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The Military Science

US Forgets How To Make Trident Missiles 922

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the i-forget-how-to-spell-feal dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "The US and the UK are trying to refurbish the aging W76 warheads that tip Trident missiles to prolong their life and ensure they are safe and reliable but plans have been put on hold because US scientists have forgotten how to manufacture a mysterious but very hazardous component of the warhead codenamed Fogbank. 'NNSA had lost knowledge of how to manufacture the material because it had kept few records of the process when the material was made in the 1980s, and almost all staff with expertise on production had retired or left the agency,' says the report by a US congressional committee. Fogbank is thought by some weapons experts to be a foam used between the fission and fusion stages of the thermonuclear bomb on the Trident Missile and US officials say that manufacturing Fogbank requires a solvent cleaning agent which is 'extremely flammable' and 'explosive,' and that the process involves dealing with 'toxic materials' hazardous to workers. 'This is like James Bond destroying his instructions as soon as he has read them,' says John Ainslie, the co-ordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, adding that 'perhaps the plans for making Fogbank were so secret that no copies were kept.' Thomas D'Agostino, administrator or the US National Nuclear Security Administration, told a congressional committee that the administration was spending 'a lot of money' trying to make 'Fogbank' at Y-12, but 'we're not out of the woods yet.'"
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US Forgets How To Make Trident Missiles

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  • by armer (533337) <glenn.vander.veer@gma i l .com> on Monday March 09, 2009 @09:48AM (#27121179)
    you can download the instruction from the Pirate Bay...
    • Re:Rumor has it.. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Daravon (848487) on Monday March 09, 2009 @11:02AM (#27122283)

      Didn't you read the article/summary? The torrent is dead, because all the seeds went away.

      On the other hand, we should just ask China. I'm sure they have some copies of the recipe laying around...

    • by Intron (870560) on Monday March 09, 2009 @11:09AM (#27122417)

      I thought it was just:

      svn co https://trident.nnsa.gov/svnroot/fogbank [nnsa.gov] --username=guest --password=topsecret

    • Re:Rumor has it.. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by jc42 (318812) on Monday March 09, 2009 @11:11AM (#27122453) Homepage Journal

      you can download the instruction from the Pirate Bay...

      Just wait a few weeks; you might be right ...

      My immediate thought was related: The US government probably does have the info hidden away in some obscure department's archives, hidden behind a wall of secrecy and classification. The repair guys just don't have the right clearances, and instead of saying "We can't give you that information", the agency says "We don't have that information".

      It could also be a case of Clarke's third law. The information is stored away somewhere, but the repair crews don't know the name of the archive or who runs it, and the people at the archive haven't heard that anyone's looking for it. And chances are that if you ask for the info using the part's name, they won't be able to find it; you have to tell them the code number (or whatever they call it) for that particular part.

      That is, the information could be hidden by ignorance and incompetence, not by any active efforts to hide or eliminate the information. That happens all the time any large organization, businesses as well as governments.

      Actually, my other thought was "Did they google it?" Chances are that google could tell them the part number(s), and maybe also the torrent name at the Pirate Bay.

      • Re:Rumor has it.. (Score:5, Interesting)

        by edward2020 (985450) on Monday March 09, 2009 @11:48AM (#27123103)
        Or, what seems to me most likely, this is a ploy to get approval for the modernization of nuclear weapons that defense and co. have been wanting. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/04/AR2008120403555.html [washingtonpost.com]
      • Re:Rumor has it.. (Score:4, Insightful)

        by mabhatter654 (561290) on Monday March 09, 2009 @12:12PM (#27123423)

        My wife and I do this all the time. We hide stuff from the kids in a "safe place"... only a week later we can't remember where the safe place was.

        I think that's what happened here. Every body properly changed their passwords and cleaned out file drawers... and nobody did the diligence to make sure all the pieces were accounted for... because that would be "insecure" for there to be a checklist. The instructions are probably buried, like you said, and the only people interested in looking thru the archives don't have clearance... I'd venture even the archivists don't have clearance to open files not requested...

        I agree with the other guy too. The DoD has been pushing to restart Nuclear Manufacturing of NEW devices since the last prez came to office. If only for the shock value of making new weapons to put some fear out there. I can't believe the current prez would fall for the ruse and burn that kind of international goodwill he's trying to muster.

        • Re:Rumor has it.. (Score:5, Insightful)

          by cayenne8 (626475) on Monday March 09, 2009 @01:11PM (#27124193) Homepage Journal
          "I agree with the other guy too. The DoD has been pushing to restart Nuclear Manufacturing of NEW devices since the last prez came to office. If only for the shock value of making new weapons to put some fear out there. I can't believe the current prez would fall for the ruse and burn that kind of international goodwill he's trying to muster."

          Well, the current prez doesn't need to look like a pussy in front of the rest of the world either. In that article, the push was for updating making replacement warheads and the like, with no new capabilities other than to replace again cold war stock. The Russians and Chinese are keeping their nukes up to date....why should we not do the same?

  • by fodi (452415) on Monday March 09, 2009 @09:51AM (#27121231)

    Just get Gordon Ramsay to taste it. He'll tell you what's in it.

  • Not the only time (Score:5, Interesting)

    by EdZ (755139) on Monday March 09, 2009 @09:52AM (#27121245)
    A similar problem exists with the SR-71's engines: some key documentation was destroyed in the interests of secrecy, which has greatly complicated maintenance work on the remaining aircraft.
    • Re:Not the only time (Score:4, Interesting)

      by stoolpigeon (454276) * <bittercode@gmail> on Monday March 09, 2009 @10:05AM (#27121401) Homepage Journal

      Who is still flying them? To my knowledge the last SR-71 flight was 10 years ago or so.
       
      On a somewhat related note, I was watching some stuff on the U-2 a few days ago and I have to think that the days are numbered on that aircraft as well. Between advances with satellites and UAVs, manned surveillance aircraft don't seem to make much sense.

      • Re:Not the only time (Score:5, Interesting)

        by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Monday March 09, 2009 @10:12AM (#27121519) Homepage Journal

        Who is still flying them? To my knowledge the last SR-71 flight was 10 years ago or so.

        They have two at Beale AFB in Marysville, CA. According to people I know who work on base, one is kept in a constant state of operational readiness. That's expensive, so you wouldn't do this unless you were using the damned thing. You'd never notice a launch, because they're launching aircraft of all sizes out of there night and day with constant training flights and U2 overflight.

      • Re:Not the only time (Score:5, Interesting)

        by je ne sais quoi (987177) on Monday March 09, 2009 @10:15AM (#27121559)
        NASA [nasa.gov] was still flying them, as they were, and still are as far as I know, the highest flying and fastest aircraft available. That article I linked to says the last flight was in 1999.

        Incidentally, regarding lost war tech., I had always heard that the U.S. no longer has the ability to cast the shells for the large 16" guns on the iowa class battleships, I have no idea if it's true though.
      • Re:Not the only time (Score:4, Interesting)

        by QuantumRiff (120817) on Monday March 09, 2009 @10:18AM (#27121605)

        Problem is, when you shoot a satellite down, it can take years to develop another one, and weeks to launch it into orbit. UAV's can have their signals jammed, and most depend on satellites for either GPS, or control. A plane can maneuver, and quite often be there much quicker than waiting for a satellite to come into position.

      • by Rich0 (548339) on Monday March 09, 2009 @11:08AM (#27122393) Homepage

        I'm not usually the conspiracy-theory type, but I suspect that the USAF already is flying an SR-71 replacement and this is why they have been retired.

        Spy Satellites and UAVs certainly cover parts of the SR-71 mission profile. However, what about battlefield survailence of a major military adversary? Current UAVs cannot survive in combat. Sure, they can loiter over Basra all day when nobody has anything other than a rifle to shoot at them with. Try to get footage of downtown Tehran with a UAV and you'll just have UAV-parts raining all over the place. Satellites certainly work better, but they're very limited in coverage and have no loiter capability. They're also very vulnerable if somebody is determined enough to actually start shooting them down.

        I'm not saying you couldn't do the job with a UAV with SR-71-like capabilities. That is certainly an option. Perhaps one already exists. However, neither satellites or the currently public UAV options make the SR-71 completely obsolete. Either the US doesn't think it needs ariel recon of hot areas, or it has some other way of doing it that nobody knows about.

  • Disinformation (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Demonantis (1340557) on Monday March 09, 2009 @09:57AM (#27121291)
    I think this speaks of a larger problem in how the US government organizes itself. NASA had the same issue with some spaceship components because new people were not trained on how legacy systems were built. This issue is happening through many departments in the US government. The US government's extreme isolationism and disinformation for public forums allows them to be years ahead in technology that could help the general public, but means that the people can't benefit from the technology they fund until it has been independently discovered or rendered a relic by some new technology.
    • Re:Disinformation (Score:5, Insightful)

      by AKAImBatman (238306) * <akaimbatman AT gmail DOT com> on Monday March 09, 2009 @10:24AM (#27121687) Homepage Journal

      NASA had the same issue with some spaceship components because new people were not trained on how legacy systems were built.

      I hope you're not referring to the "we lost the blueprints to the Saturn V" urban legend. Because if you are, you need to be aware that the US has all the plans and the experience it needs to rebuild these craft. What it doesn't have is the heavy industrial base. Material science has moved the US significantly forward from the heavy metal construction and high noise/high latency electronics used in the original SatV. Rebuilding the SatV would be more effort than just designing a new spacecraft.

      If you're just referring to a few components here and there, then I have to argue that these things just happen. Systems age, get out of date, and certain challenges arise in maintenance. For someone like NASA, they're not that difficult to solve. It can take quite a few man hours to understand the part properly and re-machine it (even if original staff are on hand; people tend to forget things over time), but the job still gets done with a minimum amount of fuss.

      This issue is a far more worrisome problem. Due to the need for secrecy (there was a HUGE concern that the USSR would obtain our technology), many of the steps were maintained as secrets in people's heads rather than on paper. That makes it difficult to combat the brain drain that invariably happened both as the engineers and researchers aged and the Cold War wound down.

      • Re:Disinformation (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Mr. Sanity (1161283) on Monday March 09, 2009 @10:44AM (#27121975)
        NPR Has a story [npr.org] about how hard it was to recreate moon rover tires. In short, if it wasn't for an old engineer breaking regulations and keeping one in his closet at home, NASA would have had to start over from zero.
      • by alexhmit01 (104757) on Monday March 09, 2009 @10:45AM (#27121993)

        I hope you're not referring to the "we lost the blueprints to the Saturn V" urban legend.

        According to a friend that did a stint in high level strategy at NASA, that's not really an urban legend. When the project was shelved, the documents were more or less destroyed. Our Shuttle launch capacity isn't the same as then, and we really don't have the capacity to just "put err up." It's not that the blueprints are gone, one presumes that a certain level of that was archived, and reverse engineering the rest of the tech wouldn't be the issue, but you are right about the industrial base.

        Also, changing environmental and work conditions would prevent just throwing together the Saturn V. Also, engineers of today don't have the same skill sets as back then. I never learned drafting, the core of engineering then. The archived records would presumably let skilled engineers recreate the project, but we don't have the same skills. Reorienting NASA for the Mars mission was a complete reorg of most of the agency, and a LOT of the work is recreating our technology from the space race with modern techniques and materials, because the old stuff doesn't exist.

        Same reason you can't buy a 57 Chevy new... it's not that GM couldn't make a similar truck, but with modern environmental and CAFE standards, you couldn't recreate the classics, even if all the plans were there, and the guys working the lines are trained for robotic factories, you couldn't just recreate the 57 lines.

  • by east coast (590680) on Monday March 09, 2009 @09:59AM (#27121333)

    This is why it's important to document your code... or your warheads. Either or.

  • by Cassini2 (956052) on Monday March 09, 2009 @10:01AM (#27121347)

    The material in the design specification was essentially unobtanium. It couldn't be manufactured at all. Quietly, the manufacturing engineers developed a solution that almost met all of the design specifications, and this was an excellent compromise. Unfortunately, the design engineers couldn't be convinced to sign off on the design change because of quality procedure 15, and military qualification 7. However, the biggest reason the design engineers wouldn't sign off on the change was because of a supposedly critical but practically useless mandatory project requirement, like the missile must work when fired in -40 degree water from 20 feet under the polar ice shelf.

    The manufacturing engineers decided that the "fire nuclear missile while under ice shelf function", probably wouldn't be used, so the modified material was actually just fine. They shipped the missiles, got paid, and everyone was happy. Until now, when someone tries to "fix" the original "fix".

    This story has happened before and will happen again. Whenever you bump into a design that requires a part that "does not exist", watch out for the possibility that the part never did "exist". It could be that you are reading a "design" document, and not what manufacturing actually built. I've worked in manufacturing, and there are lots of stories about impossible to make designs that somehow got shipped.

    • by Torontoman (829262) on Monday March 09, 2009 @10:03AM (#27121375)

      My European grandmother made a cake that could easily withstand the middle stages of a nuclear explosion.

    • by troll8901 (1397145) * <troll8901@gmail.com> on Monday March 09, 2009 @10:07AM (#27121423) Journal

      The material in the design specification was essentially unobtanium.

      ... also known as element 404.

    • Often times... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by gillbates (106458) on Monday March 09, 2009 @11:00AM (#27122249) Homepage Journal

      That "supposedly critical but practically useless mandatory project requirement" is the result of experience. Inexperienced engineers often make the mistake of assuming that if they can't understand why the requirement exists, it must be arbitrary.

      Perhaps this is apocryphal, but during the Cold War, submarines would routinely get stuck under polar ice floes. Having a missile which would work when fired from underneath the polar ice was probably a very large concern for the system designers. Had the engineers pointed out the impossibility of this requirement, it is possible that military doctrine would have been changed to reflect the limitations of the technology. If you are correct about the difference between requirements, design, and actual manufacture, then the actions of these engineers (or perhaps bureaucrats) put the entire United States at risk of nuclear holocaust. Had the Soviets known this during the Cold War, they might have been more willing to risk a nuclear confrontation.

  • by petes_PoV (912422) on Monday March 09, 2009 @10:06AM (#27121413)
    Typical, now I suppose we'll all just have to buy the new "improved" nuclear weapons.

    There is a serious side to this. The US hasn't actually built any nukes, stuck 'en on a rocket, fired them and had a successful BOOM for well over 40 years. That must be coming up for 2 generations of rocket / nuclear scientists and the third generation is now in training. That means that the "new guys" will learn from people who didn't have any practical experience and in turn learned from the people who actually *did it* nearly 50 years ago.

  • by jpmorgan (517966) on Monday March 09, 2009 @10:14AM (#27121543) Homepage

    See, this is what happens when you don't continue to spend money on extremely advanced engineering projects: you lose the technology. Technology isn't just a textbook and some blueprints, it requires the experience and knowledge of scientists and engineers. It's a living thing: shelve it, and it dies.

    It would be nice to think this would serve as an abject lesson to congresscritters, next time they think about cutting funding for something 'we don't need right now.' Although I'm cynical enough not to believe that.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 09, 2009 @10:23AM (#27121667)

    Having worked at this facility in the '80's as an engineer, I can say definitively that this scenario is either misunderstood, or incorrectly reported, or deliberately obfuscated, or a lie, or postulated from sketchy evidence, but it is factually and wholly wrong.

    Every project for every material or product, special or otherwise, was properly documented. These files would not be destroyed. (Note here that I'm assuming the files on "fogbank" were not lost in an accident or by malicious destruction.)

    Now, has the practical and hands-on knowledge of the step-by-step, moment-by-moment synthesis reaction to make this material been lost? Perhaps in the course of 25 years it has. Lots of people have left the plant since then. But all the information, notations and observations necessary to reconstruct the process/project do exist, I assure you.

    • by Registered Coward v2 (447531) on Monday March 09, 2009 @10:35AM (#27121865)

      Having worked at this facility in the '80's as an engineer, I can say definitively that this scenario is either misunderstood, or incorrectly reported, or deliberately obfuscated, or a lie, or postulated from sketchy evidence, but it is factually and wholly wrong.

      Every project for every material or product, special or otherwise, was properly documented. These files would not be destroyed. (Note here that I'm assuming the files on "fogbank" were not lost in an accident or by malicious destruction.)

      Now, has the practical and hands-on knowledge of the step-by-step, moment-by-moment synthesis reaction to make this material been lost? Perhaps in the course of 25 years it has. Lots of people have left the plant since then. But all the information, notations and observations necessary to reconstruct the process/project do exist, I assure you.

      Great point. My experience is often when people we say "we lost the instructions..." they really mean:

      1. We've scrapped the production line and its components so we do not have the physical capability to build x anymore, or

      2. We have the instructions but since we last did this 25 years ago all the people who knew the little tricks to really make it work are long gone.

      Another possibility is the files have been moved so many times over the years to make space for new material that nobody remembers where they are anymore.Probably locked up in some obscure SCIF, waiting to be moved again when the space is needed.

    • by PPH (736903) on Monday March 09, 2009 @01:10PM (#27124179)

      And I've spend a couple of decades working in the aerospace and commercial aviation biz. And I can tell you that there's documented procedures and then there's the actual way to get it done. The documentation isn't always complete, with some critical steps or knowledge being left out. Either they were overlooked, or in some cases its a matter of a trade secret (a company doesn't want a competitor to bid the contract) or job security (the guy on the shop floor doesn't want to get replaced, so he doesn't document the specifics that keep the whole shebang from blowing up).

      I can see how such a situation can arise quite easily.

  • Desceptive title (Score:5, Informative)

    by DrBuzzo (913503) on Monday March 09, 2009 @10:51AM (#27122103) Homepage
    The US has not forgotten how to make Trident Missiles. The missile is immaterial to the issue. The Trident missile can carry any number of warhead types and arrangements. The issue is the W76 warhead, which is used on many Trident missiles.

    The trident can just as easily be armed with the much newer and W88 without any modification and a mating adapter. It can be armed with non-nuclear warheads as well. It could even be topped with a small upper stage and payload to use it to launch a small satellite and not a weapon of any kind.
    • Re:Desceptive title (Score:4, Interesting)

      by TheSync (5291) on Monday March 09, 2009 @12:37PM (#27123741) Journal

      I find it tough to believe that the foam in the W88 is really that different from the foam in the W76. I thought the goal of the foam was to just become completely ionized and become transparent to X-rays? How hard can that really be when a fission weapon is exploding a few feet away.

      I imagine there might be some physical characteristics of the foam related to ballistic devices (can handle G's on launch, re-rentry, etc.) but that would be similar across all ballistic weapons.

      Unless there is something they aren't telling us ;)

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