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Interview of Pete Nanos by David Zierler on 2021 July 9,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview, Peter Nanos discusses: family background and childhood in New Hampshire; decision to study at the Naval Academy; fraternal culture at the Academy; experience as a Trident Scholar working with Ralph Goodwin; Ph.D. at Princeton as part of the Burke Program; working in Bob Dicke’s gravity group on the first large-scale measurement of the polarization of the microwave background; work on the timing of the crab nebula pulsar; thesis advisor Dave Wilkinson; getting feedback on his thesis pre-publication from Bob Wilson; working with Captain Al Skolnick on the Navy High Energy Laser Program to demonstrate the ability to down supersonic aircraft with the Mid-Infrared Chemical Laser (MIRACL); decision to stay with the Navy as an engineering duty officer (ED); various assignments as ED, including on the USS America; involvement in Operation El Dorado Canyon (1986 U.S. bombing of Libya); effects of Reagan’s increased military spending; power of nuclear deterrence in reducing worldwide war fatalities; work with and promotion to director of Naval Strategic Systems Programs (SSP); use of the first GPS; START Treaty; work with Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA); Drell commission to determine safety of the Trident II D5 missile; creation of the National Nuclear Security Administration; director position at Los Alamos; response to reports of “lost” nuclear material; explanation of laboratory shut down; position as associate director at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA); creation of R&D Enterprise at DTRA; investments in nuclear detection technology; experiences running exercises; work with the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins; and post-retirement consulting work. Toward the end of the interview, Nanos reflects on demanding technical excellence and on the value of his training and study of physics, “the liberal arts of STEM.”
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is July 9th, 2021. It is my great pleasure to be here with Vice Admiral George Peter Nanos. Pete, it's great to see you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Well, you're welcome.
Pete, to start, would you please tell me your current or most recent title and institutional affiliation?
I'm a temp on call right now, but I'm really retired. A word of explanation: my wife has multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis and I've gotten to the point where I really can't travel and leave her alone anymore. So, I've given up my pro bono activities with the Strategic Advisory Group for the Strategic Commander and I'm now pretty much a house husband, which is not a bad thing. It's kind of giving back, you know. I mean, she's supported me for so many years. I'm on call at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, as a senior advisor to the Strategic Deterrent business area which was my last position and is my last tour. But while there, I had a couple of different jobs. They took advantage of having somebody with executive experience that they could throw in department head positions when they had people retire who could keep them afloat while they selected a replacement. I was obviously pretty close to what would be the nominal retirement age for senior executives anyway, but it was a fun place to go, and a lot of very interesting work. It was an organization that I had a broad history with from my time in the Navy's Strategic Program. because they were — the independent evaluator for the Navy's Strategic Program, the Trident missile program. They also did a lot of the systems engineering work for us at the time. And as I go through my career, I'll talk a lot about the strategic program and the impact it had on me, and I think the impact it's had on the country.
Pete, just as a snapshot in time right now, if only from an observer's status, what stories are you following most closely? Either in the world of science or national security policy?
Well, I think for those of us who are part of the guild of ancient nuclear warriors, (laughs) you know, the way that the dialogue is portrayed in the media, particularly, since there is a very strong current of anti-nuke sentiment in certain areas of academia and elsewhere, you find that their framing of the arguments are specious at best and malignant at worst, probably. Because they don't really talk about the role of and the operation of the deterrent force, and how it works. And what the essence of deterrence is. And they don't really spend a lot of time giving a fair evaluation of how deterrence has worked over the years. Clearly, I've worked on all sides of the issue. I'm a physicist who ran the Trident missile program for a while. Spent almost ten years in that program. Spent time working with Los Alamos in that role. Then ended up being the director of Los Alamos for a while. And then after that, I was the head of R&D for three years and one year as ahead of operations at the Defense Reduction Agency. The old DNA, Defense Nuclear Agency. I've really stood on all sides of the problem from a performer's standpoint, and I'm up on the arguments and understand the basics — enough to know that from much of what people are espousing, they really haven't a clue. And I find that distressing. Not that we're having an argument. It's that the argument is not being framed correctly. So, the people looking in on the argument aren't being allowed to partake in an important way, because they're not being given the background they need.
Well Pete, let's take it all the way back to the beginning. Let's start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they're from.
First, three out of my four grandparents came from overseas. Both my parents were in that sense second generation. My mother was Irish my grandfather on that side came from County Cork. And her mother's family were farmers on Long Island in New York. And she ran into my father, who was the son of Greek immigrants, and a very clever and inventive guy, a very smart guy, but one who'd never graduated from high school. He did it as a GED. And ended up thriving as a self-taught engineer. No college. Neither of them had a college background. My mother primarily because she was a woman at a time when the family resources went to educate the males. And not the woman. She was a brilliant woman. Extremely well-read. And my father was a brilliant guy but he, from a poor immigrant family, ended up not graduating from high school but ended up making it later and turning himself into an engineer. And the kinds of things he did, he held patents. He designed — he was a pilot. He had a Piper Apache twin engine aircraft, and he designed a modification to it that he was putting through the FAA. And he ended up, before he died of cancer, he ended up as the owner of a textile company in Alabama. Over time, he came a long way in his career. My father had great technical skill. From a very early age, two things happened. As a child I wasn't terribly robust. I used to run high fevers and that sort of thing. And I was having difficulty in grammar school in first grade, so my mother sat down and taught me to read. And she started me reading to the point that when I went to the Naval Academy, I didn't have to take freshman composition and literature. I just passed it off with a test because I'd read so much on the way. She had started me reading and I was reading things like Camus and Voltaire and Balzac and all sorts of things in the normal course my contemporaries in high school weren't reading. And then my father put the love of technology into my heart. I ended up always figuring I was going to be an engineer. I grew up in New Hampshire, in a little town of about 1900 people. Bedford, New Hampshire. The town didn't have its own high school, so we went to high school in Manchester, the city adjacent to Bedford, and it wasn't a great high school.
My parents were thinking of sending me somewhere, to a summer program or maybe sending me to an academy or something for my last year or two, when I got into The Advanced Studies program at Saint Paul's School in Concord New Hampshire. The program sent 125 kids from high schools in New Hampshire to Saint Paul's for the summer, where they took the equivalent of a college course plus an English course. And I went there for two summers and took math courses. At that point, I was all stoked up at that point to be a mathematician. I felt that I was getting a pretty good background. But I was kind of a little bit of a bad boy, when it came time to get accolades in high school, and I didn't pay a lot of attention to my score, but I did okay, but I wasn't the number one or number two, and when it came time, I had ticked off a couple of the members of the faculty in my high school, so I was blackballed from the National Honor Society and I didn't get in. I want to back up and include one thing. When it came time to apply to Saint Paul's, they were handing out application forms based on how people had done on their PSATs, a preliminary exam that they had given, and I had been absent that day and hadn't had that exam. As a result, they didn't give me an application form. So, I went home that night all in the dumps to my father. He said, "What's the matter?" And I said, "I'm not going to be able to apply to Saint Paul's." He looked at me and he said, "Do you want to go?" And I said, "Yes." He said, "Well then you tell them to give you an application and fill it out. But they're going to tell — " He said, "Do you want to go?" I said yes. And he said, "Then go get an application and fill it out."
Pete, what was the larger life lesson in that exchange that you took away?
It was the first time that I began to recognize how he had taken himself from somebody who didn't graduate from high school, whose mother couldn't read English, and got himself up to where he was. The level of determination and the stick to it ness and everything else that he had. And he basically gave me that gift. I went back in and asked for the application. They said, "Well, you didn't take the test." I said, "I don't care, I want the application." Took the application, filled it out, and got in as a sophomore. Let me see, where was I before I backed up? I went to Saint Paul's. wanted to be a mathematician and got blackballed from the National Honor Society. Of course, my wife was president of her chapter of the National Honor Society. We have great discussions on occasion. Took the exam for the National Merit Scholarship, got a CIT National Merit Scholarship, and then the National Honor Society decided they wanted me as a member. Because I was the only kid or one of few kids in the city who had gotten a National Merit Scholarship. I was about ready to tell the society that I didn’t want it, and here my father played another role. He said a very wise thing. He told me I shouldn't do that. When I asked why, he said, that though I have a right to do it, I would be setting a bad example. That others might emulate me without the skills to make it work and that I had to recognize this. This isn't about you, it's about other people too. And so again, another life lesson was piled onto the first one. About how to be more conscious of my actions in terms of the broader effect rather than the smaller effect. I applied to a couple of colleges, MIT, Yale and RPI. MIT and RPI accepted me. In the meantime, my father had a friend whose son was at the Naval Academy, and I went down and visited him. And got the full brief on what Navy had to offer. At the same time during the summers, while I was in high school, I had to work. And I'd been working in the textile mill. My father at the time didn't own a mill, but he was working for the ... I don't know if you remember Aaron Feuerstein, the guy who owned Polar Tec, and whose plant burned down in Methuen MA, but he kept everybody on salary? Well, my father was the one that first set up that plant. In the summertime, he got me a job in the stock room of a textile mill making rugs. I got in great shape that summer. It was one of those jobs, that was strictly stevedore work. What was attractive to me about the Naval Academy was that if I went to a civilian school, I was going to have to work summers in the mill. But if I went to the Naval Academy, they were going to send me on cruise, and I was going overseas and see all sorts of interesting places. That was too attractive. I looked into the Naval Academy, their catalogue, and they had two other things that I found attractive in addition to the fact I could cruise during the summers. They had something called a Trident Scholar program, where you could spend your last year doing research, and write a paper. Kind of like Yale's scholar of the house program, and around ten people could get into that program. Also, ten people could get into something called the Burke Program. After graduation and two years at sea they would send you to graduate school, and if you qualified would let you go for a PhD. The Academy had both of those programs. At that point I said, okay, I'll go to the Naval Academy. When I finally went to the Naval Academy, I didn't have a clue about what the military was about. Not a clue.
Yeah, Pete, on that point I was curious. From your family background, from your own interests, what was your sense of military duty and more broadly a sense of patriotism in serving your country?
Well first, it was different back then. Remember, I was born in 1945. And when you talked to my parents, or I talked to anybody else, they said, particularly about going to the Naval Academy, they would say something like, "Well hey, what a good deal, you might as well go. You're going to get drafted anyhow." Remember, the draft was on back then. Lots of people got drafted. Everybody expected that you were going to serve when called upon. They figured it was a 50/50 shot you were going to get drafted anyhow, so you might as well volunteer and do it the way you wanted to do it. And why the Navy? I saw myself, going to sea, I thought it was a lot more romantic — ,"Call me Ishmael," right? Coming down out of the hills of New Hampshire. It just kind of seemed all to fit. I was drawn more to the Navy than the Army. I've become a tremendous fan of the Marines over the years, and I consider them the military gold standard. I've had a lot of contact with the Marines. I can talk about that later. I thought Patriotism was kind of baked in the cake for my generation. It isn't like it is now, where so few people serve. Back then, remember, we were coming off a world war followed by Korea, and a huge percentage of the population that we were in contact with, older relatives had served. Now my father didn't serve, and the reason was an odd one. He was working for the Hendy Machine Tool Company, which was making the 40mm Bofors gun that was an important defense against the kamikazes in the Pacific. And when he signed up to go into the Army, they sent him home to go back to work at what he was doing, because he was part of the engineering staff at Hendy. But I had an uncle that went — actually, uncles on both sides that had gone. It was just part of what people did back then. I think we tend to mirror what's going on in the current culture. But that wasn't the culture back then.
Was service in Vietnam at all a consideration, even before you entered the Naval Academy?
It probably was, but I wasn't paying attention.
It was before the draft. Or you were at least too young at that point, perhaps?
I was too young, and of course once you went to the Naval Academy, you didn't get drafted. Because you were in. The minute you go, you get sworn in as a midshipman, which is midway between the lowest commissioned rank and the highest non-commissioned rank. And you get paid half an ensign's salary. You're really carrying a green ID card just like everybody else at that point.
What year did you enter the Naval Academy? Was it 1963?
'63, right. On the 26th of June, we got sworn in in Tecumseh Court. My class still celebrates that today as the day we came together as a class. We call that our real anniversary.
Pete, to what extent did the Cold War and Kennedy's foreign policy loom large in your mind at that point? Were you globally oriented in your thinking at all? Were you thinking about world affairs?
I was not globally oriented at that point in my life. Although it was interesting. I do remember a few things that bear on this. First, President Kennedy's speech in which he said, "And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: I served in the United States Navy," came from a speech that he gave at the Naval Academy my plebe summer. He came that year and talked to the plebes or fourth classmen, which was highly unusual for a president. He had served in the Navy and driven a PT boat in WWII, and he had probably more of a connection to the service than most politicians, particularly now. I can also remember when he was assassinated and where I was when he was assassinated. It was during that plebe year, and I was around in a second class's room when I heard it. When you're on a come around at the Naval Academy at that point, you were doing extreme exercise in some upperclassman's room for infractions, imagined or otherwise. And I was going through that when he suddenly told us that in fact, the president had been assassinated.
Pete, just to dial back a few years, what impact did the Cuban Missile Crisis have on you? Did that affect your thinking at all?
Well, I didn't know as much as I know now about the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the truth is, as I said, I was mainly involved in more technical things. I was not a historian or into policy... It's interesting. I didn't read broadly in history and that sort of thing. I've read much more broadly in history and policy in later life. And in philosophy. As a matter of fact, that's most of what I read now. But back then I was pretty much out of it. You know, my wife was a native of Key West, FL, so she remembers the Nike batteries dug into the sand of the beaches in Key West, protecting the island from Cuba. Today when you go down there and you go out deep sea fishing, you're often actually fishing closer to Cuba than you are to the United States. Because there's only 90 miles between Key West, FL and Havana. And so, for her, it was a lot more visceral because the fortifications were there. Later, I got much more involved once I got into the Navy and started serving. Then those concerns became a lot more upfront. So even though I didn't have a lot of recollections about Cuba I can remember news reels on the Korean War as a young child. I can remember the stories about the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I didn't internalize them a lot. That was what? '62, the year before I went to the Naval Academy. But once I got into the Naval Academy at the start of my career, then I started to become much more sensitive to those issues.
Pete, what were your initial impressions of the Naval Academy? What sticks out in your memory?
First thing I can remember is the first day we were going around, getting all our stuff. And the way it works at the Naval Academy, you know, the haircut, the famous scenes that you see of people getting their hair cut? Going around, picking up all your stuff. They take everything that you own — that you bring with you, they send it back home. You only get to have things that they issue you. And I can remember of course the second class, which are the juniors at the Naval Academy; they are the ones that run the plebe detail. They're the ones that are responsible for the training. And I can remember being stood up against the wall with a second class pounding on my chest and virtually frothing at the mouth for some infraction that I committed. And I can remember thinking at the time, "Why is this man so out of his gourd? Why is he so crazy? What's going on here? Is this guy...?" You know, I thought he was kind of having an emotional breakdown. That was my first thought. (laughs) That was how naive I was about the whole process. And it hit me hard, because I wasn't particularly athletic, if you're an athlete at the Naval Academy, it's not so bad because, you know, athletic prowess counts heavily. But if you're not particularly athletic, a more bookish type, the first year is pretty tough. And that was one of my biggest tests at the Naval Academy. I told you, I wanted to do independent research and I wanted to go get my PhD. That was a goal. By the way, I never intended to make the Navy a career. We'll talk about that later.
But I never intended to make the Navy a career. I was always going to get my degree, pay back my obligation, get out, go back to research, and that sort of thing. So I had terrible grades that first year. At least for me. I passed off two courses on the day I walked in to the Academy. One was composition and literature, so I ended up taking modern European history. And I fell asleep during the final. That didn't go well. I ended up with a C in that course. My grades on a 4.0 scale, were like 3.35, which wasn't going to cut it for anything.
Pete, was the Naval academy integrated at that point? Do you remember seeing black cadets?
Yes. Not many, but a few. As a matter of fact, Calvin Huey, who was a wide receiver on our football team, was one of the main targets for Roger Staubach our Heisman Trophy winner. went to when he was playing, was a black man. Remember, this was early 60s. So things weren't totally enlightened yet. There had been over the years a fair amount of prejudice, and we were coming out of that. But Cal was a very honored member of our community. My experience with race, for example, was minimal. I grew up in a town where minorities were almost nonexistent. In my high school, we had two African Americans in my class. One of them was captain of the football team and the other one was the vice president of the class. And they both came to our 50th reunion. We were probably as close to being color blind as any in the United States at that time. And I kind of carried that with me to the Academy. We all went to Cal’s funeral here about a year or two ago to honor him as a classmate and to honor the contributions he had made to the community. I think that in our years, the tide was strongly turning. Because you saw more and more African Americans coming into the Naval Academy, and I think the vestiges of racism were starting to die out. Not that there weren't some there. I've seen that in my military career. As a matter of fact, I stood a shipmate up against the wall once for making a racist comment. And he basically told me, "Look, I grew up in the wrong place, you know. But we're working out way out of it." There was at least an honest effort, I think, in many cases for people to try to get themselves away from where they started.
Pete, how much leeway did you have in choosing your courses and ultimately pursuing your technical interests?
Let me catch up. So here I had a bad first year. Now the way the courses worked there, at that time you got a bachelor of science in engineering. It was the fundamental degree. You had to take the courses consistent with that. That's no longer true, but back then everybody had to take calculus. Everybody had to take physics, everybody had to take strength of materials. There were fundamental courses that you had to take. I was one of the first classes that was allowed to take a major. And I doubled up, I took two majors. One in math and one in physics and carried about. 22-22.5 hours of coursework. Which at the Naval Academy, given all the other things — you had to play in an intramural sport; you had mandatory PT requirements; you had to be in bed by 11:30. Or 11 o'clock, whenever taps was — it was a very vicious and constrained schedule. I had to take the basic curriculum, but then I added on physics courses and math courses. Advanced calculus, advanced differential equations, electromagnetic theory, quantum theory, thermodynamics. You know, those kinds of things that you added on. They weren't a lot of add-on courses, like about five courses in each one of the majors. I had about ten extra courses that were added on over a three-year period. Now I told you that I was kind of out of the running with my low grade point average. I had to do something about that. I started to really work hard on my grades the next year. And I started to pull all A's. Basically, for the next three years, I pulled a 3.96. Out of a 4.0 for my last three years at the Naval Academy. I was working it that first year, and I was still thinking about being a mathematician. So, I went over to the math department, found the professor that usually worked with the Trident Scholars at the math department, and went to talk to him, and he informed me that he only worked with the top one or two people in the class, implying that I was not worthy. At that point, I shook the dust of the math department off my shoes, and I went over to the physics department. because I had a physics professor that I liked and whose course I had taken, Professor Ralph Goodwin. I went and sat down with him and told him what I wanted to do. And he said, "Okay." I also told him that I was willing to spend extra time over in the physics department exploring and trying to figure out what was going on. This started a magic period in my life. Starting at the end of my sophomore year, for the next two years, I essentially read physics with a senior professor in the Oxford sense. I had a personal tutor. He was my thesis advisor for the Trident Scholar program, but we did things that there isn’t time for in most courses. His primary area was Physical Optics. He would tee up a topic and I would research it and often demonstrate it in the lab. One example Is observing Talbot’s Bands in a spectrograph. One day he came in, and on my desk, he threw a wooden box. And in the box is a mirror. It's basically a concave grating. And I looked at the box, and I had been reading up on spherical concave gratings and had looked up and was reading about the inventor of the spherical concave grating. A man by the name of Roland at Johns Hopkins had developed the first ruling engine to put the grating on a spherical mirror, and it talked about who prepared his plates, a man by the name of Brashear. And it also gave the number of lines of the grating. And I looked in this box, and inside the front cover, it said, "spherical concave grating" with the number of lines on a plate prepared by Brashear. It turned out from the number of lines; it was done on Roland's original engine.
Here I was holding a grating that had been probably made during Roland's time and been made on his original ruling engine and my advisor said, "Go figure out what to do with this." I went under the physics lecture hall — the lecture hall at the Naval Academy, underneath the seats. And set up an apparatus and was taking spectra using that grating. In the dark, underneath the seats, that's the kind of experience that I had. You know, the hands-on experimental and theoretical journey of discovery for two years. I don’t think I could have gotten a better education at any university in the country.
Pete, was this a purely academic pursuit? Did you have the sense that your studies were designed to have a broader impact or contribution to American security or military policy?
No, I had — remember, I wasn't going to be making the Navy a career.
No, but I'm saying in the way that you were educated. Not your perspective on what you learned, but the overall environment in which you learned these things.
Well, the overall environment was that, and I think what the Navy does to you and service does to you, and I'll talk about that when I get back out to the fleet. What you learn is that you have a responsibility, not just to yourself but to your shipmates, and at the Naval Academy, what you get taught is that you don't have responsibility just for yourself, but for your classmates. And the Naval Academy, it's…I don't know, were you a part of a fraternity? When you were in college?
I was not, but I'm familiar.
Well, my son didn't want to be either. But at the Naval Academy, your company at the Naval Academy is closer than a fraternity.
You really know these guys. You saw their true character under stress. You go to their weddings; you go to their funerals. You see them at football games, you tailgate with them. And what's unique about the Navy also is, when you leave the Academy, you go to work for the same company. When you get promoted, everybody knows you've been promoted. When you don't get promoted, everybody — you're part of the same corporate family, and you tend to track each other's careers. There are guys at the — that are in my class. For example, one was a former STRATCOM commander, Rich Mies. I don't know if you've heard that name?
Rich and I were classmates; we knew each other at the Naval Academy and sometimes shared answers to homework problems. And you know he was the SAG chairman that I had to call up to tell that I couldn't work on the SAG anymore. You track through your whole life with some of the people that you started school with. And I think that's more than you do at a normal college. Just because you all get thrown into the same company.
Tell me about the Trident Scholar program? How did that start and what was the opportunity that allowed you to be a part of it?
It started in '64 and allowed a limited number of midshipmen the opportunity to do an independent research project and forgo any fourth-year courses to do that. To be accepted as a Trident Scholar, you had to find an advisor and you had to find a project. Basically, you did a piece of science, and you wrote it up. Kind of like a mini-masters thesis kind of thing. Because there were no mandated courses, you'd take what you wanted to take and do your research, write your paper. I elected to take a couple of courses a semester my final year to finish up my math and physics majors for which I won awards. I also ended up winning the award as having the best Trident project of the year. The other interesting thing about it was when I went to Princeton, in order that everybody get some experimental experience, part of the entrance into the generals exam is that you had to do an experiment and write it up. I submitted my Trident project to fulfill the experimental requirement at Princeton, and it was accepted. The only experiment that I did at Princeton was my thesis work. The other thing that was odd about what I did is that I'm a self-driven person in terms of study. I get bored with class, sitting in a class listening to a lecture. At the Naval Academy in particular, what I did was to sit down and prepare every day by reading the reading, solving the problems, deriving the formulas, and I'd go through to make sure I knew all the material. And then when I got to class, I'd sit there and the prof would tell me exactly what I had read and what I'd already done. And I usually fell asleep. I think it's close to being true, that I slept in every class one semester. (Both laugh) But at night what I had a strategy in order not to get caught by the officer of the watch. I lived in the second wing of Bancroft Hall at the Naval Academy, and there was a pistol range and squash courts in the second wing. Because they had competitions, they had a lady’s room down there. Now we didn't have women at the Naval Academy in those days. So, I went and appropriated the lady’s room during the week. I took a comfortable chair, my coffee pot and ashtray. I was a smoker at the time. I quit in '67 but was still smoking at the time. And would go down there and sit there and put a blanket under the door so the office of the watch wouldn't see any light leaking out of the room. And I'd sit there and study. Of course, sneaking back to my room. And I did that every night — it was my standard operating procedure. Most of my study was self-driven, and not so much driven from note taking and lectures. Until I got to graduate school, of course, for obvious reasons it was a different story.
Now did you go to Princeton straight out of the Naval Academy?
No, I went to sea for two years first. Which is interesting and it was part of the Burke program. and the reason I think it was interesting is what it did for me as a student.
Now was that required to go to sea? Did you want to do that?
Yes. Oh yeah. The Navy isn't going to just put you through this education and not expect its pound of flesh. The Burke program required two years at sea before graduate school, probably to ensure that they were investing in a viable naval officer.
You had choices for a career. I could have gone to the Marine Corps, I could go to sea, I could have tried to go nuclear power and go into submarines. I just wanted to go to sea. I was going to spend my two years and having gotten selected for the Burke program; meant I was going to go to graduate school. I had fulfilled my two objectives at Navy: becoming a Trident Scholar and getting selected for the Burke program. The Burke program sent you to sea for two years, then they sent you back to graduate school, nominally for two years, but if you were doing well and were accepted by the university, they'd let you finish your PhD. I went to sea on a Destroyer, which was a different experience. I was a gunnery assistant in an old WWII Destroyer that had been modified with modern ASW equipment. If you remember any of those old WWII movies with the hand-fed five-inch mounts, that's what we were doing, while learning to drive a ship and having sailors under my supervision for the first time. A young ensign goes aboard, he's handed a group of people for whom he’s responsible, he's got an area of the ship he's got to keep up and he's got responsibilities during Battle Stations and everything else. He's also learning how to drive the ship under the tutelage of the captain. It's an intense experience, those first months. Particularly as the junior guy. During that time, I made two deployments: the first one around South America, and the second one to the North Atlantic.
Was going to Vietnam ever a possibility?
Matter of fact, the ship was getting ready to go to Vietnam, but I didn't make it because my two years ended, and I went to graduate school. I missed Vietnam because of the timing of the scholarship; by the time the scholarship ended the war was over — So I did not go to Vietnam at all.
Pete, what are your feelings about that? Do you feel lucky? Do you feel, why you and not so many other people who had to go? Have you ever reflected on that?
You remember at that point in my life, I wasn't gung-ho military. I've thought about it a lot since then. There's several countercurrents that go through the mind. On the one hand, I feel fortunate that I didn't have to go. On the other hand, there's that so many of my classmates did go and I feel like I got left out of the scrum in that sense. But then there's the whole question about whether the war was being managed well, or the real impact of that war on national security.
Were you aware of college protests?
I was, at the time, I was a supporter of the war. I was not an anti-Vietnam activist by any stretch.
And were you aware of the protests among your contemporaries at other colleges?
Yes. I was absolutely aware of it. Remember, at that time, I was married, I had a child, I was in graduate school and I had a classmate at Princeton who was in Army ROTC and one guy who had a high draft number, who didn't get selected to go. I think it was a confused situation at that point. But again, still... I would say that over time, I underwent a transition in my life from being non-military at all, to being military. And at that point, I'd had my first two years at sea. It was arduous in an old Destroyer. After having been a gunnery assistant, they wanted to assign me to be the ASW officer, so they sent me to Key West, FL to go to the Fleet Sonar School, ASW officer's course, and that's where I met my wife. We got married just before I went to Princeton and then we spent four years at Princeton. As I said, when I left Princeton, the war was ending as I was leaving. At one time I received a letter telling me to expect to be assigned to Vietnam, but for some reason, I was not reassigned out of the Burke program. They didn't touch anybody in the Burke program. The people that went to Vietnam: submariners generally didn't go I don’t think there were enough of them; surface guys like me went as artillery spotters and advisors and Officers in Charge of gun boats inside Vietnam; the pilots went, and they carried the brunt of a good part of the air war. I'll describe that later in my career I finally did get some combat, but not in Vietnam. I was part of the bombing of Benghazi when we went after Muamar Khaddaffi. I was chief engineer of USS America in Operation Eldorado Canyon.
This is when? '86?
Yes, that was me going back to sea at a latter point in my career.
What was the process of applying to graduate school? Was this the plan from the beginning? You do two years at sea? Or how did that decision making develop?
What happened in the Burke program, you went to sea for two years and you applied to graduate school and they'd send you to any graduate school you got accepted by that was accredited in a technical curriculum. I was at sea on deployment. I wrote my advisor at the Naval Academy and asked what he thought, and he told me that Princeton was a good place. I applied to Yale, Princeton, MIT. I got accepted at MIT again. I’d been accepted at MIT twice but didn't go either time. (both laugh) I feel kind of bad about that. I got accepted at Princeton and took Princeton. I was still at sea and hadn't seen the campus, hadn't a clue. Just read the book on the rankings of graduate programs and at the time, they were number one in physics. They had Eugene Wigner on the faculty, amongst others. I mean it was a really... Val Fitch, who was on my orals committee, ended up getting the Nobel Prize. It was a very, very deep faculty at the time and I signed up and went. For my first experience in a graduate school... I had a major in physics that was not that deep to begin with, I'd been off any study for two years, and I went back to the top university in the country and started out by getting hit by this tidal wave of information coming over bow. It was an interesting first six months there.
Pete, in your undergraduate education, did you gravitate more towards theory or experiment, and how well-formed was your identity as a physicist when you started at Princeton?
I did both. Because of my math background, I did both, but I felt more of an affinity I think for the experimental part, because I liked the design and the the hands-on part of the experimental world. And the interesting thing now. Getting, for example, what I was doing was measuring diffraction patterns in apertures at microwave frequencies as an undergraduate and ended up making microwave measurements as a graduate student. As a graduate student, after a year or so I started working in Bob Dicke's gravity group at Princeton. If you remember Bob Dicke of the Brans-Dicke Theory of Relativity. The cosmological constant everybody's worried about today. He thought that that was important back then. He also was the one that measured the solar oblateness, redid the Eotvos experiment to greater accuracy. He was one of the inventors of the maser and developed the lock-in amplifier, while he was at the radiation lab at MIT during WWII. He was the guru of the astrophysics community at Princeton. I joined — hooked up with the gravity group. Now I used to say to myself... if the Navy really knew that I was studying cosmology, I wonder if they'd like that or not? Later in life, I used to tell this story and say that education is different for everybody, and you must put your foot down; you can't do somebody else's curriculum. You have to do your curriculum and you should be the arbiter of what it takes to educate you as a person, to get the tools that you need to function. I decided that this was what I wanted to do, and I signed up for it. I always worried in the back of my mind that the Navy would look at that and say, "That's ridiculous." But when you think about what I was doing, the first large-scale measurement of the polarization of the microwave background. And the things that I got involved with were microwave hardware, detection, data processing… I mean when you look at all the pieces that made up that project, it was all pretty and mainstream kinds of things that in physics are important and are important to the development of Navy systems. I used what I learned in that experimental project throughout my career in the Navy, and I would tell people that you can't sit there and look at the title of a thesis and understand its ultimate value, both to yourself and to the Navy. Everybody uses the same sorts of techniques. One of the other projects I got involved with was the timing of the crab nebula pulsar. I built a photometer to hang on the back of a 36-inch reflector that we used to measure the degradation of the frequency of the crab nebula pulsar over time. That brought in fast Fourier transforms and some heavy duty data analysis for the time... I mean, on and on. You went through all of what was involved in those projects. They were important to all the military systems that we were developing at the time. Same underlying technologies. It turned out that I think I made a good choice career-wise.
Pete, how well-prepared did you feel among your cohort? Students who went to places like Harvard or MIT for their undergraduate?
Very unprepared. I had great experiential background because of the fact that I read with a professor for two years, but to sit there and look at the number of courses that we could cram into a Naval Academy curriculum, it was very limited. I said five additional courses over the core was all that you could fit in in a physics major. And that wasn't really good. That wasn't as good as somebody who's going to Harvard. But as I said, the pain of that wore off in about four to six months. I mean I can remember in my first quantum mechanics course, the prof came in. We had three books. Dicke and Wittke, Schiff, and Merzbacher. And he went through all three books. And he would start at one end of the board and write. We used to joke he'd be writing and erasing at the same time as he went down the board. (both laugh) It was just this flood of information and problems you had to work. And the other thing that was odd about what I did was, when it came time to prepare for generals time, you got two shots at generals at Princeton, and when it came time to do generals, I was sitting there taking a number of courses that I felt were not going to give me the background to pass generals. One thing that was very odd about Princeton was, Princeton did not give out grades for courses. This was the way it worked. You took courses, there were no grades given. The only things your transcript listed were the courses that you took and when you took the generals exam, if it was accepted, it said, "passed." Nobody ever found out how well they did on generals. The faculty met, they voted, you were either accepted as one of them or you weren't. And if you were accepted, even people who come back on the faculty never found out how they did on generals. It was just the way it was. And so preparing for generals for me, I went back to my roots at the Naval Academy. I recognized with the time I had left, and the courses I was taking, were not going to cover the material that I had to have command of in order to pass generals, so I stopped going to class. I holed up for the last six months before generals, read all the books I felt I needed to have, worked all the problems from the back of those texts, and then went into generals. It was just the way I did it.
And Pete, what was your status with the Navy at this point? Were you on active duty? Were you on a deferment?
I was active duty. I was attached to the ROTC unit until it got firebombed, and when the ROTC, was closed down, I was transferred to the weapons station at Earl, NJ. I would have to go down there occasionally, because there were two of us left at Princeton, myself and a classmate who was a chemistry student and I was senior by a few numbers. The Navy never sent another graduate student to Princeton after that. I was the last one out the door and I turned off the lights; I was the last Naval officer to matriculate at Princeton for a long time.
You mentioned at the Naval Academy, you supported the Vietnam War. Did your politics change at all as a graduate student learning in a civilian environment?
No. As a matter of fact, the Physics Department itself was very conservative, but not so much elsewhere. I had a flag decal on the side of my Volkswagen Beetle, and somebody slipped a piece of paper under the windshield wiper talking about my fascist symbol. You talk about the sensibilities in academia today and safe spaces and trigger warnings, well back then people were so upset about the war that they were circulating petitions so that they didn't have to take generals. Not in the physics department. Nobody would have dared in the physics department. But religion and a few of the soft sciences, you know, social sciences were circulating petitions. And I can remember a guy coming by knocking on my door in graduate student housing wanting to get me to sign a petition that said that they should be forgiven their general exam requirement. And I promptly threw him out. But that whole thing, you know, it's almost uncanny how similar that was to what's going on today in many ways. At least understand that was the time, they firebombed the ROTC unit. That wasn't a joke.
And they had just thrown IDA off campus a couple of years ahead of that. The Institute for Defense Analysis, so it was a serious time. We kept our heads down.
Who was on your thesis committee?
Bob Dicke, Val Fitch and Dave Wilkinson, my thesis advisor. One of the interesting things was when I submitted my thesis for publication… I left Princeton. I had to go to Destroyer school in Newport because I was being assigned as a department head on a destroyer. I finished my thesis and was taking my final orals. I moved up to Newport before the final orals because I was having to start a six-month course on time. I moved my family to Newport. Then we came back down to take my orals. And I took my orals, passed orals, and then had written up a paper based on my thesis and went back up to Destroyer school, submitted the paper for publication and went to sea. While out at sea and I got the paper back with some editorial comments on it from the Astrophysical Journal. And one interesting thing about the paper was, that I submitted it under my own name only. Dave Wilkinson, who was my thesis advisor... after whom they named the Wilkinson Observatory.
Sure, sure, sure.
Dave was on sabbatical during the whole time that I was setting up and running the project, a whole year of it he was on sabbatical. He didn’t feel that he had contributed that much and let me submit it alone. I thought that was a tremendously stand-up thing to do, considering most professors wouldn't have done that. They'd have made sure their name was on the paper. But anyhow, I submitted it and got some comments back. I was at sea in the North Atlantic getting the crap pounded out of me as chief engineer of an old Destroyer at the time. It was a back-breaking job, so I just threw the paper in the bottom drawer and soldiered on, figuring I would get to it someday. Then I got a note from Dave telling me that there were some people thinking about an experiment out on the West Coast and that I better get that paper in unless I wanted to be scooped by somebody else. I pulled the paper out, looked at the comments, made a tweak here or there, but didn't really change very much. I resubmitted it, agreeing with what I'd said the first time and ended up getting it returned with similar comments. At that point, I sat down, and hand wrote a letter to the editor of the journal pointing out the reviewers comments and my objections to them and submitted it. Well, things went quiet for another six months maybe and I get a call from the reviewer of my paper to discuss his comments. One of them was the fact that I had done a calculation of what the relationship between the asymmetry of the universe and the polarization would be, that followed, I think it was Martin Rees’ calculation of the same thing. And I couldn't duplicate his result. I basically had every friend helping me with that calculation to make sure that I had as many different eyes looking at it as possible. And I just I didn't agree with his result. I sent Rees a letter telling him that I had looked at his result and couldn't duplicate it. I got a cordial note back telling me that he couldn’t find his calculation, but he expected mine was probably right. I went ahead and used my result in the paper, and the reviewer quite rightly saw the difference, and questioned it. I told the reviewer that I didn't feel it was my job to rag on a senior physicist and therefore I wasn't going to try to embarrass anybody. I was just going to publish my result and let it go. We talked over the other issues, and he agreed to release the paper. End of discussion. He then apologized for being late getting back to me on the paper, but he was kind of busy in the fall. And then I thought of his name, and then I knew why. It was Bob Wilson. He was receiving the Nobel Prize that fall. (both laugh) So I kind of, in my mind forgave him. (laughs)
What was available to you, and what ongoing service did you want to provide to the Navy at that point?
At this point I was up to my eyeballs in running an old Destroyer's engineering plant, and then I transferred to a Destroyer Squadron Staff as Materiel officer. The jobs were challenging from a management point of view, but pretty pedestrian — basic steam engineering, not very esoteric, although I did some computer programming while I was on the staff. But I was looking to go back now to do a payback technical tour. I went to the commodore I was working for who knew one of the admirals in DC and sent me back to interview with him. And he looked at my background and said, "I know where you might want to go. I'll set you up to go talk to Al Skolnick, Captain Al Skolnick, who's running the Navy High Energy Laser Program. He sent me over there, I sat down and talked to him. He was interested and I was interested. I signed up, came back to Washington, went to work in the Navy High Energy Laser Program. What did that entail? We built the largest high energy laser in the free world and we were on path, during the time I was there, to demonstrate the ability to shoot down supersonic aircraft. Hard kill with a high energy laser.
Was this all classified research?
That was, well, the numbers were classified, but it was the MIRACL laser. The Mid-Infrared Chemical Laser in, it was basically a deuterium fluoride laser that was installed out at White Sands Missile Range. The beam director was built by then Hughes Aircraft. The laser was built by TRW at the time. I went there as the deputy in the technology branch. The head of that was a retired Air Force Officer. An aerodynamicist — there were basically six of us, principles in that group. Only one didn't have a PhD and that was because he was too smart and didn't want it. He was the beam director expert. It was that group, that small group of people, that built that project. And it in fact met all the technical goals that were set up for it. We predicted that we'd have this much laser fluence at a range and actually matched the numbers. It was a tremendous project. Very technically oriented. My job was other than being the deputy, I also did the risk reduction experiments. I did things like hotspot tracking. Where you basically track the laser beam and track the hot spot that the laser is illuminating in different wavelengths and drive them together. I also did adaptive optics, where you basically correct for thermal aberrations in the atmosphere, by measuring the phase aberrations, creating the phase conjugate, and taking the aberrations out of the beam by pre-deforming the beam so that you got a gaussian spot at range. In other words, you get the maximum fluence at range. The maximum intensity. And it was great. There were also a number of auto-alignment, experiments, etc. There was just a lot of technical meat in the program.
It was during that program that I sat there and said — What now? Remember, I went into this program telling you that I was going to get out of the Navy. So now I'd gone to sea for two years, gone to graduate school for four, my total obligation was going to wind up at 14 years. I'd come to Washington and I was coming right on to 14 years, and I said, okay, here is the moment. What do I do? This is the point where I either make a break for it, go over the wall and escape, or I stay here. Well, what do I do? And the question was, do I go back out to sea? And command a ship. Because up to now, I was competitive in terms of my Naval career. I'd had good reports, so they were getting ready to send me back out on my executive officer tour. So that was one thing I could do. Second thing I could do is change myself into an engineering duty officer, where I concentrated just on technical things. Or I could cut it all off and go back into a civilian technical job. Like go back to research or something like that. I sat down, with a book called "What Color is Your Parachute?" and worked through all the exercises. Sat in the lotus position. I can't do the lotus position, but you know. Figuratively. Contemplating my navel, trying to understand what I should do. The guy who built the Aegis system talked to me, Admiral Wayne Meyer. And you know the ship-based anti-ballistic missile system? That's based on his system. And he told me that I could go to sea as the captain of a ship, and you can have the best ship and the best crew, but somebody can come in behind me and in six months screw it up so it's unrecognizable. But if you build a good system for the Navy, it's going to be with the Navy for generations. I listened to what he had to say, and it struck a chord. I was having too much fun in the Navy at the time. Here I had just made commander. I had millions of dollars under my control. I was responsible for technically rewarding projects and I was the spark plug. I was an entrepreneur to some extent in terms of getting those projects funded and getting them through and getting them done properly. It was really a very, very seductive role. And I was having fun at it and I was good at it. And that plus the fact that I knew what I was doing could have a long-term impact made me want to sign up and stay in the Navy as an engineering duty officer. Now in those days, there was some stigma about being an engineering duty officer. For the guys who were going for command at sea, particularly the senior ones, didn't think that was a good thing to do. Back then the Navy did not always look well on those folks, and the senior position you could get as an engineering duty officer was command of the Naval Sea Systems Command or NAVSEA. And that was a vice admiral's position. And that was the only time that the ED could get to be basically a very senior admiral. Now, we've had as many as four ED admirals that are three stars. The head of my old job, as head of SP, the head of the Strategic Program is now a three star. The head of NAVSEA. The head of Missile Defense has been a three-star Navy ED admiral. And the principal deputy assistant for acquisition in the Pentagon for the Navy has been a three-star ED admiral. So, we've had up to four at one time and the reputation of engineering officers over time has changed drastically. I signed up to become an ED at that point — I spent a total of four years working in the High Energy Laser Program and gave the guy who was the head of the program an extra couple of years. In exchange, he told me that if I stayed an extra year or two with him, he would get me through the ED qualification process, which he did. And by the way, he's over 90 years old now and he and his family are still great friends. It has been one of those enduring relationships that doesn't fade. Unfortunately, another great family friend, my Trident thesis advisor from the Naval Academy passed away a number of years ago.
Starting as a newly qualified ED from the laser program, I decided to try other parts of the engineering duty community. I went from the Navy High Energy Laser Program to a shipyard, to where I could see how systems actually got installed in ships and what the issues were. That was a very rewarding tour. I had 130 people in my office, the Combat Systems Office. These were the guys who were doing the Combat Systems testing and design work for the electronics in sonars, radars, as well as alignments of gun and missile systems. I was right in the middle of the delivery of the weapons systems of ships coming in and out of the shipyard. And so that was a valuable tour. The proudest moment was when the civilian superintendents made me an honorary superintendent for my contributions to the yard. And it was while I was there that I got a call and if you notice from this narrative, I'm starting to get more Navy blue as time goes on.
Yeah, Pete, on that point, I want to ask, as you're making this big decision, what was the road not traveled? In other words, if you had left the Navy, what did you see as your prospects? An academic professorship? Industry? What might else have you pursued?
Hadn't a clue. Hadn't thought it that deeply, but I'd always thought academia because that's where my experience was. And ask me that question when we come to Los Alamos, because that was exactly what I tried to do when I went to Los Alamos, I thought of that poem. I went to Los Alamos because it was the road that I turned away from. And I said, "If I'm going to take another shot, I'm going to take another shot down the other road."
As I was saying that I was getting more Navy blue. I'm sitting there fat, dumb, and happy, working for a great guy. Let me explain a little bit of politics. Interesting Navy promotional politics. And even though I was — remember the one thing about the Navy, there are many cults in the Navy. You've got ship drivers and pilots and submariners — but then you get into the engineering duty community, you've got people that work on propulsion systems and hulls and that sort of thing that we call pump kickers, you've got combat systems specialists: 'trons that work on electronics systems and ordnance people that work on the gun and missile systems. I was a weapons system guy, but I was a closet pump kicker, because I had been chief engineer of an old Destroyer and I understood steam engineering and all the things that went with that. But my profession at this point was as a combat systems guy. An ordinance guy. I had gone to work for the Commander of Norfolk Naval Shipyard, who had just made admiral, and he rewarded me. I worked hard for him and did well, I think, getting things in and out of the yard on time and making sure that the combat systems were never a problem. He rewarded me very well in terms of my evaluations. He got relieved in the normal course of things, and the new commander came in and let it be known that if you weren't a pump kicker, you were not going to do well. I was going to have to face that at some point. Then out of the blue I get call from my detailer, the one who controls my assignments, who says to me that he’s got a problem in looking for a chief engineer for USS America a fossil fueled aircraft carrier. He was talking to the pump kicker community, and none of them would agree to go. A Carrier Chief Engineer had one of the tougher jobs in the fleet. I told him that I was in Combat Systems, and I didn't kick pumps anymore. But he reminded me that I was qualified and that this was a big deal; that he needed to get somebody to run that plant. He said he would keep looking, but I might have to call me back. Some weeks later I did get a call back telling me that he was serious, that he had to get somebody. The pump kickers weren't responding, and he needed me to think seriously about taking the job. I thought a minute, and said to myself, "Do I really tell my detailer that I have something better to do than being a department head on the capital ship of the Navy?" The answer is, I don't.
At that point I told my detailer that there were three things that had to happen. On my part I've got to figure out if I can keep my wife in shipyard housing until I finish the carrier tour, because I don't want to have to move her while I'm worried about a carrier. On your part, first, you've got to clear it with my boss, the shipyard commander so he doesn't think I'm ducking out on him. I don't want a knife in my back as I'm leaving. Second, you need to talk to the head of theCombat Systems community, so he doesn't think I'm off taking a vacation from combat systems and having fun at his expense. I didn’t want him to kill me. He said, "Okay." He did his part, and I did mine, and I went. The reason I'm telling this story in detail, is because this was a life experience like no other: the most transformative tour that I had in the United States Navy. I'll go through why.
You knew this going in, or this is what you learned as a result?
This is what I learned as a result. What leads you down the path of life is made up of a lot of things. Some of them academic but not all. For example — let me give you an anecdote. When I went to Princeton, I'd spent two years at sea, getting things done on a ship. When it came time to do my thesis, I didn't have a problem. I went after the tools I needed; qualified in the machine shop. And designed circuits. If I had a problem, I knew how to pick up the phone, call the expert. You know, when I was measuring the polarization of the microwave background, I set up a radiometer with a four-port ferrite device at the top. That was rotating the resolving axis of the polarimeter. And in there was a piece of ferrite and that was being affected by the Earth's magnetic field as I rotated the device to take out systematics. It was providing a noise signal that swamped the effect I was looking for. So, I called up a company specializing in magnetic shields and told them that I had a magnetic field problem, and could they build me a custom shield? And I knew how to... other people would sit there and agonize for months over about how to do this and how to do that. I called the guy who was the expert on it, found out exactly what I needed to do to give him the material he needed to help me, got it done, got the thing turned around, got it installed, got the experiment online. I had that kind of practical experience.
Practical experience in a variety of different situations brings you great benefits to the work you're doing, whether it's technical work or not. Because it gives you mindset, it gives you understanding of how to see the big picture, and by the time I had gone back to being chief engineer on the carrier, I had also been a program manager for four years, writing contracts and getting projects done. Which is a skill set that's ingrained in me that helped me at Los Alamos. That I'll talk to you about later. I always viewed every job as an opportunity to put new tools in your toolbox. When I went to America, it was a little bit of a surreal experience. I went there. I was told by the AIRLANT Maintenance Officer (AIRLANT is the command in Norfolk that has control of all the aircraft carriers), that an inspection team was getting ready to go out to the ship and he told me not to relieve until after the in-service inspection that was going to occur. He told me that the ship was in such bad shape they were going to fire everybody, and that I didn't want to get caught up in it. That's where you are... you're going to a ship and you find out it's in terrible shape as you're getting ready to go, and you're being told not to go through the relieving process because it's all going to come apart. I go out to the ship, and I go down into engineering central, to meet the chief engineer. He looks to me like a guy close to a nervous breakdown. And I start looking around, and the maintenance officer was right. The place is a mess. They haven't done required evolutions, required inspections, the safety equipment wasn't up to snuff. I mean the list just went on and on and I sincerely to this day think the guy was out of his depth in terms of his ability to handle the stress of that. It was a stress thing, I think. So anyhow, I get a call from the CO, and he asked me up to his cabin, and he sits me down, offers me a cup of coffee, and says, "Okay, Pete, what do you think?" Moment of truth time. Remember, I've been told not to relieve. But the guy asked me a direct question, and so I told him. I told him the ship was in a heap of trouble and wouldn’t pass the INSURV inspection.
And I explained to him a few things that I could repeat to you, but they might not mean much — like blowing tubes on a steaming boiler. It's done with 1200-pound superheated steam, and it scours the inside of the fire box and the tube bundles to get all of the ash and debris out of there so that you don't fail any of the generating tubes. He hadn't done that in months when it needs to be done every 24 hours. It's a safety evolution. The captain listened to this for a while, and he asked what he should do about it? Normally what you do when you relieve is you go and put all the discrepancies in a letter. That both you and the guy you're relieving sign. This sort of sets the baseline for your continued stewardship. I told the captain that we didn't have time for a relieving letter. It would take me too long to put that much stuff in a letter, and it's not going to mean much, three weeks away from the inspection. I told him, I needed to go down there, relieve the old engineer right now and, get him off the ship. With three weeks left, we run like hell, document everything that's broken, make sure all the safety stuff is working properly, and throw ourselves on the mercy of the court. At least they will know that we know what's wrong and we're confident we can fix it. That's the strategy. He agreed. I went down and relieved him. We busted butt for three weeks, but we survived.
Pete, why do you think you survived? What explained it?
What I did was get all officers and the senior petty officers in the engineering department in the hanger bay, told them what we were going to do, divided them up into teams. Project management. By the way, this wasn't my first rodeo. The reason they went after me the be a chief engineer is I had been chief engineer of the oldest 1200 PSI engineering plant in the United States Navy, and I kept that ship underway for two years. I basically knew where I was. I had the tools. I knew what I was dealing with in terms of the steam engineering plant, and I knew how to talk to the sailors, to get them to do what I needed to have them do. We ended up having to go back and repeat a couple of evolutions. We had to work on the flight deck wash down system and we had to rerun full power, because our hull was filled with barnacles from the Persian Gulf, but other than that, the rest of it they passed us on. Because basically we documented everything that was wrong and had all the safety equipment working. And when I say safety equipment, the boiler safeties were set. The fuel oil quick closing valves on the burner fronts were set. The fuel oil quick closing valves up at the main deck level were set. They went through and checked all of those, and they found all of the safety equipment was working, and that we had documented all of the things that were broken. Plus, some of it had gotten fixed. In other words, when I got back into port after having met the ship in the Med, I had a tremendous amount of work to put out to the industrial community. And some of it got fixed before the board got there. But we had piles of documentation. And work orders written for all of it. But you know, it was an amazing experience.
You didn't regret it?
No, I didn't regret it. It was one of my most satisfying tours and, part of what got me selected for admiral.
Pete, orient me in the chronology. Where are we now at this point when you're nominated?
What, for admiral?
That was a bit further down the road. This is, let's see, '63 went to the Naval Academy, '67 graduated, two years at sea. November '73 left Princeton, went to Destroyer school. Came back to Washington in '76, December of '76. Went to I think... I want to say I went to Norfolk to be in the shipyard in May of '80. And then went to America in... '84, around I want to say June-ish. May or June, somewhere in there. And then spent two and a half years — did a couple of evolutions with America. As I said came back from the Med and got it ready in the shipyard. It turned out that Gaddafi was kicking up in the Mediterranean, so we deployed two weeks early, went to the Mediterranean. Conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations and were part of Operation El Dorado Canyon, the bombing of Benghazi. By the way, America during that time won the Red E for engineering excellence two years in a row, for being the best aircraft carrier in engineering in the Atlantic fleet. A very proud time. I really enjoyed being the chief engineer, putting the puzzle together and getting it to work right.
Pete, what was the Benghazi experience like for you?
Well, it was a very interesting one, it turns out, and again, it shows how everything is connected. We're up behind Sicily, we had done the Freedom of Navigation Operations and, they sent some gun boats out after us, missile firing gun boats, and we sank one of them. We were up behind Sicily where I was doing normal boiler maintenance. I had eight boilers in America. I took one of them down and was doing the normal fireside waterside maintenance on the boiler, and the call came for us to steam to the line of death. The navigator called me up and told me that we had to make a certain amount of progress along track, and I told him I needed six boilers. So, we crank on six boilers and start the transit. Then I get another call from the navigator who tells me there's no wind at the line of death. He told me we were going to have to make all our own wind and I need this amount of wind over the deck in order to get the fully loaded bombers off. At that point I said to myself, "Oh s**t, I need eight boilers." I called up and got the chiefs together and told them what I wanted them to do: not to do the cosmetic stuff, not to put in the boiler casing lights and all that good stuff, but rather to make sure it's tight and safe; do the hydros and set the safeties: all the safety features, but to get that damn boiler online. It got to be pretty busy as we're steaming towards the line of death. As we get to the line of death, the call comes to corpen (turn in column with our escorts) into the wind and launch the Alpha strike. We cut the eighth boiler in on the line as we were making the turn, slapped the pedal to the metal, let her rip, went full power (280,000 shaft horsepower), and launched the strike. So that was a busy time for me. (both laugh)
Did you ever feel endangered?
No. Are you kidding me? With an aircraft carrier with 100 aircraft and you're worried about a missile boat coming out? I don't think so.
You know, that counted as my nine days of combat, by the way.
Pete, overall question in the 1980s. At your level, did you feel the differences in Reagan's increased military spending?
I felt that, yes. I especially did later when I went to the Navy Strategic Systems Programs, their Trident II, D5 submarine launched ballistic missile program was one of the big beneficiaries of that increased spending. Because we went from Trident I, C4 and Poseidon, C3 to Trident II, D5 as part of the Reagan buildup. We've always felt that D5 was one of the big things that broke the back of the old Soviet Union in the Cold War. Whenever we launched test flights of that missile, we always had Soviet trawlers in tow, observing our test flights. Well, the D5 system was the most reliable strategic weapons system that's ever been built on the face of the planet and one of the most accurate. We always felt that the Russians knew deep in their heart that if the president picked up the phone, they were toast. That's deterrence, by the way, and I think that's what people miss. Let me give a little quick vignette on deterrence. Khrushchev once asked Dean Rusk, who was caught without being able to talk to the president about anything (laughs), and said, "Do you expect me to believe that you would trade Berlin for New York?" And Rusk told Khrushchev, "Mr. Chairman, you just have to — " I'm probably murdering this quote, but it's close, "Mr. Chairman, you just have to accept the fact that the Americans might be f — — — crazy." And that was the point of deterrence. It was the ability to do unspeakable damage, but with even the least bit of uncertainty about whether you'd do it or not. The fact it was there led to the incredible sense that it was a possibility that it might be employed. It wouldn't just sit there. For example, the minuteman system was designed to destroy 80% of the Soviet industrial capability and kill 75% of the population. But the big deal was the uncertainty in an actual situation about whether people would use it or not. And if you don't have a credible uncertainty, that sense of risk, then deterrence doesn't work. You've probably seen the chart that shows the deaths in war from 1600 to the present, Vic Reese a former undersecretary of Energy came up with that chart. My contribution was to normalize it to population and on average it's 1.5 to 2.5% of world population a year that died as a result of war.
It's a remarkable story, the drop in annual fatalities. I've heard other people say this. I remember one time listening in on NPR interview when they had an academic on saying that nuclear weapons performed the function of the UN during the Cold War. They basically took warfare amongst major states off the table. When you think of the carnage of WWII, 30 million people killed. We get hysterical over the potential damage of a nuclear weapon but ignore the fact that we haven’t had a major world conflict since WWII. When you look at what was done against Japan, the biggest loss of life in bombing in Japan was the firebombing of Tokyo, which exceeded the summation of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And what always puzzled me was that people were crazy over nuclear weapons, and yet somehow, they gave a pass to incendiaries. I always thought that that was odd, you know, to me, a life is a life, and the firebombing of Dresden and the firebombing of Tokyo were tragedies of the first magnitude. But they tend to be ignored, but the fact is that nuclear weapons prevent these by deterring major conflict, that kind of major no-holds-barred warfare between major powers. As time goes on, the amount of force that can be exerted goes up and up and the fact that we reach the plateau where the consequences of the warfare were so great that it scared the hell out of everybody was very, very important.
Pete, tell me about the opportunity that led you to Navy Strategic Programs.
I’m coming back off of the tour on America, and I've been away from project management now for four years and I don't have a natural home to which to return. It's not like I came out of a big program like the Aegis program and was heading back. They had just reorganized the old Naval Electronics Systems Command and changed its focus somewhat, renaming it The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, and giving it the additional responsibility for looking at systems engineering at the battle group level. I took a job as the deputy warfare systems engineer in this new organization, doing the systems engineering for battle groups. In the past, we had engineered systems at the total ship level. Now we wanted to take a whole battle group and integrate the capabilities of the battle group in a system-oriented way. That hadn't been done before. Now the commander of Space Naval Warfare Systems Command, a vice admiral, had come from being Director, Strategic Systems Programs, and the Admiral I was working for, the warfare systems engineer, had also been in that program as the deputy technical director. The two of them suggested that I needed to get into a large program with promotion opportunities and that SSP was a possibility.) I went over and met with John Mitchell, the Technical Director, talked to him and decided for my next tour to go over to SSP. SSP is a different organization from other Naval programs, because the people in SSP are lifers. You usually go into SSP as a relatively junior officer, and you serve your whole life there, and then you eventually become either technical director or director, if you're the one that sorts yourself out at the top. But they had lost their next technical director, they had a dearth of candidates in the program, and they were looking outside for people at the captain level. They were looking for a couple good captains they could bring in. I went into SSP and over a six-year period, I was the head of the Navigation branch, doing ships' inertial navigation, which was very interesting work, was head of the Missile branch, which at that time also included reentry systems. Became technical director and after that, spent four years as director, a little early, because John Mitchell had decided that he wasn't going to stick around for his second star and went to work for Bechtel. That brought my number up, and I got selected to flag to become the director of the program. In that tour, I had a blast. I mean we did incredible development work. Let me give you an example.
While I was director, I had a deal with the contractors that if they had an experimental package of interest to us, that I'd fly it. If they paid for it, I'd fly it. Lockheed, our missile contractor would come up with a package that we would put it in a reentry position, fly it off the bus during a flight test, score it in the target area and give Lockheed the data. We got a lot of interesting things done. We did some of the first work on how to put controls on a reentry body to study how to craft higher accuracy weapons systems. You know, a lot of what you're hearing now is about hypersonic weapons. We flew the first GPS in a reentry system, for example. You know, small steps at the time, but you've got to remember, when I first went to SSP, the GPS receiver filled up three slots in a standard 36-inch rack and it cost about $4 million. It was before we came up with miniaturized GPS receivers. We did a lot of interesting things during that time.
Pete, in what ways was the Gulf War a factor in all of this?
Very little. From our standpoint, very little. SSP was involved in strategic deterrence that was totally removed from conventional conflict on that scale as it should be. Also, on another level the Gulf War was a very short war. Comparing that to Iraq and Afghanistan that went on for an extended period when engineering duty officers like myself ended up rotating in to take in country billets in Iraq and Afghanistan doing contracting work for support, supplies, and things like that. You realize all the logistics goes with the force in a place like Afghanistan or Iraq, you're buying a lot of it out of a commercial market, and you need contractors and program managers and all that sort of thing. A lot of guys went in country at that point, during that part of the war. But again, the first Gulf War was too short for that. We liberated Kuwait and elected not to go into Iraq at that point.
Probably the biggest thing going on in the program during that time was the desire to reduce spending on strategic programs. Trident production was a prime target. The Trident development contract was over 5 billion and the largest contract of its type in the department of defense up to that time. At that time, they were trying to save money, and were trying to shut down Trident production, because we were spending a fair amount of money. Remember the missiles were costing about $35 million a missile for an all-up-round with guidance and reentry systems; all but the nuclear packages. What they wanted to do was to break production. So that they could, just build closer to need. Unfortunately, there were a few issues with that.
First, they didn't understand is that in a flight hardware system like Trident, you never test the one you use. You depend for your performance estimates on lot integrity. In other words, you build systems in a continual production process, you sample those systems and their reliability, and you treat the whole thing as a single population. Once you break production, you're not sure you're building the same product. Let me give you an example. When I was the missile branch head, we were still supporting Polaris for the Brits, because they had elected not to go beyond Polaris until they bought the D5, so they skipped two generations of missile, but their first-stage rocket motors were not going to last, and they needed to have new first-stage rocket motors to tide them over. We cranked up production, but it was terrible. The propellant had all sorts of voids in it, and the motors were not acceptable. Finally in frustration we called in people who had retired and asked them what they thought. It turned out that there was an undocumented step that they added to the procedures that prevented air entrainment in the propellent while it was flowing into the mold that was under a vacuum. You find out when you build something like this, the things that affect quality and performance are rarely completely documented, and what you need is the continuity of production to maintain the process, because again, you can't test the one you use. It's just like when we were building W88 pits at Los Alamos. The way we kept the production going was that we would destructively test every so many because there were parts of the process where we couldn't discern whether something was good or bad based on any other measurement other than cutting it open. We depended on the continuity of the production process and lot integrity to be able to maintain production quality.
The second major issue was restart cost that could run into the billions, because of recertification and testing. For those reasons, we fought tooth and nail to keep D5 production from being stopped, and we managed to do that for a couple of years, and we did it by telling them how much it would cost to restart production and do enough testing to make sure we had lot integrity. That went along for a couple of years, then I became director, and they were interested in shutting Trident production down again and again, we fought it off. Finally, I convened a Blue-Ribbon panel, and I asked the question of the Blue-Ribbon panel: how many rocket motors do I have to build a year to be able to have reliability, continuity of production, and a safe product? And they said you must build 12 sets of rocket motors a year, one a month, to have that level of continuity. At that point we reduced production to 12 sets from 44, I think and we're still building 12 rocket motor sets a year today. At this point the Navy was also very anti-Trident; the D5 budget was cutting into the Navy Budget very deeply, and they were out to trim it as much as possible. To reduce costs, the Navy hierarchy even thought to zero Trident I, C4, which were all in the Pacific at that time. That would have taken out a weapon system, Trident I, the Trident 1 submarines, and a submarine base with its weapons facility. The Navy didn’t get much traction with the idea, but this was another example of the tight funding post Reagan buildup when more money was needed for other things in the Navy, not just strategic deterrent.
The other thing that was interesting at the time was this was right after the B1 bomber had been canceled. And I was driving home one day, and I said to myself, you know, everybody loved the B1 bomber. It was a poster child. But when they cut back production, the price went up to like $400 million a plane, which Congress couldn't stand, and they canceled the program. Now I was in the process of reducing production to 12 missiles a year. We had been building 44 missiles a year, at $35 million a pop. And I was going to go down to 12. Suddenly I had this great feeling of fear, so I called in the contractors, and I told them that we couldn't allow the cost growth of D5 to get out of control, because if it does, they'll cancel us. They canceled the B1, and that was a lot more beloved than a missile. So, we didn’t let it get out of control. We singled up the production line. We hand over handed everything in the production process. As a matter of fact, I did something my predecessors would probably never have done I consolidated missile motor production. And cut out one of the motor contractors. That had never been done before. We ended up building the motors with a joint venture of what was then, Hercules and Thiokol, which are now one company, but back then were two companies, and managed to control the price of the D5 so that it only grew by about 30-35%. Which was very low compared to most other programs that had been cut back that far and we survived. We got the price down to where we could survive. That was an interesting time.
Pete, where is the end of the Cold War in all of this? Are you dealing with reduced budgets? Are you wondering who the major strategic threat is?
Of course, we were the mechanics in the basement of the building, right? We just do deterrence. And we never lost focus on the fact that there was only one country in the world that could destroy us. It went from being the Soviet Union to Russia, but they had thousands of nuclear warheads and the ability to deliver them. As far as we were concerned, the Cold War wasn’t completely over. Now, what was interesting was the START Treaty process to try and cool the cold war even further. And I was there when we first implemented the START treaty and decided how we were going to do the inspections, both in Russia and here. And what we were going to do to protect the technology that we had from prying eyes. At the same time meeting the requirements and the intent of the start process. And it turned out that that was an amazing period. There was a Navy rear admiral on the Chief of Naval Operation’s staff who was handling it. We sent one of our best naval officers over to work with him, so that when they came up with questions about whether we ought to incorporate certain treaty language or not and what the impact on the program would be, we could tell them. Let me give you an example of a sticky one. The idea of telemetry. We had to give our telemetry. There had to be transparency in telemetry for missile tests. In fact, it was written into the treaty, that we had to collect all our telemetry even if we didn’t need it all and give it to the Russians. We also produced a book that told the Russians what our telemetry decoded to. And they did the same for us.
When you were promoted to commander of Naval Sea Systems, was that the next rank up, or was this a quantum leap in rank and responsibility?
I had just made two stars. The way the services work, your last permanent grade is a two-star grade and I had just made two stars. And once you're a two star, you're eligible to be assigned to a billet that carries a higher rank. NAVSEA was a three-star billet. By virtue of getting nominated for that billet, when that was approved, I was promoted to three stars. And when I left that job, I could ask to be retired at three-star rank, but if I elected to stay on, I would revert to two stars because it's, the billet that carries the rank. So basically, I spent four years as the director of SSP, and then went to NAVSEA, which was again an interesting tour. And you know, I always viewed my tours as opportunities to find out what was bad, what was good, take what was bad, try to sort it out and make everything better. You know, that was my modus operandi. I took a lot of jobs over my career that were basically broken — like USS America. Which were basically broken and there were a lot of problems with NAVSEA when I went there. But first let me add another item from SSP: we learned a lot about hypersonics. A reentry body is a finely tuned hypersonic vehicle. We tried to extend our resources in this area and get the Navy at the time to use the Army ATACMS missile. Remember, at that time we were taking four submarines out of service as strategic submarines, and we were turning them into conventional missile shooters. And I tried to get the Navy to put the Army missile in those. We were able to demonstrate to the Army that we could in fact put a penetrating warhead, based on Navy technology into an Army missile, and that we were pretty sure we could shoot one out of 21-inch missile tubes in a Trident submarine. To make the point to the Navy the ATACMS contractor, did a prototype of how that rear end of that missile would look, and I put it on a dolly, drove it down to the CNO's conference room at the Pentagon, and had a display up outside the CNO's conference room showing them what could be done. But I could never get the Navy to buy into it. A lot of things we tried to do during that time were trying to use all the resources that we were given. Remember that I told you, when one of our contractors would create an experiment, we'd fly it for them. We were trying to push the set of technologies that ultimately were becoming important. You know, the Army and the Navy hypersonic missile systems that are being built, experiments that are being done — these were the precursor experiments that occurred during that time in our program. And we used all the resources that we had to get as far in the technology as we could. And it was frustrating to us we couldn't go further, and now we're behind we are told. And for those of us who were trying to get that done, it's very frustrating to think that we're behind in a game where we were very ahead. That's kind of the way it goes.
Back to NAVSEA. First, NAVSEA was on a totally different scale. I had about 1500 people, government people, in SSP. I had 50,000 government people at Nav Sea. 38 field activities, four nuclear shipyards, ten laboratory divisions, and a variety of other support activities. For all that we weren't getting a lot of respect. I thought about it for a while — the reason we weren't getting a lot of respect. If you went to an operator and said, "What do you think about NAVSEA?" They would say, "Well, they never do anything for us. Those guys are worthless." And I'm sitting back there saying to myself, "How can this be? I've got 150 people a day on ships out in the fleet." And then I thought about it for a bit more, and I thought, "Yeah, but nobody knows those guys are from NAVSEA. The fleet sees badges from Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard or from Dahlgren Surface Warfare Center." They see all of these different organizations are out there, but nobody knew they were from NAVSEA. So, I had an offsite where we designed a new NAVSEA logo, which they're still using today, and I told the assembly that henceforth, we are all going to wear the same badge. There is no longer Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, but NAVSEA Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Dahlgren is now Naval Sea Systems Command, Dahlgren division. Everybody saw the same blue logo, on the badge, that they would identify where their support was coming from. Well, this created, particularly in the shipyards, an angst and a crisis like you wouldn't believe: "Oh, you're changing our historic name, da da da da da, and we're so unique, da da da da da." But I tamped it down. I can remember one day, I went to a trade show, and one of the warfare centers was exhibiting and they didn't have NAVSEA anywhere in any of the documentation. I asked the exhibitor who he worked for and he didn't mention NAVSEA. I got my cell phone out, called up the commander of the center and told him that I was sitting at his display, and the gentleman he had here doesn't know who he works for and that I thought that he needed to correct that. Here's this poor captain who gets a call from a three-star telling him he needs to educate his people. I did that a few times, and it caught on finally. Well, the reputation started to change. And NAVSEA became recognized for the impact of the organization on the fleet. The other thing I did during that time, which is kind of interesting. It started when my wife and I were driving somewhere, I forget where and my wife had been talking to USAA, the insurance company, and they have wonderful customer service. She had been talking about some change in policy or other, and she picked up the cell phone and called them and said, "Oh, darn, I forgot you can't help me, I forgot the paperwork." The lady on the phone, I'm listening to said, "No Mrs. Nanos, on such and such a day, you called us, you talked to so-and-so, you asked her this, she told you that. How can I help you?" And I was stunned. I was stunned! They were absolutely seamless in their support of us. When I was a chief engineer, and I wanted to know a detail about how to get something difficult done, I'd ask the senior chief or the master chief, and they would pull out a wheel book in which they had written the magic phone number of the relevant NAVSEA engineer that could help us. If he didn’t have the number, we were hosed. Why should it depend on some chief who just happens to have that number in his pocket? You need to have some way to take sailors and connect them to the support they need. That is what I did based on the USAA model. I put my best senior civilian on it, who was my logistics guy at the time, and we worked with the Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP), and we created a 1-800 number and put a contractor in charge of it, and this is what we told the contractor. When somebody calls you and asks you a question or for help, you're to stay on the phone with that person until you hook up with the technical person with the expertise he needs and that he agrees that he's happy. And then I created a list for the contractor of all the technical experts across the Navy to call. Every morning I had on my desk a report of the previous 24 hours of all the calls, and the stats, and how many weren't answered correctly. By the way, the contract incentive was based on satisfied sailors — deducted money out of the contractor’s incentive for every bad call.
They had a kid call one day with a problem, a homework problem. (laughs) They fixed it for him. They got an expert to help. The chaplains piled on and joined. I used to advertise this at some of the meetings I would go to. I would say, "You’re on the midwatch and you've got a problem, you're lonely, your girl just broke up with you? Call 1-800 for One Touch, and the duty chaplains are ready to talk to you." There was a duty chaplain with a cell phone on his hip ready to respond to a depressed sailor. After a while, everybody came onto that line. We created the service line for the fleet out of it. It eventually became the universal service line for the fleet. Remember this was as the web was spinning up and ultimately the phone line became a webpage. We made a major improvement in customer service.
Another big thing that got on top of during that time, was refueling overhauls. You probably don't know this, but back in the 80s, when I was in the shipyard, we were in the middle of overhauling the 41 for freedom, the original 41 SSBNs, that were doing their mid-life refueling, and they weren't going well. Probably, one of the reasons why engineering duty officers weren't held in higher regard was that they had had a lot of trouble with the overhauls; some of them went on a year or two longer than they should have, which meant that they were a tremendous amount of Navy force structure that wasn't available to the fleet. It didn't go well. One day, I'm looking at the schedule, and I notice that we've got about 1.5 to 2.5 or so ships, on average in refueling overhaul. And then I looked at the schedule, and I saw the SSN 688 class coming in. They were all coming in for refueling overhaul, 10 to 12 at a time. It was the 80s all over again. I grabbed my head of industrial facilities and told him that we had to do something about this or we're all going to be looking for new work. The guidance I gave him was to create a "688" Factory using all the shipyards in concert, not individually as had been the tradition. There was an opportunity, because not all the ships were being overhauled. Some of them were being put out of service. The idea was to take critical parts from the retiring ships and start a repair pool, so that when we pull a piece of hardware off a ship, we can have a newly overhauled one ready to reinstall. Then we don't get caught up in, well that pump came off, but it's now more broken than we thought, and it's not going to meet its schedule to come back. We need to have stuff ready to go back so we can take risk out of the schedules. The 688-factory extended across the country from Portsmouth, New Hampshire to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii — one mutually supporting organization. We built a management plan based on those principles and ended up in reasonable shape. I can remember the CNO one day, who was not a lover of the systems commands or naval shipyards, was ragging on us about how bad things were screwed up, and I threw him my latest progress report. And it showed ten refueling overhauls with 688s, eight of which were ahead of schedule and under cost, one of which was ahead of schedule and slightly over cost, and only one that was behind schedule and cost. And I said, "CNO, what's the matter with that picture?" And he said, "Nothing."
That management plan was getting a step ahead, that was important.
Pete, to foreshadow to what happens next, what level of interaction did you have with the weapons labs in this role?
Not much as NAVSEA, mostly as SSP. When I was in SSP, and I was the technical director was when the Drell commission met. I don't know if you remember that.
It was about the safety of the Trident II D5. A group at one of the labs claimed that based on their modeling that having a missile system where the reentry bodies clustered around the third stage at the top of a missile was not safe. The Drell commission was convened to look at that, and we made some changes. We agreed to only change out reentry systems on the boat and not to lift a fully configured missile until we had done further analysis and run experiments. We did that, spent a lot of money and showed that the missile configuration and the type of reentry body/warhead combination was not an issue. I always felt that a little of the zeal on the part of the lab in pursuing the issue was being driven by the desire to develop a new "safer" system. It was earlier when I was the missile branch head, that I really got acquainted with the labs. I had the reentry systems head, a member of the Senior Executive Service (a flag level civilian) working for me. First you must recognize, SSP does things totally different from the Air Force in this regard. The Air Force runs their Project Officers Group (POG) which oversees the development of the warhead, with a major, an O-4, who acts more as a coordinator. The Navy sends an SES, a flag-level civilian, who really manages the POG. It's not a debating society, it's a focused management organization. And that guy worked for me, the head of the POGs, for both the mark 4 and mark 5 reentry systems, the W-76 and the W-88, worked directly for me, and I was responsible for them. That got me into the reentry business and the weapons business early. I got to know the folks out at the labs at that point, the good parts and the mercantile parts, but had high respect for them.
Here I am, graduating from the Navy after 35 years and trying to figure out my next path. I went to a retirement seminar, where the teacher went around the room and asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. Lucky for me he asked somebody else first and he gave an answer which would have been the one I would have given. Which was, well I can do this, and I can do that, and the instructor looked over at him and said, "Pick one." When they got around to me and he asked me what I wanted to be, I said, "I want to be director of a laboratory." And the instructor said to me, "Well, you usually have to have a PhD to do that, don't you?" I told him that I've got one and I've been running an organization where I have 20,000 people in laboratories working for me. He said, "Well, maybe you could do that." So...
Pete, to what extent did Wen Ho Lee and the subsequent creation of the NNSA register with you at this point?
NNSA, I was very aware of from my days in SSP. We were very interested and helped with formulating their Science Based Stockpile Stewardship Program. Wen Ho Lee, not much before I got to Los Alamos, but I've got to be a little bit careful.
When I got to Los Alamos Wen Ho Lee was living in town as something of a folk hero. Nobody knew the details of his case because of the classification. We came up with the idea of a classified briefing of the case, which we subsequently gave to everyone with a clearance at the lab, which also was a large proportion of the working population of Los Alamos. He immediately lost his folk hero status and moved away a short time later.
I think I'm skirting on the edge, but that's as far as I'll go. (laughs)
I had been through Los Alamos while in SSP, and John Brown, the director of Los Alamos, offered me a job working in the threat reduction area for Don Cobb. I became Don Cobb's deputy. I retired from the Navy, left NAVSEA, and I looked at it as taking the road not taken. I had decided to stay in the Navy, woke up after 35 years never having intended to make it a career, and decided that I would go back and look at the other side. That was when I decided to go to a national lab, and it was a great tour — a great job. It was fraught with difficulty, and I'm going to go through a few things. I suppose part of my attitude towards this is because of where I've been. But to me, Los Alamos was a holy place. Of the national laboratories, it was the science lab. 1,800 refereed papers a year came out of the place. Five R&D 100 awards. It was basically a science engine that also did nuclear weapons. (laughs) Had more postdocs than the Ivy League universities. I think we had something like 2200 students working there in the summers. We kept a tremendous science portfolio so we could continue to mine it for people that we could bring over to the weapons work. The weapons work, at Los Alamos was also top drawer. It turns out that while in SSP, I had gotten to know well a gentleman, who I think was Los Alamos's best primary designer and one of the greatest designers of his time. I'd gotten to know him and admire his work, that I invested some time into understanding the details. Before I went to Los Alamos, I read the Los Alamos primer and other histories, got myself primed up, and spent a lot of time with the program. They used to have regular weapons seminars that I'd go to, trying to keep up on what they were doing. I invested a lot of time on staying up on the weapons part of it. I also took very seriously my responsibility in writing a letter to the President every year on the health of the stock pile.
What were your interactions with the DOE as director?
Very close, particularly with Linton Brookes, the director of the NNSA. I had known Linton as a Naval officer and as an ambassador before I went to Los Alamos. DOE was a very difficult department though, because energy has always been a very politicized department, and frankly, I don't blame them much for it. Because there's so many anti-nukes out there and they're so dedicated in their opposition, there's almost nothing you can do that doesn't get a spotlight put on it. And I mean I can tell you a lot of the things that I went through. I'll get to the story of shutting down the laboratory and a few other things that occurred during my watch. I went to Los Alamos, and I was there for about four months, when we went down to Key West — my wife is from Key West. Her great grandfather went to Key West as a boy at five in 1837. And we're residents of Key West now. We were down there on Christmas vacation, and were driving back when I got a call from John Brown telling me that he is resigning from the laboratory, and would I take the job as interim director while they pick a new director? And I said, "Okay." (laughs) Stupid move — No, actually. He asked me, and generally I got into most things like being chief engineer of an aircraft carrier, when people asked me to do an important job and I'd think about it and if it’s a worthy thing to do, I would say yes. I came back to the laboratory, met with Richard Atkinson, the president of the University of California, which ran the lab for DOE, before taking over. We are meeting one on one, and he looked across the table and told me that if I got the laboratory out of trouble, I could have the job permanently. I did and he delivered. If you remember, we went through all sorts of things at the time. We were under constant surveillance from organizations that had a problem with our mission. At one point they got on us for not inventorying property correctly. Supposedly we had lost all of this material. What I did was go back to my program management days. I took the best program manager I could find in the staff of the laboratory, and told him that I needed to have a plan of action and milestones for all the things that we're going to do to correct the situation that we're in. We created a big status chart with circles and arrows and places where you fill in a milestone when you get it done. We had a press conference and told them where we were and our plan of action. I scheduled a press conference every week to progress the plan. That went on for about two weeks, and the press got bored. Because they'd come in and we were making our weekly goals. We ended up finding 99-some odd percent of the material. Our control of our property ended up better than most industries, but we didn't have a slick system for telling the story or a tightly wired administrative system, but it was almost all there.
That was the kind of frustration we would get into. It was like a continuous game of whack-a-mole. Another example: they reported that the lab lost some plutonium oxide. Because we were doing an inventory that said we were missing a vial of plutonium oxide. It turned out it was a case where we had divided up the sample into several to do parallel analysis, and it was only one of the subsamples that was missing. It was one of those situations where there was a typo on an inventory report, and they were treating it as a national catastrophe. Missing plutonium! What are we going to do about that? Well one of the things that I found while I was working with John Brown and observing what was going on is that when somebody said something bad about the laboratory and wrote an op ed or something in the paper, the lab would write an answering op ed. It would go off to the University of California and DOE for review. When they were finished reviewing it, it would come back and get published two weeks later. By that time, the reputation of the laboratory was lost. I can remember the first time I got thrown into that type of situation, I just misspoke in a meeting, with press present. I apologized profusely, but the point was the response got there inside the news cycle and the laboratory response was above the fold in the newspaper, the opposition was below the fold. I told the university that when an issue hits the press, we're going to put out a response in 48 hours; review must occur in that time. If we met the news cycle the opposition was often dropped off the page. The case of that subdivided sample? When they had a press conference about it, I held up one of those little glass vials, it was a little over an inch long and asked if anybody in the room thought that an amount, which barely covered my fingernail, would be a threat to national security? You could hear a pin drop in the room. That was the end of that discussion. But that was the kind of stuff that was going on. And the department couldn't fight it from a distance. The laboratory was inexpert at fighting it. They weren't getting the kind of support that they needed. You just had to answer the call within the timeframe. I mean the message didn't change. It was just, the timing that changed.
Other things I found out while I was at the laboratory. We had a product, we were doing the life-extension program on the W-76, which was and still is the largest part of our nuclear stockpile, an important program. I was telling people that this was a really an important program to which we've got to pay attention. Later I'm at an affair at the laboratory, and a woman comes up to me who's the program manager for the B-61 and told me that she wished I hadn't said what I did about the W-76. I told her that it was true. She responded that it might be true, but she couldn’t get any work done on her program, the B-61. I asked why that was so and she responded that they could only work on one program at a time. Suddenly, a cold chill went up my spine. I knew another weapons guy at the lab , who I'd worked with when I'd been in SSP and who I knew was a good program manager. I asked him to go down and sort out what's going on between the 76 and the 61. He came back with bad news. He told me that the shops could no longer manage work loading. They had lost the management capacity to run two programs in the shops like they should be able to do. On top of that he didn't think we had the capability to deliver everything that the laboratory had taken on within the cost and schedule for which we had signed up. (sighs) I asked him to lay out the best schedule that he could. By this time, I also started weekly meetings where I had the key programs in the laboratory come in and update me on their program schedule., costs and progress. That hadn't been being done. I started to take part in the management of the key programs in the laboratory. Reviewing them to make sure that they were on track.
That's what the CEO of a company does, right? Review those efforts that most impact the bottom line. We laid out the schedule and the work to be done. It turned out we could do it within the amount of money that had been allocated, but we couldn’t make the schedule. I went down to NNSA and walked into the Defense Program's office and told them the good and bad news. The good news that we had enough money and the bad news of the delay. He was obviously not a happy camper and shouldn't have been. But by and large, we got the program back on a schedule that was more than smoke and mirrors.
Another thing I started to do at the time, was looking at the divisions in the laboratory, and I noticed the different divisions that were doing largely the same kind of work had widely different overheads. What I found out is that individual divisions were making their own investments and set up overhead structures that were unique to them and that had nothing to do with the laboratory. This was related to another problem the laboratory had, which became clear as I was trying to drum up work for the laboratory. I had gone to various people in the Pentagon to look for opportunities for the laboratory, and I was told that unless it's something exquisite that only Los Alamos can do, we're not going to hire you because you're too expensive. I looked at the whole structure and thought that something had to be done. Part of the problem was out of our control: the high overhead of our nuclear facilities, but a lot could be worked. I put my CFO to the task of steadily over time of rationalizing the overhead across the laboratory and bringing it down. I looked at the price per PhD at the largest DoD affiliated laboratory Johns Hopkins APL compared to Los Alamos, and you're talking about huge disparities in cost. We won't do business for people with that level of overhead. We started reducing the overhead of the laboratory by 2% in the first year, and that liberated a substantial amount of money. Why was that important? Well, when I went to shut down the laboratory, I'll describe that in a minute, I had $50 million in cash in my pocket from reduced overhead.
I was also able to go ask the NSA to forgive some overhead so that one of our B-division (biology division) scientists could get a Gates Foundation grant. The woman who was the head of the division, also kept the AIDS virus registry. The division worked with the laboratory’s high-end computing and theoretical division to pioneer computational biology, an exciting field. They had applied, and we could win a Gates grant, but we had to bring the overhead under 10%. I made the argument to NNSA, that we had saved you all these millions of dollars in reduced overhead and asked to spend a little bit of it so we could win a Gates grant. They agreed, and we were the first NNSA lab to win a Gates Grant. We were getting better in overhead and good things were starting to happen.
Now why did we shut down the laboratory? A lot of people will say we shut down the laboratory because we had security problems. That's not why we shut down the laboratory. We shut down the laboratory because we had safety problems and safety culture problems. We had a major fire, we had some personnel uptakes of nuclear material, among our staff. We had a guy almost bulldoze a 15,000-volt power transformer, which would have fried him to a crisp. And ultimately, the straw that broke the camel's back was when we had a young Harvard student over the summer who was going to become a surgeon, who got their eye damaged by a laser in one of our laboratories working with a scientist. I had to explain to her parents why she wasn't going to be able to be a surgeon anymore. From the string of events, I felt it as only a matter of time before we had a death or an unacceptable incident. I called up the vice president for lab management at the University of California and told him I needed to shut the laboratory down. I called up NNSA and told them I wanted to shut down the laboratory until I can start it up again safely. You've got to recognize, we had something like 23 nuclear facilities in that laboratory. You can't run 23 nuclear facilities and not have a solid safety program. The country won't stand for it. And that was what we were getting beat up for more than anything else. And I didn't know how far from the edge we were, so I shut the laboratory down. I had most of the laboratory open again in 30 days. But there were a couple of divisions that I had to work over strongly, because their culture was bad. The division that was doing hydro experiments: every piece of lifting gear they had was red tagged as being unsafe or semi-operative and they were still using them. The result was that we only lost two weeks of schedule against our important programs and as I said earlier, I had $50 million in saved overhead going into the shutdown to ameliorate the financial pain. No one was pleased, obviously, but I didn't feel I had an alternative. The tragedy with the student was awful, but secondly if we'd lost somebody due to an accident, it would have been a lot worse.
Did this experience compel you to cut short your directorship earlier than you had planned?
No, I don’t think that was the major issue the university was more academically oriented at the time. Remember, Atkinson had been replaced by Bob Dynes. They had just hired a Nobel laureate to run Lawrence Berkley, and I think looking for different leadership for Los Alamos. I'd had a tremendous team opening the laboratory, but I think that there were a lot of people that didn't feel that that was necessary. There was still the attitude in a lot of places in Los Alamos, that we're Los Alamos, we do what we do, and you're darn lucky to have us. There were also people who objected to me because I had been a former military officer. Remember, because we were a science lab, I think we were more like an academic institution than the rest of the laboratories. I think the weapons programs part of the lab, not so much. But there was a tremendous fraction of the lab, including the laser lab that damaged the retina of this student, who were more academically oriented. And wearing flip flops in industrials areas was not uncommon. I'm not so sure that if you were starting over and building the place up from the beginning, whether you shouldn't split some of the more safety critical industrial parts of the laboratory from the scientific parts. On the one hand, you're dealing with safety at an extremely high level, because the nuclear facilities; on the other hand, you're dealing with people sitting and doing analysis on supercomputers, which is a totally different venue. I'm not so sure that it was necessary to have both together, but we had to work with the hand we were dealt.
Pete, when you made the decision to shut down, did you have sole authority over that, or you needed somebody else to okay it?
I talked to two people: the vice president for lab matters at UC, my immediate boss and I talked to the NNSA Administrator. My boss at UC had been pushing me to do a stand down on a security issue, which I fought him off on. I was told that the DOE deputy secretary had decided to shut the laboratory down. they were talking about canceling) the contract to take over the operation of the laboratory. In the final analysis, they were happy to have me shut it down because if they had to start it up under their rules and under the political pressure they would have been under, they might never have gotten the laboratory started again. I did a very basic thing with the laboratory. I called my direct reports in and trained them on what our standards are on safety. More importantly I got their commitment to support the standards and offered them alternate employment if they couldn’t support it. They went to their direct reports and so on throughout the laboratory to get a commitment from every employee. We did it eyeball to eyeball.
Pete, what kind of interactions did you have with Bob Kuckuck during the transition?
Is that standard?
I don't know. I didn't have that much with John Brown, either, because by the time I got back, he was well on his way. I have only my limited view. But he was not aboard when I left.
And was the timing to retire... did you already have —
John Cobb was my deputy at the time, and he was there for the transition.
Did you retire from Los Alamos already having the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) position in place?
The university agreed to allow me to be an IPA from the UC. I don’t remember when the Defense Threat Reduction Agency was locked in. And then when I was in a position where I could vest in the UC retirement program and retire from the university. Later, I hired on at APL and stayed on at DTRA for a couple more years.
Now, as associate director, was this a lateral move? Was it a step down? How did you see that?
It was a step down, but as a practical matter, I had turned sixty and most more senior positions had mandatory retirement at sixty-five. It was interesting, because I was working for an organization where basically the director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency was a three-star equivalent, and his deputy was a two star, and I was at probably the one to two star level. I didn't use vice admiral, I used Dr. Nanos to keep the peace and not try to outrank anybody in the immediate hierarchy. When I was there, Jim Tegnelia was the director and he asked me to take all the R&D activity in DTRA and put it together in one organization and manage it as a portfolio. I created the R&D Enterprise. Up to then every individual division in that enterprise had been a direct report to the Director. Staff meetings were unwieldy. He had maybe five different organizations that were doing R&D. We put them all together in one and I managed about a billion dollars’ worth of R&D. We created a 6.1 or basic science program while we were at it.. We were working on countering weapons of mass destruction and nuclear material detection, both hard problems. To help that we put together an innovation shop and funded it with a few million dollars so that if you had an off-the-wall idea that you thought might work, you could come in, I'd throw $100k at it, and let you go try it.
We really went after some pretty strange things, but some interesting things and some of it worked. The first rule of building an innovation shop is to find someone who was very good at being an entrepreneur and an innovator. Luckily, we had that essential ingredient. I made some moves there that incurred wrath. We of course were home to a lot of the nuclear simulators that people used for hardness testing of systems. And we didn't have a lot of use for those at the time, because we didn't have a lot of systems then in the pipeline. What I did was I took a lot of the money out of that program, basically privatized some of the facilities, made them fee for service, not full support, and threw that money into nuclear detection technology. Because that's where we felt the challenge was at the time. The hardest thing we were facing was weapons of mass destruction and how to detect them. We wanted to throw some money into that. We also found that we had money on contract ahead of need and could use those funds to help. When you let a contract, the contractor doesn't use his own money to start the program until he bills you. What he does is he goes out and he gets commercial paper, a rotating loan or something like that. And he does it because he's got a contract with this amount of money on it. One of my financial analysts pointed out that we had tremendous amounts of money on contracts in excess of need. That meant we were getting dinged by the comptroller for not expending funds on time. These funds were sitting on contracts. The contractor was borrowing money on that commitment and who knows what he was spending it on? He was probably investing in condos in Florida for all I know. I went in and I cut my division's budgets by the excess amount they had on contract, which drove them into a frenzy. But I was able to pull $60 million out of the program. And invest that in going after nuclear detection. And they didn't lose a beat on any of their programs. But they never had excess money on contracts again, I'll tell you that. (both laugh)
Pete, without going into the details, I'm curious about your broader interface with the intelligence community, given the work that you were doing. Was the DIA your portal to the broader IC or you had independent contacts elsewhere?
I had DIA and some CIA. There was also a direct tie to DOE, I had strong ties to the DOE organization. Because of non-proliferation and our involvement in non-proliferation, the involvement with the communities was broader, because non-proliferation was part and parcel of what went on at DOE in addition to DoD. It was a broader set of communities. We also went up to CIA and partnered with CIA on some things. We admired their way of doing business in terms of how they were doing entrepreneurial work for innovation. We shared a lot with them back and forth. You notice I'm not trying to get into any detail here, but it was a broader set of characters, I think.
What were some of the most satisfying aspects of the job, given the front-lying nature of protecting the homeland?
Well, putting a new R&D program together was a lot of fun. And getting that off and clicking was good. Jim Tegnelia was an interesting guy to work with. He was a real patriot and a very smart guy. Both being physicists, we'd sit up there late in the day in his office, and I'd be bringing my latest plan to him. We got involved in some spirited discussions, particularly the investments we were making in nuclear detection, some of them active some of them not so. And he was very interested and on top of it. So that made the job fun. You were working for somebody who wasn't just a bureaucrat — who was really into the technology. He also had been at DARPA. And he had been on a variety of different oversight committees and things like the Defense Science Board. Just before Jim left DTRA, it turned out my counterpart who was running operations retired, and before he left, Jim asked if I would take the job. Being a former three star helped. There was a senior executive coming up in the R&D organization that I thought would do fine as the R&D head. I went over to run ops, which was a lot. That was interesting, because again, DTRA is a unique animal in that it's a combat support organization. In other words, it supports the combatant commanders around the world.
In our case they had a need for expertise related to weapons of mass destruction and radiation. People capable of doing analysis and running models were scarce on military staffs. We made sure that expertise was available. For example, we would go out on an exercise in support of the combat commanders. I would personally go to a lot of those, where I would sit in on the exercise and monitor our performance, because making sure the commander could make informed decisions in a crisis was important. Here's an example of the type of thing I would find. We were running an exercise with the European Command (EUCOM). And I'm sitting in on the morning session when they're doing the video teleconference with all the major players. The officer who's taking the briefings that morning is the vice commander, and out of courtesy he invites me as a retired flag officer to sit in the front row. Suddenly, a question comes up about radiation exposure from a certain activity that's going on and I'm waiting for my guy to chime in, but all I'm hearing is some hemming and hawing. So, I assume the role of the rep and answer the question. Afterwards I circle back to find out what happened to our expert only to find he had been put on the night shift, by the colonels that are running the exercise. They viewed him as just a body and assigned him to the night shift, even though he had unique capability important to this exercise, but instead of having him in the right place, the colonels had assigned him to night shift because he was "only" a lieutenant colonel. I went to the colonel who was running our Darmstadt office and told him that I expected him to go to these exercises to make sure our talent was being properly applied. Make sure as a colonel that you interact with your peers and that when the commander needs relevant information it’s available. We are short of people that have experience in weapons of mass destruction, radiation, nuclear weapons effects, that sort of thing. It's a very slender set of experts. Few command staffs have people that are knowledgeable.
There is an underlying philosophy here. You don't find out these things — what is working and what isn’t — unless you go there and look. You must see how things are functioning. You may think you're sending the right talent, and it ends up on the night shift. You know, I was out in Korea when they were doing an exercise out there. It was realistic everybody was armed while doing their thing in the exercise. And I'm sitting in and observing. To keep DTRA informed we are supposed to be reporting back our progress, which they are doing over a secure telephone. And I asked about a piece of equipment in the corner of the room. It turns out, it's a secure teleconference set up. It was not being used. We decided to start a secure teleconference with the ops center at DTRA. Well, the first day we called the ops center at DTRA, they didn't know what the hell had happened. What planet we were talking from, but eventually we tied a live feed from the exercise into the DTRA Director’s morning brief in the ops center. You find ways to innovate, but you have to go walk the turf. You must see how things are functioning and you must make the changes that make the most sense.
When does Hopkins enter the picture?
Halfway through my time at DTRA. I retired from the University of California; I saw no real reason to stay there because I wasn't going to go anywhere beyond there. I knew the director of Johns Hopkins, and I talked to him about a job; explained what I was doing. He signed me up. It was the only time that they ever took someone in who was in an IPA role and that was only because I told them I wanted to stay at Hopkins long term. And I did. At first, I went to work in the National Security Studies portion of the organization. And when the department head moved up, I took over that department for almost a year while they searched for a new department head. And then the department head of what is now the organization that has strategic programs and strike programs. I took that over while they searched for a permanent department head. I got to be part of the partial reorganization of the laboratory. And we reoriented the laboratory a little bit, because if you looked at the Strategic Program and the part that did air defense, they were both aligned pretty well with their subject matter in a system engineering sense. The rest of the laboratory wasn't. What we ended up doing was taking the rest of the laboratory and realigned pieces that were part of a system construct to allow better systems engineering development. In me they had a relatively senior guy that they could throw in when they needed to, and I would bow out quietly when I was no longer needed. I was at the back side of my career and did not want to be director of the laboratory anymore. (laughs) Been there, done that, had the battle scars. I'd made the choice not to be competitive with the rest of the staff, but to just enjoy doing technical work, as long as I could.
And what were your key responsibilities at APL?
Well, as I said, I ran a couple of departments. And then my last job, real job there, was when we formed up the new organization, somebody else took over as the permanent department head, and I managed the infrastructure for the department. In other words, all the branches reported to me, and I managed that manpower part of the organization. Not the business part. You know, the lab is divided in two parts at the substructure level according to the department. You've got the business managers, the ones that write the contracts with the government. And execute the programs. But it's a matrix, the manpower comes as a matrix from the organization. And I ran the manpower part of the organization, so all the technical workers worked for me and we provided the manpower to the programs.
What were some of the key decisions behind the major reorganization?
Rationalizing the assignment of programs from a system perspective. Air defense had always been system oriented, as had the support for the Navy’s Strategic Programs. We then put everything involved with offense, like EW and Strike systems in one organization. Similarly, everything to do with asymmetric warfare, like cyber and special ops — things like that, all that went into one organization. So that things that were better managed as a system were put together so that the management resources and expertise could flow back and forth in an appropriate way.
When did retirement become a real decision for you? A real retirement, not just another job.
Well, I figured I was commuting a long way, almost 45 minutes to an hour commute. And I was at the point where my wife who has both Multiple Sclerosis and Rheumatoid Arthritis was needing more attention. I changed to a temporary on call status at the laboratory and I fell back to doing mostly pro bono work for STRATCOM’s Strategic Advisory Group and for a while was on the technical support group for JSOC. I had these couple of organizations and several panels which kept my mental engine going. But as it has become harder for my wife, I got to the point where I just couldn't bear the thought of her falling while I was on travel. Or being gone, eight hours every day and have her get hurt. I got to that point where I said that the time has come to cut back on this. The time has come to stop.
What kind of consulting work have you been able to do, even remotely, over the past ten years?
I have, well, let's see. I retired six years ago. So up until the pandemic, I was doing the Strategic Advisory Group, on the S&T panel, I was on the NC3 panel. I was on about four other different panels. I was on the review of the Columbia program, the new SSBN. I was doing a lot of trips and a lot of meetings associated with each one of those. There was quite a bit of time involved in that. I did a few other things. I got involved with some wargaming at the Potomac Institute. It just got to the point where I was not able to endure the travel schedule in the time away from home. And that's when I decided the time had come. I got to be 70 and a half. I was going to have to start taking minimum withdrawals from my IRAs, and I said, you know, there's a message here.
(laughs) Well Pete, now that we've worked right up to the present, I'd like to ask one question, one last question that's retrospective for your career that sort of ties it all together, and that is, for so many of the positions you've been in, you could have done it without your degree and expertise in physics. And I wonder if you've ever reflected on either the training or even your intuitions as a physicist, or sensibilities, how that background has allowed you to succeed at all of these jobs you've been in over the course of your career?
Well, it sounds that way, but I would argue that it isn't true. First, I wanted to study physics. I wanted to address nature at the most basic level. I think it is important for a person to take responsibility for their own educational needs and for me that meant studying physics. I would not have stayed in the Navy if they had not provided a path to a degree. Also, I played the game at a deeper level. In other words, I wasn't just a bureaucrat. I basically took my guns to town when I went to the Pentagon and rarely got challenged. And got into it occasionally on a technical level with people over key technical issues. The way I look at it is this: You come with a set of skills, and in science, is a set of mental disciplines that you get which you apply to everything. You could talk about training, but the fundamental attitude, training, the skepticism, the care, the making sure you're not outrunning your data. We used to joke in the gravity group that you didn't want to leave your data lying around because you didn't want the theorists to hurt themselves. The essential discipline that goes with being a scientist. I got involved at a very technical level when I was in high energy lasers, and some while I was in SSP. I mean and even at NAVSEA. I would take briefings and sometime throw people out — I can remember one guy that came to me when I was at NAVSEA, giving me a briefing on high energy lasers, and I told him to give me his slide deck. I told him that if they wanted the slides back to send me a real engineer, because he was not qualified to carry them, let alone give them.
(laughs) That's great.
The point was, not just throwing people out, but demanding technical excellence. I can remember I held up one acquisition for the better part of four months until the people who were briefing me could explain what was going on in the system that was supposed to be emulating an important feature that we had in our existing systems. They claimed they could do it a different way. They kept giving me briefings, none of which proved the point. They finally brought in the guy that had developed the key algorithm. We had a ten-minute conversation, and it was done. I was frankly appalled that they thought that they could bully their way through without providing a sufficient explanation or that no one below my level could sort it out properly. The way I conducted business in those jobs was different from how other people conducted business.
Let me give you an example, a trivial one but an important one. There's this big engineering examination that you must undergo on all steam ships called the Operational Plant Propulsion Exam. Part of the requirements of that exam is that you must steam auxiliary. And what does that mean? It means that instead of taking the exhaust (spent steam) from the boilers, the engines and the turbines, into the main condenser, which is a big condenser with lots of capacity, you have to take it into a small condenser, associated with a ship service turbo generator. And this is to show that your plant is tight. That you're not generating a lot of extra exhaust and wasting a lot of energy. The board president comes in and tells me that it's time to steam auxiliary. Knowing that the ship was not capable of steaming auxiliary I took a physicist’s approach and found out why. Remember, if I get flunked by the board, I'm probably going to get relieved of my job. I told the president that we were not designed to steam auxiliary. He expressed disbelief, that all steam ships are designed to steam auxiliary. I told him that this one wasn’t and to prove it I produced the ships enthalpy diagram. I pointed out the sources of all the drains on this ship and all the equipment that uses those drains. Some of the drains were used to operate the air casing heaters on the boilers, but those air casing heaters were removed by authorized alteration. That meant that that the extra amount of exhaust in the system generated by the missing heaters that now exceeds the capacity of the auxiliary condenser. That meant that by design, there's too much exhaust in the system to allow the ship to steam auxiliary. He walked out of the room holding his head. (laughs) But the point I'm trying to make is, at some level, physics and engineering is always there. You just have to get to it eventually. And if that's part of what you do, that's part of what you do.
When you came to give a briefing to me, you gave a thorough technical review, not some bureaucratic overview. I mean, I had a retired general from the Software Institute at Carnegie Mellon come in to talk about software training to my people and there was nothing in this brief that told me in detail what he was going to teach. I'd known this guy from the days when we were mid-grade officers working in the high energy laser business. I told him that I couldn’t approve the plan until he told me what was in it. He was embarrassed but got the information to me. The point that I'm trying to make is, one of technical accountability. In the organizations that I grew up in, the high energy laser program and strategic systems programs, I was expected to be technically accountable. when I was the technical director of SSP, I signed for the technical sufficiency of the alterations. There wasn't some guy sitting behind me to sign to take over technical responsibility. I was responsible technically for that system, and all changes to that system went under my signature. And that's, you know, technical accountability and technical capability.
It was clearly a value.
It is a value. And it's not just the degree. Somebody once said, you think you're smart because you have a PhD. No, one has a PhD because they are smart. It is really about getting the tools to do the job you want to do in the way you want to do it.
There you go. (laughs)
The cart comes before the horse.
The capability is the capability, and you use it in a variety of ways. The way I view a physics degree is that we are the liberal arts of STEM. Physics is deeply philosophical and it's not like a lot of other engineering disciplines. It also tends to be first principles and very basic and broad — the liberal art of the sciences. I think that’s the reason the degree is given in the College of Arts and Sciences. I always tell people that one of my proudest possessions is not my PhD, but the fact that I have a Master of Arts in physics.
(laughs) I love it. Well Pete, on that note, this has been an absolute delight. Thank you so much for spending this time with me and for sharing all of your insights.