The Pentagon is pulling the plug on the contract for the JASON civilian science advisory panel even as contractor MITRE Corp. works on multiple studies for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), according to recent congressional testimony.
The NNSA has “three studies being considered and planned with JASON pertaining to the topics of: cyber security of operating equipment; nuclear detonation detection; and plutonium aging,” an agency spokesperson told Defense Daily on Friday.
Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), chair of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, announced the demise of the Cold War-era JASON contract during a Tuesday hearing with NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty and other senior Department of Energy officials.
Cooper asked Gordon-Hagerty whether she was aware of the Pentagon’s decision. Gordon-Hagerty said she knew “something” was happening with the nonprofit MITRE Corp. contract, and that she was asking NNSA staff to “look into it” because the agency has “some studies that we’re undertaking with JASON.”
JASON refers both to the group of nominally independent civilian scientist advisers, and to individual members, who provide high-level technical advice to both the Pentagon and Congress.
The JASON contract is the vehicle for getting that advice to the agencies and lawmakers . The award is an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract under which the Pentagon can issue task orders for individual studies. Those task orders can be for studies on behalf of other agencies, such as the NNSA. The latest JASON contract had a five-year performance period which will be extended, but not renewed, to give the panel time to finish a report on electronic warfare.
That is according to a March 28 letter to MITRE Corp. — first obtained by Science Magazine — in which a Pentagon acquisition official wrote that Underscretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin no longer needs an indefinite quantity of JASON studies.
“Because we only have a need for one study to complete, issuing a new Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract vehicle does not make economic sense at this time,” the Pentagon letter reads.
This week, Science reported, Cooper urged the Defense Department to rethink its decision: “The abrupt, unilateral decision to not renew the long-standing JASON contract damages our national security by depriving not only the Pentagon, but also other national security agencies, of sober and sound advice in confronting some of the nation’s most complex threats.”
The NNSA has commissioned many JASON studies, asking MITRE, among other things, to look at: the potential life expectancy for plutonium pits; the viability of creating a single nuclear warhead for use in ground- and sea-launched missiles; and technology gaps in the agency’s techniques for verifying the explosive power of nuclear weapons without nuclear-explosive tests.
That is according to an online catalog of JASON studies maintained by the nonprofit Federation of American Scientists.
The NNSA is starting some heavy-lifting this year on one of the gap technologies identified by a 2016 JASON report, a roughly $1-billion X-ray camera, called the Advanced Sources and Detectors Project, that will observe subcritical plutonium experiments at the U1a underground testing complex at the Nevada National Security Site. The NNSA estimates camera development will cost $115 million in the 2020 fiscal year, which is more than 40 percent above the 2019 appropriation of $50 million.
The Advanced Sources and Detectors Project is part of the Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Plutonium Experiments: a technology development intended to help the NNSA collect data about the W80-4 and W87-1 warheads the United States will pair with its next-generation air-launched cruise missile and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The weapons are slated to enter the U.S. arsenal in the late 2020s and early 2030s and will remain in service for decades after that.
The warheads will be refurbished version of the existing W80 and W78 warheads. The NNSA has yet to produce an upgraded version of either warhead.