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The Less Apparent Component—Tacit Knowledge as a Factor in the Proliferation of WMD: The Example of Nuclear Weapons

The Less Apparent Component—Tacit Knowledge as a Factor in the Proliferation of WMD: The Example of Nuclear Weapons

Michael Aaron Dennis©

What would it take, in addition to the will, for a nation to join the club of nations possessing nuclear weapons? An incomplete list of the prerequisites would include: enriched uranium or plutonium, physicists, chemists, computational power, processing plants, specialists in materials and electronics, money, institutions capable of building and managing a large scale construction project, and a site or sites to build and test a device.

Despite their destructive power, nuclear weapons are fragile objects. They require an elaborate sociotechnical support system that costs millions, if not billions of dollars each year simply to maintain their existence. One item not explicitly on the above list and seldom discussed in the analysis of this problem is “tacit knowledge,” the knowledge acquired through the actual experience of building and developing an atomic bomb. How important is such knowledge to the task and how essential is such knowledge in the proliferation of such weapons?

The probable answer is that lack of tacit knowledge is not likely to a stop an illicit program in its tracks, but without it, a weapons program is likely to fail more often in its early stages, cost more through a period of trial and error, and take longer to reach fruition. Acquiring tacit knowledge requires time, providing analysts and policymakers with a much needed resource for thought and action. And because timing is a key element in intelligence analysis and policy responses, tacit knowledge is an important factor in the analytical equation. A clear understanding of the sources of tacit knowledge and how it is transmitted from one place to another is central in the consideration of policy responses to a technology development program with security implications.

In the following, I examine the nature and character of tacit knowledge, its origins, and its role specifically in the construction and spread of nuclear weapons since World War II.

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Posted: Dec 19, 2013 08:56 AM
Last Updated: Dec 19, 2013 08:56 AM