Pentagon Fine-Tunes Strategy To Prepare for WMD Threats
The Defense Department is working on a multi-tiered strategy to boost the nation’s ability to counter the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, or WMD. U.S. capabilities to deter and prevent attacks must be improved sooner rather than later, before the United States experiences another 9-11, said Dale Klein, assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear, biological and chemical defense programs.
“Unfortunately, I think we’ve moved into an era where [the question is] not ‘Is it going to happen,’ but ‘when?’ … We just need to be prepared to handle it and minimize it,” he told National Defense. For that reason, he added, “Our intelligence-gathering capabilities need to be enhanced, we need to have the technologies and people trained to respond.”
Referring to the recent string of suicide bombings in Israel, Klein said it would be “easy” for attacks of that nature to occur inside the United States. “If someone has a desire to kill themselves and others, it is extremely difficult to prevent that from happening,” he said.
Klein’s responsibilities include the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons, the biological defense programs, the nuclear treaties, chemical demilitarization and counter-proliferation. “The portfolio is very challenging,” he said.
Before coming to the Pentagon last November, Klein had spent 25 years as a mechanical engineering professor and vice chancellor at the University of Texas at Austin. He served on numerous high-level Department of Energy committees, including the Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee. Klein was appointed by then-governor George W. Bush to the Texas Radiation Advisory Board.
Asked about growing concerns in the United States on the possibility of a low-level nuclear attack, Klein noted that the emergence of non-state sponsored terrorism has changed the dynamics of nuclear defense. During the Cold War, there was fear of all-out nuclear annihilation. Today, “what we’re looking at, on the nuclear side, is more of a terrorist threat.”
Key to preventing terrorist groups from acquiring nuclear devices is to deny them access to the required materials, said Klein. “We are looking at assisting the former Soviet Union in safeguarding their materials. … We also have export controls that monitor sensitive or dual-use equipment,” he said.
“The former Soviet Union had a different method of accounting than the United States. And the United States had a very strong materials accountability program. The former Soviet Union had what we call the ‘three Gs,’—guns, gates and guards. That infrastructure has decayed. … It’s in the world’s best interest to help ensure that the materials … do not get into the hands of those who would like to do us harm,” he said.
In response to news reports about whether “orphan nukes,” from the former Soviet Union could surface in the continental United States, Klein said, “We always hear rumors of missing nuclear devices. I think we just have to look carefully when we hear that information, that we follow it through to its completion, to find out if there’s substance to it.
One source of concern, though perhaps not an immediate threat, is the fact that other countries are getting close to manufacturing their own nuclear weapons. “It’s no secret that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. They’ve been at it a long time,” he said.
Klein’s office recently updated its annual Report of Activities and Programs for Countering Proliferation and NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical) Terrorism. The document is “a roadmap for what the Defense Department should do, where should it put resources, where are the risks,” he said. Much of the effort in this report is devoted to the so-called “areas for capability enhancement.”
This year, “the number one area for capability enhancement is biological defense,” Klein said.
He noted that a significant number of countries are involved in biological and chemical programs. “The Soviet Union had a massive biological program,” Klein said. “And so one of the concerns that we have is people from the Soviet Union who were involved in that program selling their services. We have an interest in trying to prevent terrorist groups from getting that technology,” he said.
The United States has robust capabilities to detect nuclear threats, said Klein. “That’s one of the good news items about anything radioactive, our detectors work quite well. … The technology is exciting and refreshing.”
Because there are many levels of threats, the counter-proliferation program at the Pentagon is a “multi-tiered approach,” Klein said. The strategy is based on “prevention, deterrence, then the counterforce, active defense, passive defense, and then, in the unlikely event that something occurs, consequence management.”
The approach applies to both domestic and global counter-proliferation.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is gathering intelligence about a possible new type of weapon, which does not fall neatly into the chemical or biological category. Sarin and mustard gases clearly are chemical weapons. Biological weapons are virus-based, such as anthrax and smallpox. In between the chemical and the biological, he said, “You have shades of gray, where you can mix the two.”
“A toxin is a chemical that is secreted by a microbe. So, is that a biological or a chemical or is it both? It’s not a broad line,” said Air Force Col. Michael Kelly, Klein’s military assistant.
The improvements planned for biological defense include intelligence gathering, technologies, training, vaccines, civil support teams, said Klein.
Substantial efforts are being devoted today to train first responders, he said. “If you talked to local responders three years ago and asked them how many knew about anthrax, it’d be a very small number. Ask how many of them know today about anthrax—every one of them is going to know about it.”