Nuclear micro reactors: A powerful military tool
As technological change accelerates, the United States military must undergo a rapid change in priorities as competitor nations rise, counterinsurgency missions wane, and threats grow. From my three decades in the Air Force, I know that our military is a global leader in technology, but the rise of new powers using asymmetric technologies could threaten that lead.
Just like the shock from the coronavirus has changed how our American leaders and policymakers view risks from disease and pandemics, we must make sure that a different, though similarly unanticipated, shock does not threaten American military primacy. Today’s threats include the rising power of peer competitors like China and Russia, as well as smaller, unpredictable states like Iran or North Korea — which cannot stand on the same battlefield as the American military, but can deploy asymmetric threats to deal devastating damage to American power. I saw how our military performed under fire and quickly developed, then employed the strategies of counterinsurgency in the conflicts of the last two decades; we must work now to ensure that we are prepared for the contests of the 21st century.
Technology in the hands of our soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen will determine who wins those wars of the future. The National Defense Strategy, published in 2018, was correct to highlight that “rapid technological advancements and the changing character of war” will drastically alter the global security environment. The specific technologies it highlights as key to winning the wars of the future include: advanced computing, data analytics, artificial intelligence, autonomy, robotics, directed energy and hypersonic weapons.
Air Force missions are at the center stage of these technological advances. In addition to its enduring mission sets, our Air Force along with the new Space Force is laser focused on the protection of the U.S. homeland, remote control of unmanned aircraft, and maintaining awareness of emerging threats. These rapid advances in technology both enable and threaten these missions. New weapons platforms like electromagnetic railguns, directed energy weapons, drones and networked warfighters will enhance the Air Force’s ability to protect the homeland and take the fight to the enemy. However, new threats, particularly from cyber warfare and space, could allow enemies to deny air power to our force at mission-critical times.
The key enabler of these new technological advances and threats is energy. These technologies all require large amounts of energy and power available at a moment’s notice. That means, without new strategic forethought, energy vulnerability for the force will only grow as its energy footprint grows. The Air Force needs innovation in energy and resilience to ensure it is able to meet its mission.
Perhaps the most exciting area of energy innovation that the Air Force can take advantage of is in new, advanced nuclear power. Although the Air Force tested flying nuclear reactors in the 1950s, today’s applications would enable continuous on-demand power.
Earlier this year, the Strategic Capabilities Office announced an initiative that will build mobile micro nuclear reactors able to support their deployed forces. These reactors will be designed to provide passively safe, but always available, power to our soldiers. The Air Force can similarly support nuclear power plants that are sized and designed for its missions — fixed, in-place in support of critical warfighting infrastructure like radar, command and control, and base defenses and aircraft.
These Air Force operations provide key strategic national security resources. Most Air Force bases rely on the local electricity grid for power, with backup provided locally by diesel generators. Increasingly, those energy resources are supplemented by renewable power located on base. While these resources are enough for normal operations, we should be concerned that multilevel crises, including hostile attacks, can compromise mission assurance. We know that America’s strategic opponents will directly target these resources in a crisis. Cyber attacks against the electricity grid could cut power at critical times. But, in an international crisis, we know that always-on reactors would add an additional layer of protection.
One example of a micro reactor that could support such operations is an innovative new design by Oklo, a nuclear startup that has applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a commercial power permit to build a small, 1.5 megawatt reactor. At only about 15% of the power supplied by current-generation commercial power plants, these small-scale reactors are appropriate for a remote, always-on operation. They are purposely designed to be “passively safe” — meaning that there is no possibility of a meltdown. Other companies are pursuing similar-scale designs.
Too often planners have overlooked, in planning and force protection, access to energy. So many of the advanced technologies that will be critical to fighting and winning future wars are extremely energy-intensive; that means winning the wars of the future will require concentrated sources of always-on, assured energy.
The U.S. military has evolved during previous periods of near-peer competition by taking advantage of American technological leadership in other sectors, whether it was microchips or aircraft design, to ensure our nation’s security. Today, we know the Air Force is pursuing technological advances like artificial intelligence or next-generation communications networks. It should also harness the innovations of advanced energy that will ensure those capabilities and systems are available when they are needed.
Norman Seip, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general, is a senior mentor for the Air Force and also serves as Council for a Strong America’s chairman of the board. He authored this column on behalf of the American Security Project in his capacity as a board member.