The United States still lacks an effective strategy to prevent or counter the potential loss or diversion of a weapon of mass destruction somewhere in the world, according to a senior Defense Department official.
Several recent Pentagon exercises demonstrated "that our capabilities in this regard have some serious gaps," John Harvey, principal deputy to the assistant Defense secretary for nuclear and chemical and biological defense programs, said on Friday. "A critical gap is that we do not have a systematic approach to achieve what we call in the Department of Defense 'situational awareness' for the combat commands regarding" unconventional weapons.
That enhanced insight into ongoing developments in a particular military theater "is not the broad-area, ground, or maritime surveillance that would be critical once an asset has been lost for days or weeks, assuming we knew it were lost," he added at a breakfast event on Capitol Hill. "While that's important, we want to get our arms around the problem as close to the point of prevention of loss as we can."
The solution, in part, calls for increased intelligence in a number of areas, according to Harvey, including: the state of nations' WMD programs; terrorists' interest in those efforts; existing proliferation networks; national proliferation activities; and the security status of WMD facilities, including possible threats and vulnerabilities. Also key would be continued engagement on enhancing weapons security and ongoing threat-reduction programs with other nations, he said.
"All of these things basically answer the question of what's going on in anything having to do with WMD" in the regions covered by U.S. Central Command and the nine other combat commands, Harvey told the audience.
He said a new Pentagon program designed to address some of those concerns is slated to begin in the next fiscal year.
The United States has long been concerned that another nation's WMD materials might go missing or be acquired by terrorists. Washington has used programs such as the Pentagon's Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative to secure or eliminate nuclear and other WMD materials in the former Soviet Union and beyond.
President Obama has identified countering WMD threats as a top national security goal. Last year the administration released a National Security Strategy that described nuclear weapons and other unconventional arms as the "gravest danger to the American people and global security."
In addition, the administration's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review addressed the need for WMD response forces. The Pentagon last year announced it would establish 10 National Guard domestic units assigned to that mission. The forces are intended to conduct quick responses to attacks involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and large-explosive devices.
"The idea of preventing loss of control is not how our military typically thinks," Harvey told Global Security Newswire after the event. "What they think is, if it's lost, tell me where it is, I'll go get it, I'll kill the people who have it, and I'll make sure they don't set it off. But we've got to get to the left of that, if you know what I mean."
Pentagon officials want combatant commands to possess a better day-to-day picture of the security of warheads and other dangerous materials, including chemical and biological agents, in their respective theaters, Harvey told the audience.
He did not discuss specific commands, which cover various regions around the globe. The U.S. Central Command, for example, has an "area of responsibility" that encompasses North Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East, including Syria, which is suspected of holding a sizable arsenal of chemical weapons, and Pakistan, which remains subject to concerns regarding the security of its nuclear arsenal.
In addition, the department wants to ensure the commands "have the earliest possible indication of a change in status" of those materials, including any tips of unusual activity by people working on WMD programs to head off insider threats, he said.
He noted that the response to a potential loss of an unconventional weapon might not involve U.S. military forces. Instead, the command could share intelligence with the host country's military or police and have them follow up or, if a weapon is in transit, pass coordinates to local officials or allies in neighboring theaters.
The new worldwide approach would need to draw data from classified and open-source information from inside the intelligence community as well as other areas, according to Harvey.
"It's more than intelligence," he said. "It's knowledge."
Harvey offered a "broad-based plan" for addressing potential WMD vulnerabilities, said Rick Nelson, director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"But going forward, it will be important to conduct any strategy-formulation process with as much interagency participation as possible, so as to limit the possibility of a plan that leaves out important issues," he told GSN by e-mail.
Harvey touted the creation of a new Pentagon effort, dubbed Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Systems, aimed to give combat commands the additional insight needed to prevent or defeat a catastrophic attack.
The newly minted effort would receive roughly $7.8 million in the next fiscal year, slated to begin October 1, budget documents show. Funding would increase in subsequent budgets, settling around $69 million in 2015 and 2016.
"This program addresses developing an integrated and interconnected CWMD capabilities-based system that defines and enables a comprehensive CWMD steady-state and surge posture," the budget item justification states. The text does not offer specific details.
"We fought really hard within the department to get this funded," Harvey told GSN, adding that he and other Pentagon officials recently visited Capitol Hill to speak about the program with staff from the respective appropriations committees.
"We see this as an opportunity to begin to put together the pieces of what I would call a CWMD systems architecture, and a CWMD concept of operations, and to start thinking about what we need to do to improve the capabilities of that architecture," he said.
Nelson warned that "ensuring consistent and continued funding for CWMD will prove challenging given the likely budget cuts or freezes facing DOD and other federal departments.
"That said, the language describing CWMD is encouraging in that it builds on the idea, which is gaining more and more currency in Washington, that most successful initiatives will require interdepartmental and interagency coordination," he stated. "There are very few single agency problems and even fewer single agency solutions."