Understanding the Risk of Nuclear War Through Modeling

Could hypersonic missiles, traveling at speeds at least five times the speed of sound, heighten the risk of nuclear conflict? This pressing question is at the forefront of discussions in the realm of nuclear arms security.

Eli Sanchez, a recent graduate from MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE), delved into these critical inquiries under the mentorship of Scott Kemp, an associate professor at NSE and the director of the MIT Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy.

A Passion for Science

Hailing from the quaint town of Smithville, Texas, Sanchez developed a deep fascination with fundamental science during his formative years. His ardor for various subjects, ranging from calculus to physiology, blossomed in high school. Physics, with its ability to elucidate abstract concepts and witness their manifestation in reality, captivated Sanchez. “The intricate workings of cellular functions unfolding on a grander scale within one’s body are truly remarkable,” he enthuses, elucidating his fondness for physiology.

Embarking on his collegiate journey at the University of Texas in Dallas, Sanchez found solace in the sciences and nourished his unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Electricity, magnetism, and quantum mechanics all beckoned Sanchez. He recalls, “The enigmatic nature underlying quantum mechanics is so divergent from our expectations that the subject matter became enthralling. Delving into these novel and somewhat alien principles was truly captivating,” Sanchez reflects.

Expanding his scientific horizons beyond the confines of the classroom during his undergraduate tenure, Sanchez explored nuclear engineering and its potential in tackling climate change. A keen interest was kindled by a professor specializing in nuclear chemistry, propelling him to delve deeper into the field through a course in radiation chemistry.

Graduating with a major in chemistry and a minor in physics, Sanchez amalgamated his scientific ardor with computational modeling during an internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. At this esteemed institution, Sanchez partook in irradiation studies on humans by leveraging computational models of the human anatomy.

Venturing into Nuclear Weapons Security at NSE

Post his tenure at Oak Ridge, Sanchez harbored a resolute desire to delve into computational research within the nuclear domain. He values how meticulously crafted computational models can offer precise prognostications for the future. By employing models, one can anticipate malfunctions in nuclear reactors, hence preempting catastrophic incidents.

After exploring diverse research avenues at NSE, Sanchez gravitated towards the realm of nuclear weapons security.

Long-standing beliefs among experts in the field suggest that the choice of weapons or delivery systems such as missiles and aircraft could influence the propensity for states to initiate a nuclear war. An archetypal example is the multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) system, which deploys multiple warheads on a single missile. The implications are profound—taking out one warhead could potentially neutralize five or ten warheads with one MRV system. This weapons capability, as noted by Sanchez, is intrinsically destabilizing as it incentivizes a pre-emptive strike.

Conversely, proponents of nuclear arms control have posited that hypersonic weapons introduce destabilizing elements. Nonetheless, as elucidated by Sanchez, most of these assertions have remained speculative. “We’re subjecting these claims to rigorous technical examination to ascertain their validity,” he asserts.

One avenue for assessing these contentions involves scrutinizing flight trajectories. Hypersonic missiles have been attributed with destabilizing characteristics due to their unpredictable flight trajectories. These missiles are endowed with the capability to alter their course mid-flight, thereby introducing ambiguity regarding their destination. In stark contrast to ballistic missiles, which follow a predetermined path, the trajectory of hypersonic missiles isn’t always perceptible. This ambiguity accentuates the possibility of interpreting their intent malevolently: “They might be misconstrued as assaults on nuclear weapons or command-and-control structures or even on national capitals,” Sanchez explicates, underscoring the potential for misinterpretation to escalate tensions unknowingly.

In his doctoral research, Sanchez undertook the modeling of hypersonic weapon flights to quantify the ambiguities that could precipitate escalations. Central to his endeavor was the assessment of the ambiguity zones for missiles possessing specific characteristics. Additionally, his work encompassed formulating recommendations aimed at averting the potential misuse of hypersonic weapons. Two key propositions included equipping hypersonic missiles with conventional warheads instead of nuclear ones and establishing no-fly zones around major global capitals.

Empowering Underprivileged Students

Sanchez’s contributions at NSE transcended the realms of doctoral research. Collaborating with NSE postdoctoral fellow Rachel Bielajew PhD ’24, he co-founded the Graduate Application Assistance Program (GAAP), designed to alleviate the systemic disadvantages that underrepresented students are apt to confront.

Hailing from a background where both his parents were trailblazers as first-generation college graduates and his father of Latino descent, Sanchez regards himself as privileged. However, he acknowledges grappling with the intricacies of graduate school—challenges that eluded many of his peers. “This ordeal instilled in me a profound empathy for individuals hailing from diverse backgrounds with limited exposure to higher education,” Sanchez confides.

GAAP aims to dismantle these barriers and connect prospective applicants with current NSE graduate students, facilitating an avenue to seek insights that paint a clearer picture of their academic trajectory. After two years of co-chairing the initiative, Sanchez transitioned to a mentorship role. Queries he fields range from identifying suitable research opportunities in various labs to navigating available funding avenues.

As for Sanchez’s upcoming pursuits, he is set to embark on a postdoctoral fellowship within the Security Studies Program at MIT’s Department of Political Science.

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