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Army Sees Greater Role in Anti-WMD Activities: Sources

Members of the U.S. Army Technical Escort Unit Chemical/Biological Team undergo decontamination during a 2002 drill in Florida. The U.S. Army might take on a more significant role in countering WMD threats, according to a Friday news report (AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove). Members of the U.S. Army Technical Escort Unit Chemical/Biological Team undergo decontamination during a 2002 drill in Florida. The U.S. Army might take on a more significant role in countering WMD threats, according to a Friday news report (AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove).

The U.S. Army is examining the possibility that as operations wind down in Afghanistan, the service will will take on a growing role in efforts to combat weapons of mass destruction, Inside Defense reported on Friday (see GSN, March 15).

Army personnel for instance could be involved in efforts to detect and contain potential unsecured nuclear weapons and materials in Pakistan and other parts of the globe. Such efforts would be in addition to the role already played by specialized units that are prepared for emergency deployment to hot spots, multiple unidentified officials said (see GSN, June 6).

"When you are talking about something the scale of Pakistan or North Korea, it's probably very difficult for just a bunch of special operations guys" to ensure protection of WMD materials, an Army official said.

The U.S. Congressional Research Service as of May assessed that Pakistan holds 90-110 nuclear weapons. There have been widespread concerns about the security of those weapons, though Islamabad and Washington officially play down such fears.

North Korea, meanwhile, is understood to have enough fissile material to fuel a minimum of six warheads and is also believed to have chemical and biological weapons programs.

Reducing the threat posed by unconventional weapons is among the key aims of the new U.S. defense strategy released by the Obama administration in January. The strategy calls for the Pentagon, "in partnership with other elements of the U.S. government ... to invest in capabilities to detect, protect against, and respond to WMD use, should preventive measures fail."

Army officers said the January defense blueprint is why they are now refocusing on countering unconventional weapons. "This is a broad attempt at understanding the requirements associated with securing weapons and facilities," an Army official said.

It is not yet apparent whether Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has given the Army new WMD-related directives, according to Inside Defense. 

The Army would not provide official comment on the degree to which the ground service is studying new anti-WMD activities for possible inclusion in force duties but said that any determinations "would be made at a level, or levels, above the Army."

"Controlling the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has always been a high priority," another Army official told the defense newsletter. "But when you're up to your ears in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially after you decide there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, our attention got focused in other areas."

The U.S. armed forces' Joint Task Force Elimination is overseen by the Army and supplies expert advice, intelligence and on-the-ground capabilities for combating and destroying weapons of mass destruction. However, the joint forces personnel assigned to the task force would not be adequate to responding to and containing a large-scale WMD security threat, the first Army official said.

"You need expertise, which is what the JTF Elimination provides, but you also need a lot of bodies to control access, prevent movement, round up engineers," the other Army official said.

The Army's aircraft forces could become involved in crisis situations when speed and inconspicuousness are critically important. The Army at present has airborne brigades deployed in Alaska and Italy. Their capacity to expeditiously be dispatched to hot spots such as Pakistan in a situation where loose warheads need to be secured could prove critical, officials said.

Lt. Col. John Mitchell thinks the Army should weigh creating an anti-WMD unit that would serve a specialized function similar to the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization. "The Army needs a capability for fusion and exploitation of all sources of intel, especially when it comes to weapons of mass destruction," he said in an interview last week.

"We're looking at lessons learned from counter-IED, JIEDDO and all of that, potentially evolving or morphing into a similar entity for weapons of mass destruction," the lieutenant colonel said. "That problem is not going to go away. What we found with counter-IED is that it's been very helpful to have a group focus on that problem set."

Col. Piet Hagenaars, a Dutch military officer who works with the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, said there was a necessity for anti-WMD capabilities to be taught to Army forces beyond specialized units.

"Now, we see that the human and technical intel means are usually at higher levels than division to identify (the WMD) threat," the Royal Netherlands Army officer said last week  (Inside Defense, June 8).

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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