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Lead project officers help coordinate nuclear weapons projects from cradle-to-grave

  • Published
  • By Aimee Malone
  • Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center

Not many Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center employees can say they’re involved with a nuclear project from its cradle to its grave, but a lead project officer, or LPO, is one who can.

An LPO’s role is to manage cradle-to-grave stewardship of nuclear weapons projects by coordinating with the other agencies involved, such as the Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration. Essentially, LPOs make sure that every agency’s piece of a project will fit together, and the end result will work as it is intended.

“We’re responsible for making sure the nuclear warheads are safe, reliable and compatible with the Air Force system that delivers it,” said Roger Kropf, LPO for the B61-12 and W80-4.

“Our job is to ensure compatibility and that the interface works 100 percent of the time,” said Erich Villanueva, LPO for W78/W87-0 and division chief of the LPO Division of the Minuteman III Directorate.

The Department of Defense does not build or create nuclear warheads, the active part of a nuclear weapon. Instead, DoD agencies build the delivery systems for the warheads, such as the missiles for the warheads and the planes or submarines that carry those missiles. Because of this structure, the DoD/DOE Nuclear Weapons Council was established by Congress to facilitate cooperation between the two agencies.

While LPOs are AFNWC employees, they also view themselves as independent agents because of their unique position. LPOs are ultimately responsible to the Nuclear Weapons Council on behalf of the Air Force, Villanueva said. Every unit involved (which can include the NNSA, Air Force system program offices, Air Force Global Strike Command, Sandia National Laboratories, Livermore National Laboratories and more) provides a project officer to makes sure it meets that unit’s requirements. The LPOs make sure that the project meets every unit’s requirements.

The LPOs do not supervise employees of other units, but they do provide both guidance and technical specifications to project officers both in and out of the Air Force.

“Let’s take an imaginary warhead,” Kropf said. “They don’t just say, ‘Here’s a 100-kiloton warhead.’ We tell them we need a warhead that has this yield, these characteristics, and it has to perform like this. That’s called military characteristics.”

Each nuclear weapons project has its own set of military characteristics based on its intended target, delivery system, transportation method, and storage environment.

“Sentinel has a different requirement than Minuteman III,” Kropf said. “It has a different requirement than [Long Range Standoff weapon] and a different requirement than the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb. We develop the environmental specifications for each system. We tell them what environments it’s going to see for its lifetime, and it has to work and be safe in those environments.”

The environment specifications include transportation, storage, and weapon carriage and delivery requirements. Nuclear weapons that are going to be transported by a cargo plane may have different requirements than those carried by B-52 bombers. The storage environment can also drastically change the requirements for safe handling.
 
The LPOs make sure all project officers are implementing every one of these requirements, ensuring the United States’ nuclear capabilities are safe and reliable.

The LPOs remain involved with nuclear weapons projects throughout the lifecycle of a system. They help manage any alterations needed to maintain weapons reliability. They address safety, maintenance, sustainment, logistics and aging issues. They also lead sustainment studies and risk-reduction activities.

“Driving collaboration is the most important aspect of the role,” Villanueva said. “Part of our job is making sure that people and agencies are working together. It’s making sure the Air Force and the NNSA are on the same page.”

The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center is the nuclear-focused center within AFMC synchronizing all aspects of nuclear materiel management on behalf of the AFMC commander and in direct support of Air Force Global Strike Command.  Headquartered at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, the center has more than 1,900 military and civilian personnel at 17 locations worldwide.