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Pentagon Might Shift Command Responsibility for Combating WMD Spread

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

(Feb. 12) -Personnel from seven nations participate in a 2008 WMD interdiction drill organized under the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative. The Pentagon has begun assessing how the U.S. military could more effectively coordinate efforts to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction (Getty Images). (Feb. 12) -Personnel from seven nations participate in a 2008 WMD interdiction drill organized under the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative. The Pentagon has begun assessing how the U.S. military could more effectively coordinate efforts to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction (Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Defense Department has just launched a high-level assessment of how its military forces might more effectively help combat the global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, according to officials (see GSN, Feb. 1).

The assessment -- led by U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va. -- could result in a significant change in oversight or modifications in the way the military approaches missions to counter the spread of WMD materials and technologies.

The move follows a Pentagon initiative -- described in the Quadrennial Defense Review, released last week -- to ramp up military efforts in this mission area.

"The proliferation of nuclear, chemical, biological and radiological capabilities among state and nonstate actors can threaten our ability to defend U.S. and allied interests, promote peace and security, ensure regional stability and protect our citizens," states the QDR report, which outlines the Pentagon's policy priorities for the next four years. "Further, the use of a nuclear weapon or a biological attack would have global ramifications. Preventing the proliferation and use of such weapons is therefore a top national priority."

The quadrennial review said that Defense Secretary Robert Gates had decided to establish a "Joint Task Force Elimination Headquarters" that would "plan, train and execute" missions to eradicate nuclear, biological and other unconventional weapons or their components.

However, Gates told reporters at a press conference last week that the statement in the review was merely a "recommendation," pending further study.

That additional study, led by Joint Forces Command, might augur even farther-reaching changes that consolidate or shift command responsibility for the mission, Global Security Newswire has learned.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff quietly launched an initial assessment of Pentagon counter-WMD responsibilities in 2008 after the head of U.S. Strategic Command opted to reduce headquarters emphasis on the mission, but the potential for change reportedly has gained steam over the past year since President Barack Obama took office.

The new president has drawn attention to rising concerns that terrorists or rogue nations could acquire or build WMD devices and pose a serious threat to the United States or its allies abroad.

"The piece we need to ... figure out with all of these wannabes out there [is] how do we prevent them from getting the critical components and technologies?" said one senior military official in a late-January interview. "This stuff is becoming so commonplace with the Internet and other ways, that's really going to be a tough row to hoe. But [we've] got to go try to do it."

Along with several others interviewed for this article, the senior official declined to be identified, citing political and military sensitivities associated with the issue.

One day after the Pentagon unveiled its quadrennial review results, Joint Forces Command was assigned to study potential options for how the military should approach the mission of countering WMD proliferation, according to an organization official.

Led by a Marine Corps general who has commanded troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, James Mattis, Joint Forces Command takes a primary role in training forces, planning military operations and providing personnel and equipment to combatant commanders around the globe.

The Defense Department last week tasked an existing command project dubbed "Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction-Nuclear" with reviewing military "authorities, responsibilities, intelligence requirements and operational concepts to detect, interdict, seize and destroy or defeat global WMD threats," according to Navy Capt. Tim Spratto, who serves in a directorate on concept development and experimentation.

Spratto said the project, which includes participants from across the Defense Department, was expected to report its recommendations by the end of the year. However, other officials said they anticipate that a potential reorganization initiative could coalesce sooner, perhaps as early as this spring.

Troubling Threat

As president, Obama elevated the importance of stemming nuclear-weapon proliferation during a speech in Prague last April in which he said the United States would take concrete steps toward ridding the global of atomic arms. Measures would include a verifiable treaty to end the production of weapon-usable fissile material, as well as "a new and more rigorous approach to address this threat," he said (see GSN, April 6, 2009).

The president described the risk as multiplying rapidly in the absence of tough new steps to stem proliferation.

"Black market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound. The technology to build a bomb has spread," Obama said. "Terrorists are determined to buy, build or steal one. Our efforts to contain these dangers are centered on a global nonproliferation regime, but as more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold."

During last month's State of the Union address, the president also signaled new momentum in countering bioterror threats (see GSN, Feb. 5).

The senior military official last month noted that Washington has significantly bolstered the U.S. ability to withstand a WMD attack, which should decrease incentives for a terrorist to acquire a nuclear or biological device.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks against New York and Washington, dozens of new physical barriers have been placed around federal buildings and congressional offices, medical countermeasures have been stockpiled and escape plans rehearsed.

To a terrorist, "the message is, 'You won't be successful, so why [bother]?'" the senior official said.

At the same time, though, "we need to do more in the area of prevention," the official told GSN.

Though WMD proliferation risks have been worrisome for years, nations have typically been reluctant to share intelligence about black-market activity, and stopping illicit materials in transit has often proven impossible, according to experts.

"Actual interdiction [is] very difficult, especially at sea," said one retired senior officer with combatant command experience. "Legal, policy and tactical challenges" have often stood in the way, even when intelligence was available, this source said.

The Quadrennial Defense Review -- which listed preventing WMD proliferation as one of six "key mission areas" for the U.S. military -- suggested that troops will play a more active future role in using intelligence to identify, track and intercept WMD materials or the technologies necessary for building such arms.

"As the ability to create and employ weapons of mass destruction spreads globally, so must our combined efforts to detect, interdict and contain the effects of these weapons," according to the congressionally mandated four-year review.

The prospect of al-Qaeda or other terrorist network acquiring a WMD device could seriously heighten global risk, but perhaps "most troubling" is the possibility that a nuclear-armed nation might become instable or even collapse, the report states. The document does not name Pakistan or North Korea, but issue experts are particularly worried about such scenarios playing out there.

"This could lead to rapid proliferation of WMD material, weapons and technology, and could quickly become a global crisis posing a direct physical threat to the United States and all other nations." according to the quadrennial review report.

The document suggests that the U.S. military might take a role in securing nuclear weapons during a crisis in which Islamabad, Pyongyang or other unnamed foreign governments might lose control over their arsenal. U.S. forces must be capable of "locating, securing or neutralizing weapons of mass destruction, key materials and related facilities in the context of a loss of control of such weapons or materials, and thwarting the potential for a nonstate adversary to acquire them," according to the report.

A number of issue experts strongly discourage planning such a potential role for Washington as it could make these regimes even more reticent to discuss their arsenals in peacetime (see GSN, June 10, 2009).

A Growing Mission

With such daunting tasks at hand, the Pentagon is grappling with how best to coordinate and oversee the specific efforts that might be required.

In a reorganization conducted after the 2001 terrorist attacks, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld named U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Neb., the lead combatant organization for overseeing military plans to counter nuclear and other WMD proliferation.

Under Strategic Command, a Strategic Center for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction -- housed at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency at Fort Belvoir in Virginia -- coordinates the plans for countering weapons proliferation developed by each of six geographic combatant commands around the globe. Those include, for example, U.S. Pacific Command for the Asia-Pacific region and U.S. Central Command for Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Little detail about such missions is publicly available, as the activities are typically shrouded in secrecy.

The strategic center at Fort Belvoir also distributes intelligence and assists with crisis-response planning, according to a Strategic Command spokeswoman.

In addition, under the Proliferation Security Initiative launched in May 2003 by then-President George W. Bush, Washington has enlisted more than 90 nations to voluntarily assist in interdicting suspected weapons of mass destruction materials in transit.

A recent success was the discovery of a transport aircraft loaded with weapons from North Korea that had made a refueling stop in Thailand, triggering suspicions of WMD-related cargo potentially bound for Iran (see GSN, Feb. 1).

Along with the Energy and State departments, the Pentagon also helps secure so-called "loose nukes" and other WMD materials and delivery platforms through the Cooperative Threat Reduction program. Under the initiative, the United States has helped to eliminate or relocate WMD materials and related weaponry in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere to prevent them from being acquired by terrorists or rogue nations.

Two years ago, though, coordination of the broad military mission for countering such weapons edged somewhat out of the spotlight without much fanfare.

Second Tier

In February 2008, shortly after taking the helm at Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton announced that he would prioritize his organization's responsibilities for space, network warfare and global strike above the command's several other assigned missions.

"These are areas that I would say that are major lines of operations for Strategic Command, and these are areas in which we operate across [national or regional] boundaries," he told an Air Force Association audience in Orlando.

The decision left the mission to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction among several other Strategic Command assignments that would receive relatively less headquarters focus.

Still, the Strategic Command center at Fort Belvoir would continue to "synchronize the combating of weapons of mass destruction plans that every regional combatant commander must develop for the Unified Command Plan ... so that the plan in one [area of responsibility] isn't interfering with the plan in another [area]," Chilton said.

The Unified Command Plan is the military's overarching blueprint for the missions and geographic responsibilities of U.S. combatant commanders. The Joint Chiefs of Staff formally reviews the plan every two years, but changes could be made at any time.

Whether Strategic Command is the best military organization to oversee counter-WMD planning is not immediately clear, since its role in leading U.S. nuclear combat operations is somewhat unrelated to interdicting WMD materials around the world, according to one issue expert.

"I would imagine that [Joint Forces Command] or [Special Operations Command] would do equally well, given the type of operations we are imagining," said Jeffrey Lewis, who directs the New America Foundation's Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative. "At the end of the day, what you really need is a set of tailored regional counterproliferation initiatives for the relevant [combatant commands]."

Given the different security dynamics facing various regions of the world, "I bet [Pacific Command] has a very different set of worries than [Central Command]" in the Middle East, said Lewis, suggesting that the most crucial work is performed at each regional command.

Though it remains uncertain what, if any, changes the Joint Forces Command-led assessment will recommend, the quadrennial review suggests the time has come to strengthen the Pentagon's defense-wide approach.

"Deterrence of such threats and defense against them can be enhanced through measures aimed at better understanding potential threats, securing and reducing dangerous materials wherever possible, positioning forces to monitor and track lethal agents and materials and their means of delivery, and, where relevant, defeating the agents themselves," reads the QDR report.

Still, some experts question whether the U.S. military role in countering WMD proliferation should grow at all, when much trafficking in dangerous materials takes place in commercial shipping and is policed by civilian agencies.

"Getting the military more involved in blocking the bomb's further spread sounds great until you realize that most of the blocking we are talking about does not require or entail the use of military force," said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. "Instead, the key things needed are clear rules, sound intelligence, greater international cooperation, and generally quiet, effective civilian enforcement."

Lewis agreed.

"The military can take the lead for certain missions -- interdicting ships or emergency response, with [the Energy Department] -- but the vast majority of illicit trade by volume is probably going to fall in the customs [or] export-control universe," he said.

Some Pentagon-watchers are wary of the prospect that the military might use the mission as a justification for organizational empire-building or top-down micromanagement.

Both Sokolski and Lewis urged that clear objectives be laid out before any decision is made.

"It is unclear if we are not working a solution here before we have bothered to clearly identify what the problem is we are solving," Sokolski told GSN.

Said Lewis: The Defense Department should "resist the urge to reorganize, yet again, unless for some specific benefit."

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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