification project team was led by Dr. Taylor and supported by Dr. Matthew Hale, assistant professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Informatics at UNO. The elite cohort of experts on this team examined DOD-level guidance and directives, hypothesized conditions that might keep systems from being delivered to the warfighter on time, then presented their findings and recommendations to senior DOD leadership.
Tabletop Wargames for Escalation Dynamics
NSRI researchers, NU faculty and staff have become adept at turning ideas into plans and then testing those plans through wargames. This academic-focused exploration of wargaming as a strategic tool and learning tool helps participants test creative theories about complex, real-world problems.
A new series of novel tabletop wargames originally developed for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency helps military leaders and personnel explore nuclear escalation dynamics in the context of limited nuclear conflict. Agency participants included Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) Director Val Oxford. The experience helps strengthen the capability of DTRA to support national leaders and warfighters as they deter adversaries.
Oxford referenced this work in his 11 February 2020 testimony to the Congressional Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities: “We’ve used the [National Strategic Research Institute] in Omaha to attract future talent. We fund some of the research out there. We’ve also used some of the staff expertise within the [institute] to help us start to wargame some of the advanced threats. For example, we just ran a limited nuclear wargame within the agency to find out what challenges we may have confronting, for example, Russian use of nuclear weapons.”
International Security Implications Research
Dr. Michelle Black, assistant professor of political science at the UNO College of Arts and Sciences, with NSRI’s assistance, was awarded NSRI’s first North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) research contract. The deliverable is development of a methodology that could be adapted to future challenges within a complex international system
to enable coherent deterrence within a multipleactor deterrence framework.
The team has worked closely with NATO colleagues to begin testing the methodology and is developing further experimentation opportunities. In addition to providing a valuable methodology for future defense decision-making, the project provides an opportunity to involve students in real-world solution formulation. This approach allows students to gain valuable skills for future careers and provides a fresh perspective to assist current decision makers.
Grooming the Next Generation of Nuclear Deterrence Decision Makers
As the years progress, the baton of nuclear deterrence planning, strategizing and leading nuclear forces will be passed to a new generation of scientists, scholars, diplomats and warfighters. The nurturing of this next generation of researchers and leaders is a priority within the NSRI portfolio of capabilities.
In 2019, NSRI interns developed a concept for a novel airborne mesh communications network to increase connectivity in a crisis scenario. In 2020, NSRI interns partnered with ROTC cadets to refine a wargame that explores the impacts of cyberattacks on NC3, including implications for deterrence and escalation control in nuclear crisis scenarios. Students presented the findings of these projects to senior leaders of USSTRATCOM, who have interest in creating a similar program for the command.Learn More
R&D: The Bedrock of U.S. National Security Through Nuclear Forces and NC3
In July 2020, USSTRATCOM Commander ADM Charles Richard said in an interview with the Mitchell Institute, “The United States and the Department of Defense have not had to consider the full implications of competition … with a nuclear-capable peer adversary in close to 30 years. And when you think about that, the implications of every single thing we do in the department are profound. And we have a good strategy to go address that situation, and we have fabulous leadership … but it is important to recognize things have changed.”
NSRI provides a foundational piece of that emerging strategy: research and development. The institute is poised to provide the expert research personnel, data and other resources, including thought leadership, that our nation’s leaders need to strengthen U.S. nuclear deterrence, modernize U.S. strategic weapons and counter the capabilities enabled by foreign nuclear and radiological weapons.
Somewhere in our nation’s 50 states, there are young people, such as the young Christopher Yeaw and Ashlee McGill, who don’t yet know how pivotal their work will be to the future protection of all Americans. When they are ready to meet their destiny, NSRI will be ready to meet them.