Editorial Column by William King


Brig. Gen. (ret.) US Army 20th CBRNe Command

The U.S enduring mission to counter threats posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has taken on renewed urgency due to troubling developments in recent years that have contributed to a more volatile and complex threat landscape. As the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) warns: “There now exists an unprecedented range and mix of threats, including major conventional, chemical, biological, nuclear, space, and cyber threats, and violent non-state actors. These developments have produced increased uncertainty and risk.”

Russia and China are acquiring new advanced types of nuclear capabilities and giving those nuclear forces increased prominence in their plans and strategies. North Korea, in defiance of international laws and condemnation, continues to develop and test nuclear weapons and missiles that can deliver those weapons across continents. North Korea also continues to pursue chemical and biological weapons that could also be delivered by missile. And Iran, while it has paused its nuclear program for now, is believed to possess the capacity necessary to develop a nuclear weapon within one year should it decide to resume its nuclear ambitions.

Perhaps more troubling is a rising WMD threat from non-state actors, such as violent extremist organizations (VEOs). The potential threat of non-state actors getting their hands on nuclear and biological weapons remains at the front of all of our minds. Nuclear and biological terrorism still remains a major threat in this century, and one we must work to mitigate at every opportunity. A particularly vexing challenge today is the fact that threats from non-state actors often include single individuals who are inspired by VEOs and can be more difficult to detect in advance. James McDonnell, Assistant Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) newly formed CWMD Office captured the issue well at a recent conference: “The change, the dynamic that I’ve seen in my career is the shift from state actors being primarily who you’re concerned with when it comes to WMD to nonstate actors and the proliferation of information through the Internet. Now you really have to worry about a microbiologist that has access to a laboratory in a community college, which, 10-15 years ago, that wasn’t something that we were dealing with like we are today.”

Further complicating the threat landscape is the fact that the know-how and materials needed to produce WMD continue to proliferate and commercial technologies that enable threat actors to obtain and deploy these weapons continue advancing. The evolving tactics and operations employed by terrorist organizations have compressed the time and space needed to plot and carry out attacks, further challenging traditional U.S. counter-terrorism approaches. Now they have become highly networked online, allowing them to spread propaganda worldwide, recruit online, evade detection by plotting in virtual safe havens, and crowd-source attacks. The result is that our interagency partners and allies have tracked a record number of terrorism cases.

As Homeland Security Department officials recently told lawmakers, “certain WMD, once viewed as out-of-reach for all but nation states, are now closer to being attained by non-state actors.” Unfortunately, the WMD threat today is not strictly academic — chemical weapons have been employed repeatedly with devastating consequences by both state and non-state actors.

In response, the U.S. government is recalibrating its CWMD posture with agency reorganizations and reformulated strategies. Just this past year, for example, the Department of Defense transferred the CWMD mission lead from the U.S. Strategic Command to the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), signaling a shift in strategy that places greater emphasis on identifying and preventing threats before they metastasize into crises. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security established a CWMD Office, consolidating numerous offices and functions across the department. Department of Commerce and Health and Human Services are undergoing similar efforts. National strategies and plans to address WMD threats are being overhauled with new or updated versions of the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review, Combined Arms CWMD doctrine, and National Biodefense Strategy and Implementation Plan.

These are positive steps that constitute a tipping point in the nation’s mobilization around the WMD challenge. But these steps, by themselves, cannot sufficiently address the myriad challenges that come with countering today’s emerging WMD threats. These include:

  • A lack of coordination at the national level to ensure that centers of CWMD activity, authority, policy, planning, and expertise are operating cohesively, effectively, and efficiently.
  • Limited situational awareness across the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive (CBRNE) communities concerning threats and CWMD activities.
  • A new lead agency — USSOCOM — that must rapidly develop the infrastructure, partnerships, expertise, strategy and tactics needed to address this mission successfully.
  • The inherent complexity of the CWMD mission in which each CBRNE pillar consists of different stakeholders, required skillsets, strategies and tactics.
  • Threat actors that continue to evolve their resiliency, adaptability, strategies, tactics, and organizations, often by employing digital innovations.

The transfer of the CWMD mission to USSOCOM, in particular, represents an important juncture that demands fresh thinking on how best to address these and other challenges. The policy decision to vest USSOCOM with this responsibility acknowledges that CWMD and counterterrorism share strong commonalities. Both missions face highly complex, multi-regional, and overlapping threats, and both call for a networked interagency and interorganizational response.

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