WMD Threat Reduction Programs Suffer from Neglect

By William M. Moon

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There has been a lot of discussion on the importance of supporting and heeding the advice of scientists as the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic. It is more important than ever to support our experts as they combat the outbreak. 

But there is another group that is also deserving of our attention — the government workers, supporting contractors, nongovernmental organizations and academics that work to prevent and mitigate potential catastrophes from weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

This WMD threat reduction community is dedicated to addressing nuclear, chemical, biological, radiological and improvised threats, to include natural and manmade incidents and actions that would be far more devastating than anything seen from COVID-19.

The individual threats of such disasters may be considered low-probability events, but the consequences of such incidents and the results of inaction could be extremely devastating. A nuclear attack, or any kind of nuclear detonation — whether an intentional military action, a terrorist attack, or an accident — could cause millions or tens of millions of deaths with far greater hospitalizations and economic impacts than the world is experiencing today.

During this time of crisis, it’s more important than ever to continue the work to prevent and mitigate future cataclysmic events and avoid the inclination to think that this pandemic means that future high consequence incidents are now less likely or aren’t worth the time and attention. The public and policymakers need to review how they evaluate these essential programs. Support is urgently needed by the WMD threat reduction community to avoid and lessen the chances and effects of a future global disaster.

The mission of preventing and mitigating low-probability/high-consequence events is a unique and essential federal governmental function that suffers from constant budget pressures and continuously eroding public and political support. Additionally, international cooperation efforts are often seriously underfunded and frequently criticized.

Federal neglect for such events reached its most dangerous point in January 2020 in the fiscal year 2021 Defense-Wide Review report to Congress that explicitly “reduces the Cooperative Threat Reduction program by eliminating efforts for low-to-near zero probability threats.” Ironically, this issuance was promulgated just as the low-probability/high-consequence coronavirus pandemic was making its way to the United States.

Those who work and dedicate their careers to these programs and missions do so with a strong sense of government and community service and an understanding that their efforts are not likely to receive support and recognition from outside this community. Lack of attention and recognition is expected and is not a problem when it comes to their motivations. Even though it is impossible to prove success when it comes to prevention programs, the experts, diplomats and specialists from this community know that their efforts are critically important and earn their satisfaction knowing that they are doing all they can to make the world safer. As a society we need to value risk-reduction efforts and provide them with the support they deserve.

Prevention and risk reduction programs should not be evaluated by short-term outcomes. If there is not a nuclear disaster for five years, the reaction should be how to make that last longer instead of devaluing and cutting such programs. Senior leaders should not be asking when and how to complete or finish threat reduction pursuits; they need to ask how they can be continuously improved.

The occurrence of one crisis does not mean that other crises are now less likely. The COVID-19 pandemic should not lead to reductions in efforts to prevent and mitigate a nuclear accident or incident. Yet the political reaction has often been to take money from the successful prevention programs to increase funding against the latest crisis. Pandemic and biological risk reduction program funding should not be taken from nuclear or chemical threat reduction and security programs.

Difficulties, shortcomings and failures of cooperative programs shouldn’t cause an overreaction to cancel or cut such cooperation. If our objective is to gain information and understanding, it doesn’t make sense to cut off communication and engagement when we don’t get as much information as quickly as we would like.

Efforts and pressures to prioritize prevention efforts need to be modified significantly. Instead of continuously evaluating them in terms of likelihood or probability, programs need to be valued in terms of the consequences they are seeking to prevent or mitigate. If programs that seek to prevent the high consequence events like a nuclear war are cut in favor of lower consequence events that are more likely, it increases vulnerability to the high consequence events.

Risk involves both likelihood and consequences, and when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, the potential consequences are so catastrophically high they need special attention. In addition, efforts and attention to prioritize between high-consequence nuclear, chemical, biological and radiological crises are also misplaced. With such high consequence events, they need to be evaluated and supported according to the value of investing to prevent disasters that will be more catastrophic.

Pressures to impose performance metrics on prevention programs need to be pulled back. While there are some useful metrics that can help evaluate prevention and threat reduction programs, it is not possible to develop performance metrics for these projects to compare them to defense and weapons production programs. The application of performance metrics on prevention programs will never prove success. Instead, the prevention programs should be evaluated in terms of the opportunity costs they may offset.

For example, the costs for securing a warhead should be evaluated against the costs of responding to an incident involving unauthorized access, sabotage, or stealing of such a valuable asset. Elimination programs should be evaluated against the cost of building a new weapon to deter that asset if it isn’t eliminated.

Prevention and mitigation programs can’t be evaluated in terms of efficiency. It is cheaper, and therefore more efficient to make something that is very vulnerable to being not as vulnerable, but trying to marginally reduce vulnerabilities from low to zero for high consequence events isn’t going to be efficient. When a margin for error is so low for catastrophic risks, one needs to evaluate the investment against the consequences instead of against measures of efficiency and probability.

Prevention and risk reduction programs need to be viewed as investments and insurance policies. One doesn’t fire an insurance agent if there hasn’t been a flood recently. Threat reduction experts shouldn’t be marginalized and pushed aside just because the efforts they support may be low probability.

Those events should be rendered even less probable. Just like canceling insurance won’t save money in the long run, cutting prevention and threat reduction programs won’t yield savings. The cuts will instead prompt greater needs for more weapons to enhance deterrence.

Is the nation investing enough to prevent the highest consequence events? The facts are that prevention, threat reduction and mitigation programs are much cheaper than any conceivable reactions and recovery efforts that would be required for high consequence events by huge magnitudes. Well-functioning threat reduction programs also continuously build prevention and threat reduction capability such that a little more investment means a little more improvement.

If programs are canceled, delayed, or if cooperation ceases, reconstituting those efforts takes a much larger investment of time and resources and may be difficult to rebuild after an incident.

Under the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, for example, the Defense Department invested around $2 billion securing nuclear warheads in Russia after the Soviet Union was dissolved. This was done cooperatively over 23 years. Russian investment was at least as much, probably much more. It is not possible to prove that the program prevented a terrorist group from stealing or sabotaging a nuclear weapon, but it hasn’t happened. It seems logical that cooperative efforts greatly deterred terrorists from contemplating attacks.

There were also safety measures taken, like improving railcar transportation safety that certainly could have otherwise resulted in an incident or accident. An additional benefit was the reduced tension between U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons forces. The likelihood of an exchange at this time was considered much lower than before or after the program — largely because of the cooperation.

What would the economic impact be of a radiological weapon that caused the shutdown of large urban areas, not for weeks or months, but for decades? Just imagine if a terrorist group claimed to have stolen a nuclear warhead. How many people would be in panic or lockdown across the globe? What would the economic devastation be?

Russia has thousands fewer weapons and warheads than when the threat reduction program started. It isn’t known how much the Defense Department would have wanted to spend on its weapons to deter thousands more Russian nuclear weapons, but it seems logical that it would have been a lot more than $100 million per year.

Investing in prevention and threat reduction needs to be the first priority before considering investing in warfighting capabilities and response. Otherwise, those offensive and response investments may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The estimated costs for the Nuclear Weapons Transportation program were about $7,000 for each Russian warhead eliminated. That’s a bargain most people would take any day. There was a lot more that the program didn’t do that could have made it even safer.

Funding for these threat reduction programs are at their lowest level in over 20 years. Prevention and threat reduction programs have always had trouble building and maintaining support, but the ferocity of the critiques and budget cuts have ramped up over the past three to five years. Programs have been cut if they can’t demonstrate short-term gains or if the probability of an event is relatively low. Instead of breeding support, program successes have gone unrecognized and unappreciated for any low probability event.

The reward and reaction is to cut and reduce the programs, to claim victory and move on to more immediate threats instead of considering high consequence risks. Expertise is questioned and denigrated. Unless these attitudes change and the mission essential roles of government are supported, catastrophic consequences will result. The time is now to change public attitudes toward government workers devoted to these causes and give them the support they need.

When it comes to threats and risks, our focus needs to be on continuously improving the ability to prevent, reduce and mitigate. As the 9/11 Commission noted, the nation needs to use its imagination and spread prevention efforts. Every dollar devoted to prevention may be worth 10 times or a 100 times more than the costs involved in responding. It’s time to increase global investments in prevention and threat reduction measures. ND

William M. Moon is an independent consultant and researcher, who retired in 2019 from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency where he led the Cooperative Threat Reduction program to secure and eliminate Russian nuclear warheads for 23 years.

Topics: Chem Bio Protection

Comments (2)

Re: WMD Threat Reduction Programs Suffer from Neglect

Thanks to Mr. Moon for this valuable reminder and analysis. We do not want WMD prevention efforts to follow the sorry path of the CDC. There, prevention of low probability, high impact public health issues dwindled in favor of nagging individuals, i.e., vaping and firearm possession. Not covered in this article is an arguable higher threat. That is, detonation of nuclear weapons we own. There have been scores of incidents that could have gone critical, and all caused extensive disruption and costs. The book "Command and Control" catalogs those, with analysis of causes and future threats. It is a must-read for every taxpayer and service member.

Larry Woods at 2:33 PM
Re: WMD Threat Reduction Programs Suffer from Neglect

There is a PM position with the Army at SOCOM available to deal with this ( Even though I have a background in Nuclear Engineering, I don't have the right experience for this position, but maybe another NDIA member does so he/se may get this position and address the issues listed..

Patrick Harris at 12:12 PM
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