Preparing to handle Syria’s Chemical Weapons

The alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria resurrect a challenge not faced since Saddam Hussein attacked Iraqi Kurds in Halabja in 1988.  Syria is generally believed to have a sophisticated chemical warfare program and to have stockpiled chemical weapons in great quantity.  If the regime collapses, the security of those weapons would be in doubt.  This raises an important question: What can the U.S. military do about Syria’s chemical arsenal, if the direction comes down to keep it out of the hands of terrorists? A weapons of mass destruction (WMD)* elimination mission to secure Syrian chemical weapons and dismantle Syria’s WMD infrastructure has been discussed as an option in the past.

Unclassified testimony by then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper posits that dealing with Syria’s chemical weapons would be “100 times worse than what we dealt with in Libya” and would involve “an extensive network” of CW-related facilities.  The chemical weapons could include missiles, rockets, artillery shells, and aerial bombs filled with mustard agent, sarin nerve agent, and VX nerve agent, in addition to bulk containers of agents and precursors.

In mid-November 2012, the New York Times quoted unnamed sources who suggested that 75,000 American military personnel would be required to secure Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles in a “non-permissive” (i.e., hostile) environment, and either destroy the chemical weapons or move them out of the country for disposal.  Most of these troops would be combat forces providing security for the chemical weapon specialists.

If the U.S. military was charged with taking care of Syrian’s chemical weapons munitions, the Standing Joint Force Headquarters for Elimination (SJFHQ-E), would likely be given this mission in support of U.S. Central Command and working with the Army’s 20th Support Command (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and high- yield Explosives, CBRNE).  This force resides within the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and is subordinate to U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM).

The SJFHQ-E was stood up in February 2012, with plans to meet full operating capability by this fall.  If it got the call to go to Syria, it would be supporting U.S. Central Command and working with the Army’s 20th Support Command, as well as assets from other military organizations.  SJFHQ-E is the result of nearly a decade of continuing efforts to coordinate a WMD elimination mission across government agencies.

Is the U.S. military prepared to intervene in Syria and eliminate its chemical weapons stockpiles, if ordered to do so by the president? Probably not.  A general concept for this mission exists, though it is untested and under-resourced.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tasked STRATCOM in 2005 to plan and coordinate DoD efforts to combat WMD, starting with the development of WMD interdiction and WMD elimination capabilities. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review called for “a deployable Joint Task Force headquarters for WMD elimination to be able to provide immediate command and control of forces for executing those missions.” These initiatives began after the lackluster efforts of a WMD exploitation task force that searched for” WMD-related program efforts” in Iraq in 2003-2004, accurately criticized by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in 2004 as a “pick-up game.”

While the concept for this new mission was being developed, DTRA organized a Joint Elimination Coordination Element (JECE) that would serve as an interim planning cell for WMD elimination operations, supporting the combatant commands as required. This unit achieved initial operational capability in August 2007 through its participation in Exercise ULCHI FOCUS LENS 2007 in South Korea, working with elements of the Army’s 20th Support Command. The plan was, when a combatant command formally requested forces for this unique mission, the JECE, 20th Support Command, and other units as required (primarily Army units) would come together to form a Joint Task Force for Elimination (JTF-E). Despite the well-established model of using JTFs for other military missions involving interagency coordination (such as JTF-Civil Support), there was no appetite within DoD to dedicate personnel, funding, and a base of support for a full-time unit for WMD elimination. U.S. Pacific Forces Command was the only geographic combatant command that demonstrated an active interest.

The operational concept was slow to develop, largely because of the nebulous nature of the end state of dismantling an entire nation’s WMD program. After the 2008 ULCHI FOCUS LENS exercise in 2008, the Joint Staff outlined a broad framework in an appendix of Joint Publication 3-40, Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction, released in June 2009. Maneuver forces would first locate and isolate the WMD sites. The JTF-E would then exploit the site and disable the munitions and agents. Responsibility would then be transferred to unnamed “other government agencies” and international offices to destroy the munitions and agents. Lastly, those “other government agencies” would execute the long-term monitoring and redirection of the nation’s former WMD personnel and sites. This last phase would be similar to the Cooperative Threat Reduction program formerly executed between the United States and former Soviet Union states. However, there still was no actual standing organization resourced to execute this mission.

The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review again called for a standing JTF headquarters with “increased nuclear disablement, exploitation, intelligence, and coordination capabilities.” Defense Secretary Bob Gates directed the Joint Staff to develop options on standing up this organization, leading to a series of meetings involving OSD, the services, and combatant commands. There was considerable debate as to commitments from the services and resources required before the final study went back to the Secretary’s office, nearly two years after his initial direction. The Army leadership did not want the mission if it was not adequately resourced, resulting in the direction to give the Standing Joint Force Headquarters – not a JTF – to STRATCOM, which later stood up at DTRA in February 2012.

Within the past year, the Army leadership reconsidered its view on WMD elimination. As part of this year’s “Unified Quest” wargame at the Army War College, the Army leadership examined the challenge of intervening during a nation’s collapse in order to prevent the loss of WMD. There were some hard truths exposed – one senior officer commented, “We don’t have a culture of ownership for this mission set. Within DOD, we’re not sure who really owns this… Nobody really wants it.” Another participant argued, “The Army… has to own this because no one else has the capacity to do it other than the Army.”

It is true that the Army is the only service with a full-time career field specializing in CBRN defense, and the U.S. Army has been conducting a chemical weapons disposal program since 1985. The Army knows how to do this mission but there remains the issue of involvement by other government agencies and international organizations that have not planned or resourced any efforts to support WMD elimination. And it ought to be clear, given the past history, that the Army – or DTRA – cannot do this on their own.

There are options other than elimination. If Syria collapses, the U.S. government could work with neighboring nations (as it is currently doing) to intercept any loose material that escapes the stockpiles. Rather than rushing U.S. military into a hot combat zone in a time when the Army’s end-strength is going down, it may be more strategic to support a new Syrian government, taking place in a permissive environment to secure the sites. This would allow time to establish a formal “threat reduction program” for disposing of Syria’s chemical weapons (assuming that the new government will reach out to the United States for support in this area). As a last resort, U.S. airpower can attempt to destroy or at least deny access to the sites with special munitions.


Al Mauroni is the Director of the U.S. Air Force Counterproliferation Center. He has more than 27 years of experience addressing counter-WMD policy and programmatic issues, working for the U.S. Army, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and U.S. Air Force. He has written six books and more than two dozen articles on WMD issues. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.



*While chemical weapons have been considered “weapons of mass destruction” since the United Nations adopted the term in 1948, some defense leaders and pundits have derided chemical weapons as not sufficiently destructive and more of a tactical weapon than an operational or strategic concern.


DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Steve Faulisi, U.S. Air Force