Small Wars Journal

Seeking a Strategy to Counter Weapons of Mass Destruction

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The Department of Defense (DoD) is in a continued state of transition from the end of the Cold War. A dozen years into the 21st century and more than 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States still lacks a national strategy and clear, articulate policies that address the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the post-Cold War world. It may be that defense analysts still fondly remember the heady days of the Cold War, when developing and implementing plans against a monolithic global power was both simple in its direct nature and yet complex in its execution. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, military analysts and defense policy experts recognized a need to change that point of view. The Defense Counterproliferation Initiative, executed in the 1990s, built the basis for a DoD counterproliferation strategy – addressing the adversarial use of chemical-biological weapons by non-nuclear weapon states – but that work was misdirected when 9/11 occurred.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen the establishment of a “National Strategy” and “National Military Strategy” to combat WMD (2002 and 2006, respectively) that identified terrorists and rogue states pursuing WMD as being an existential danger to the United States. The Joint Staff’s “Combating WMD Joint Integrating Concept,” released in 2007, expounded on the idea of global networks connecting terrorists to rogue states and the need to defeat this enterprise. However, it’s not 2002 anymore. There was no active WMD program in Iraq, and there were no terrorists seeking WMD from Saddam Hussein. Al Qaeda does not and never did have a capability to cause mass casualties with WMD. It is time to reassess how the DoD counters the threat of unconventional weapons in the 21st century.

Fundamentally, “WMD” is an arms control term that was developed for political discussions. The United Nations defined the term “WMD” in 1948 to refer to unconventional weapons (nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) munitions) as a special focus distinct from conventional weapons. It was a necessary term to guide the discussion on arms control, disarmament efforts, and laws of war relating to weapon systems that were as devastating as atomic explosives. For most of the twentieth century, WMD remained an arms control term. It was only after the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo use of nerve agent in the Tokyo subway that people started talking about WMD terrorism. RAND analysts supporting the Gilmore Commission in 1999 pointed out that “WMD terrorism” was not a useful term to guide necessary policy discussions. They suggested that “CBRN terrorism” was a more appropriate description for the expected small-scale, limited use of chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) materials that did not necessarily cause a mass casualty event. The number of casualties is key to distinguishing WMD from CBRN hazards, but the term “mass casualties” has yet to be quantified as something other than “more casualties than local hospitals can handle.”

It may be a mistake to even suggest a “strategy” to combat or counter WMD, just as some have suggested that a “War on Terror” is an inappropriate term. Rather, a nation has to counter an adversary’s capability to employ unconventional weapons on the battlefield. This is fundamental to the entire policy debate, which has become more and more confused as analysts and government agencies have added other threats to the list of WMD. For instance, the definition of unconventional weapons or WMD should not include the deliberate use of toxic industrial chemicals, biological organisms, or radiological material as improvised weapons, or CBR releases as a result of industrial accidents, because these are not militarily-effective weapons that can cause mass casualties. Unconventional weapons were deliberately designed to allow military forces to cause mass casualties over large areas of the battlefield. In response to the potential adversarial use of unconventional weapons, DoD developed deterrence measures, offensive and defensive capabilities, and nonproliferation activities. The combating terrorism community appropriately addresses the terrorist use of CBRN hazards, along with any other tactics or weapons that terrorists might use.

The number of states possessing or developing NBC weapons has gone down, not up. In the mid-1990s, defense officials believed that there were between 20-25 nations that had or might be developing unconventional weapons. There are substantially fewer nations with offensive WMD programs today, in part due to the success of nonproliferation and cooperative threat reduction efforts. The number of inter-state wars has declined over the past 20 years. Many states can easily procure conventional munitions, while NBC weapons have somewhat of a pariah nature to them. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) provides an annual report to Congress on the acquisition of technologies relating to WMD. The ODNI report identifies the few countries that are suspected of developing NBC weapons and of proliferating technology and materials (but not U.S. allies that are alleged to have unconventional weapons). Despite this measurable progress, many senior officials believe that because the technology to create NBC weapons has become easier and information is more available, the threat must in fact be rising, in particular from transnational terrorist groups.

Certainly Aum Shinrikyo’s nerve agent attack in 1995 and the Amerithrax incidents in 2001 might give one pause regarding the possible rise of CBRN terrorism. However, the expected onslaught of CBRN terrorism never took place. As for terrorist intentions, the ODNI’s 2011 report states that “several terrorist groups… probably remain interested in [CBRN] capabilities, but not necessarily in all four of those capabilities. A number of the [foreign terrorist groups] have previously expressed interest in one or more of these capabilities, mostly focusing on low-level chemicals and toxins.” This statement is revealing in two ways: first, it clearly limits the transnational terrorist involvement to “interest,” rather than having a capability to cause mass casualties. Second, the ODNI identified the level of capability as limited to industrial chemicals and crude toxins – not nerve agents, anthrax, or nuclear bombs.

The National Counterterrorism Center releases an annual unclassified report that breaks out the statistics of global terrorism incidents. In 2010, there were more than 11,500 terrorist attacks, affecting about 50,000 victims including almost 13,200 deaths. None were caused by CBRN hazards. About 98 percent of incidents involving fatalities resulted from attacks resulting in less than nine deaths. One can pick up any of the previous reports and see the same trends. There is no basis to believe that terrorists are capable of developing, procuring, or stealing NBC weapons for the purpose of causing mass casualties. However, the counter-WMD community believes that its national strategy should address terrorist use of industrial chemicals and ricin toxin just as it does a nation-state’s use of NBC weapons. We cannot develop sound defense policy on how to address the threat of nations using unconventional weapons if it is confused with the theoretical issue of CBRN terrorism.

In December 2010, President Barack Obama released the National Strategy to Counter Biological Threats, which calls for creating a common national response to pandemic disease outbreak and to bioterrorism. This philosophy is based on the belief that the source of the disease is irrelevant; there needs to be a common strategy and “whole of government” approach to countering the biological threat. As a result, some in the counter-WMD community believe that the DoD should develop medical countermeasures for global emerging infectious diseases, such influenza and SARS, using its technical expertise and funding within the DoD CB Defense Program. Some officials believe that chemical warfare is no longer a significant military threat, and that biological threat reduction initiatives for Africa and Asia should be the DoD’s focus. Without questioning the benefits of global public health, within a restrained budget, DoD could lose its ability to protect military forces from NBC weapons as a result of trying to monitor and respond to global pandemic outbreaks. This doesn’t help the achievement of counter-WMD objectives.

Many argue that if the U.S. government spends more money on public health, then by correlation, the threat of bioterrorism will be mitigated. But the public health community views natural infectious diseases as a higher priority threat than BW agents. If one were to examine the public health community’s list of the top 30 global infectious threats, biological warfare agents would not be in the top 25. Mother Nature will not submit to nonproliferation inspections. There are no “active defense” measures for the annual flu. There is no basis to believe that counter-WMD efforts can or should be applied to the global threat of emerging infectious diseases when there is a much larger national and international public health community already conducting that mission.

The current National Strategy and National Military Strategy to Combat WMD, and by extension, Concept Plan 8099, do not offer an executable framework to address CBRN terrorism. It is (and was designed to be) counterproliferation-focused. As a result, the combating terrorism community developed appropriate strategies and plans to address the possibility that terrorists might seek out CBRN hazards for use against the United States. The DoD emergency responder community addresses terrorist incidents, infectious diseases, and radiological incidents under an “all hazards” approach, which is entirely different than how the military addresses battlefield threats. The counter-WMD community does not need to lead policy discussions on CBRN terrorism response merely because NBC weapons effects are similar to that of CBRN hazards.

The counter-WMD community does have a role in homeland defense and civil support, but that role ought to be limited to providing a capability to support a Federal response under the National Preparedness (PPD-8) framework – while retaining, as a priority, a focus on the unconventional weapons threat on the battlefield. Biosecurity, biosurety, nuclear security, and nuclear surety are not counter-WMD issues. By trying to address every aspect of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats across the entire range of military operations, the counter-WMD community will in fact fail to meet the national security objective of protecting U.S. forces from adversary use of unconventional weapons.

We don’t need a new strategy to counter WMD – we need an entirely new approach to the challenge of unconventional weapons. For too long, we have seen the technical focus of the counter-WMD community drive the development of defense policy and strategy. With the end of the Cold War and the emergence of multi-polar WMD powers, we need an approach that allows all defense analysts – not just counter-WMD subject-matter experts – to develop strategic plans and policies to address adversaries within the context of major combat operations and with a rational perspective of NBC weapon and CBRN hazards. There are two possible courses of action: one could develop a national counter-CBRN strategy that acted as an umbrella concept for operational plans to counter adversarial nations with unconventional weapons, to counter terrorists with CBRN hazards, and to support emergency response to CBRN accidents. Or, because too many people may be reluctant to give up the term “WMD,” one could create a National Strategy to Counter WMD and carefully limit it to addressing nation-state efforts to develop and employ unconventional weapons. The National Strategy to Counter Terrorism already addresses WMD terrorism – it should continue to do so, without the unnecessary “technical assistance” from the counter-WMD community. 

The three-pillar structure of the National Strategy to Combat WMD and the eight mission areas of the National Military Strategy to Combat WMD have not been exercised within the Joint Staff’s Functional Capabilities and Joint Operating Concepts. Nonproliferation activities, to include threat reduction cooperation and security cooperation and partner activities, are not integrated into the Building Partnerships functional capability because of the “special nature” of WMD topics. The recent attention on Libya’s and Syria’s WMD production and storage sites has not energized the Force Application functional capability to examine requirements to strike at these sites without releasing CBR hazards into the environment. The Protection functional capability focuses on the development of passive (CBRN) defense capabilities but not required anti-terrorism capabilities. Homeland security discussions are too often limited to how many people and how much specialized CBRN defense equipment the National Guard’s specialized teams can carry, not whether the concept is optimally configured or sustainable.

The United States is not facing the Soviet Union and its massive unconventional weapons arsenal. The overall nation-state WMD threat is not growing, it is in fact shrinking. Terrorists are not an existential threat to the nation, given their limited capability to develop even crude CB weapons. The relatively limited defense funding for counter-WMD programs reveals that the U.S. government’s senior leaders do not see nation-states or terrorists with WMD as the gravest threat to national security, as some of their speeches suggest. Yet we do need a strategy to address specific WMD challenges:

  • We need a “whole of government” effort on countering adversarial WMD programs. The White House appointed a “Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction, Security and Arms Control,” but there is no visible interagency focus on counterproliferation, counterterrorism, or homeland security efforts addressing the threat of unconventional weapons.
  • We do not need WMD interdiction and WMD elimination as distinct mission areas, equal to active defense and passive defense. They are just sub-sets of nonproliferation efforts, focused on a very limited number of “rogue states,” requiring an interagency approach.
  • DoD needs a counter-strike capability to destroy adversarial WMD production and storage sites without causing collateral damage. Similarly, the US Special Operations Command needs to regain its focus on counterproliferation threats, in addition to its role in combating terrorism.
  • DoD needs a theater air and missile defense that counters aircraft with CB bombs and ballistic missiles with CB warheads. Our understanding of the operational impact of destroying CB weapons at low altitudes needs to be developed, rather than just a focus on defeating conventional enemy weapon systems.
  • It remains unclear if the military services evaluate operational units on their CBRN defense readiness. The military leadership in particular needs to evaluate passive defense capabilities at the theater level in addition to the small unit and individual level.
  • DoD leadership continues to wrestle with the development of WMD consequence management as a mission area. There are three flavors: domestic, foreign, and “DoD-led,” none of which have executable concepts of operation due to failed attempts to establish large, specialized units and exotic capabilities to support “life-saving measures” within 72 hours of an incident.

We need to go back to the basics of deterrence, diplomacy, and defense to adequately address nation-states that may employ unconventional weapons. We need to strip out all references to WMD terrorism or alleged networks between terrorists and “rogue states” from the current national strategy and start over with the concept that worked during the Cold War (ironically enough). Deterrence can be useful against nation-states other than Russia and China, but “strategic ambiguity” should not be part of it. We need clear communication with those potential adversary states with CB warfare capabilities as to the non-nuclear, but massive, conventional response that awaits their decision to use those weapons. We need to combine nonproliferation efforts and building partner capabilities to strengthen regional security rather than discussing nonproliferation activities as a “special issue.” We need to develop and maintain offensive (counter-strike) and defensive (active and passive defense) capabilities that are integrated with other conventional military activities, rather than as specialty (niche) capabilities.

We need to insist that the counter-WMD community focus on nation-state proliferation challenges and to support, not lead, combating WMD terrorism issues. The issue of “consequence management” continues to lose traction in policy discussions, in particular due to the focus on developing “life-saving measures” as a goal. The rest of the federal government abandoned the term “consequence management” years ago and instead refers to “incident management. Instead of domestic consequence management, we should ensure that “defense support to civil authorities” include an “all-hazards” DoD incident management approach to support all federal responses to state and local requests for assistance. It does not matter if the threat is a natural disaster or a CBRN incident. DoD’s ability to field logistics, security, and medical capabilities will still be in demand for any domestic incident. Similarly, foreign consequence management should be dropped in favor of integrating CBRN response into humanitarian assistance/disaster relief efforts. The combatant commands should execute “DoD-led” incident management for overseas air bases and sea ports and in support of coalition allies using available forces in theater, rather than relying on units stationed within the United States.

We have yet to see defense analysts and military planners use risk-based management approaches to integrate counter-WMD concepts into their plans and strategies. We have developed a DoD culture that appoints technical specialists to address the operational impact of unconventional weapons, and at the same time, believes that the use of unconventional operations is a possible factor in any military operation (and therefore a condition of warfare, not a specialized form of warfare). So while any military operation in any part of the world could involve the employment of unconventional weapons, the actual practice is to create special strategies, special plans, and special concepts for dealing with the threat.

Public health challenges in particular are expensive. It’s even more expensive when the counter-WMD community decides to “help” in the name of responding to CBRN terrorism, and then unnecessarily duplicates efforts in developing medical countermeasures and health surveillance. Within DoD, the force health protection experts need to lead, fund, execute, and sustain biosecurity, biopreparedness, biosurety, and bioterrorism efforts. Similarly, instead of maintaining a huge “CBRN Defense Enterprise” for homeland security, waiting for the 10-kiloton nuclear detonation that will never come, we should examine how the military can best support the federal response to state/local “all-hazards” incidents. The DoD should not insist on leading the response to complex catastrophic events, rather, the Department of Homeland Security needs to coordinate the Federal government’s efforts.

We can do better and we must do better. If the counter-WMD community doesn’t like these challenges, it will like being irrelevant even less. 

About the Author(s)

Al Mauroni is a senior policy analyst with the Air Force. A former Army officer, he has over 25 years experience in military chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological (CBRN) defense policy and program development. He is a graduate of Carnegie-Mellon University and has a master’s of science in administration from Central Michigan University. He is the author of six books and more than two dozen articles on the topic. His last book was “Where Are the WMDs?” published by the Naval Press Institute.



Tue, 05/22/2012 - 12:52pm

...defense support to civil authorities” include an “all-hazards” DoD incident management approach to support all federal responses to state and local requests for assistance...

Scary stuff. Do we really want this? Is this the end result of NGB losing the fight when DHS was created?

I want to succumb the the bumper-sticker approach like the first respondant here but we really 'need' DoD ex-NGB doing this?

Show me how we preserve/do not erode states' rights here and I'll be better able to agree with and otherwise excellently detailed argument.



Tue, 05/22/2012 - 8:46am

So if I get the gist of this, it is

1) get the bureaucracy right
2) MAD for rogue states
3) all-risk preparedness

I'm down with that!