Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a self-described “premier research and development institution for science and technology applied to national security,” is famous for designing the advanced nuclear warheads that put the “super” in superpower and carried the United States through the Cold War-era arms race. Now Livermore wants to lead the way in the next race, and it has stiff competition. According to the “Top500 List,” a biannual ranking of the 500 most powerful computer systems, China surpassed the United States for the first time in the rankings this past summer, placing the U.S.’s Jaguar, the 1.75 Petaflop Cray XT5 system installed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in third place behind first place Japan and second place China. Currently Livermore’s most powerful computer is ranked in 15th place. However, they do not plan to stay there for long. Livermore has a new machine, Sequoia, under construction and due to debut at number one in 2012.
The link between supercomputers and nuclear weapons may not seem obvious to those less familiar with the U.S. weapons complex, but these computers play an integral role in moving the U.S. away from the need to physically detonate nuclear devices in order to verify the reliability of its arsenal. Rather than detonating a weapon to prove that the U.S. maintains its ability to threaten nuclear attack, the U.S. can now simulate a nuclear explosion, taking into account the effects of time on the fissile materials at the core of a nuclear weapon. In effect, the U.S. is transferring the function of testing from the immediate physical ability to detonate a nuclear weapon to the physical ability to perform computational analysis as part of a program referred to as “stockpile stewardship.” The U.S. is no longer dependent on consuming individual weapons in its arsenal in order to maintain the credibility of its nuclear deterrent. Instead it can utilize supercomputers for that purpose. In other words, since its moratorium on testing in 1992, the U.S. has taken a step back from its physical dependence on the kinetic properties of nuclear weapons. The relationship to those properties is now mediated by the supercomputers that are used to verify that the weapons in the U.S. arsenal will in fact detonate. Rather than detonating a weapon in an underground test, the U.S. depends on the physical capability of supercomputers to process vast amounts of data in minimal amounts of time.
As a result, supercomputers are also developing a social meaning akin to nuclear weapons. The blogosphere’s journalists and pundits have already begun making the link between being number one in supercomputing technology and maintaining U.S. national security. In an article recently re-posted on The Daily Beast Dan Lyons goes so far as to refer to China’s surge forward in supercomputing technology as a “Sputnik moment” saying:
“To most of us, this might sound like no big deal, akin to Apple coming out with a faster smartphone than Microsoft. But to the scientists, industry titans, and world leaders who understand how delicate America’s position as a global superpower really is, this was a Sputnik moment. Only this time, it wasn’t Russia trouncing the U.S. in the space race, but China surging ahead in one of the most vital areas of national security.”
Producing and maintaining machines on the scale of supercomputers is no easy task. Not only do they require large amounts of technological expertise to design and run, but the they consume large amounts of energy as well. To offer some perspective, according to Lyons, “just one of Livermore’s supercomputers throws off so much heat that if the air-conditioning system were to fail, the computer would start to melt within minutes.”
In an era when more and more states are becoming nuclear capable, the task of building and running these machines is not something all states have mastered. Therefore the possession of a top ranked supercomputer can be used to distinguish between different kinds of states. Whether or not a country has machines that rank on the Top500 list is a good proxy for its overall international standing. In other words, supercomputers are not only important because of their technological advantages, but also because they are a manifestation of a national project and a material expression of a country’s underlying capabilities and resources. Expressing the limits of national technological capabilities was one of the functions of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, but someday producing vast numbers of very dangerous explosive devices and polluting domestic environments through testing may reach the point of appearing foolhardy. That will also be the day that supercomputers, rather than nuclear weapons, define states as superpowers. This is not to say that nuclear weapons will disappear, only that they would no longer define the global hierarchy. What this allows us to imagine, for better or worse, is moving beyond the limits of a world defined in terms of nuclear security to one defined in terms of cyber security.