This Is Not the WMD Strategy You’re Looking For


A decade after the alleged threat of WMD was faced down in Iraq, counter-WMD remains a specialist area, one not integrated into major combat operations or irregular operations in other than a few lines. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review lacks any recommendations to improve counter-WMD, a major shift from the 2006 and 2010 QDRs. These services aren’t a priority, and by extension, military leadership doesn’t engage on developing the department’s policy and strategy. The threat isn’t apparent, and if there is another Saddam, well, we have massive conventional advantages and nuclear weapons. So now our counter-WMD community has shifted its focus to homeland security concerns (even if the threat is extremely improbable), public health (even though DHHS has much greater resources and authority), and disaster relief such as the Fukushima incident (even though there were no weapons involved).

Last week, with relatively little fanfare, the DoD released an update to its strategy for countering WMD to the public. In many ways, the update is a continuation of the basic concepts of nonproliferation and counterproliferation, but it abandons labels and reverses the former administration’s emphasis on preventive measures. There are no bold or new ideas, but rather it captures what the Obama administration has practiced as its national security policy since 2010. What is problematic is the vague discussion of ends, ways, and means that is so critical to a military strategy. This document reads more like a national strategy, but that’s not what the DoD needs. In fact, it calls into question whether we need a counter-WMD strategy at all.

The U.S. military has not been seriously threatened by an adversary nation’s WMD program for more than 20 years. Nonproliferation activities have, in fact, reduced the number of countries developing WMD programs to a few “rogue” regimes. Maybe our conventional capabilities can counter the limited threat of their chemical and biological weapons. While there have been no transnational terrorist groups that have leveraged illicit networks to gain WMD capabilities to date, someday they might. We do need a plan to stop those nefarious — if unnamed and largely imagined — non-state actors from attacking the United States with WMD. But do we really need a counter-WMD strategy for this? Isn’t this already articulated in the National Security Strategy and captured in counterterrorism plans?

There is no question that since the Cold War began, every presidential administration has viewed WMD as a top national security threat. However, the operational community does not view WMD as an immediate concern, leaving details such as military strategies and doctrine to a largely technically and tactically focused DoD counter-WMD community. This has traditionally resulted in segregated policies and specialized issues rather than integrating WMD concerns into mainstream concepts and preparing the general force to address WMD within conventional and irregular operations. The updated strategy follows that pattern, offering a national-level discussion on countering WMD that fails to provide the services a meaningful directive to improve their ability to meet stated policy objectives.

But there is a deeper history here that bears reflection to better understand how we are developing strategies that address the threat of WMD use, and perhaps as important, why practitioners of national security policy should care. The U.S. policymakers were unsure whether the Cold War deterrence model would work when U.S. forces faced the Iraqi military in 1990–1991, and wondered whether they would, for the first time since World War I, see the use of chemical and biological weapons against U.S. troops. This led to the development of a counterproliferation strategy intended to protect U.S. forces from smaller nations with chemical and biological weapons arsenals. As the discussions on counterproliferation continued, Aum Shinrikyo’s use of sarin nerve agent in the Tokyo subway in 1995 drove the DoD to add the responsibility to respond to domestic chemical and biological terrorist events to its battlefield-focused counterproliferation strategy.

After the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff released a counterproliferation strategy in February 2001, the Bush administration used it as the basis for drafting the 2002 National Strategy to Combat WMD. The same broad strokes are present in both documents: nonproliferation, counterproliferation, and consequence management. The difference, of course, was the national-level discourse in the national strategy, and its emphasis on proactive, offensive actions calling for “the right to respond with overwhelming force – including through resort to all of our options – to the use of WMD against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies.” During the 1990s, the arms control and disarmament community had argued against the primacy of counterproliferation over nonproliferation, which the Chairman’s strategy had acceded to, but was then reversed by the Bush administration.

It took another four years before the DoD would release a National Military Strategy to Combat WMD articulating how the services would execute the DoD’s part in policy execution through the development of eight specific mission areas. These included threat reduction and security cooperation (nonproliferation areas); offensive operations, active defense, and passive defense (counterproliferation areas); and consequence management. This strategy was overwhelmingly oriented toward battlefield operations, and while it mentioned the threat of terrorists using WMD, the concept did not adequately address homeland security or combating terrorism equities. There were other national strategies addressing WMD terrorism that overlapped with the combating WMD strategies, adding to the confusion.

After Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld designated U.S. Strategic Command as the DoD lead for integrating and synchronizing combating WMD efforts in 2006, there was progress in developing plans and concepts for scenarios involving WMD. Similarly, U.S. Special Operations Command developed global plans to address the scenario where non-state actors might use WMD against U.S. security interests. With the standup of the National Counterproliferation Center and National Counterterrorism Center, one might be excused for believing that the WMD-threat waterfront was covered.

Today’s concern is over the “nexus” of nation-states that own or are developing WMD programs and terrorist groups seeking WMD capabilities. That is to say, if nation-states are building WMD, are the nonproliferation and counterproliferation experts watching to see whether those WMD are being transferred to terrorists? That’s not their job. Similarly, if terrorists are acquiring WMD from nation-states, do the counterterrorism experts know where the WMD materials and technology are? With the change of an administration in 2010, ideas began circulating on a new concept that was not locked in place by battlefield-oriented “mission areas” or an overwhelming focus on battlefield operations. The intent was to address both nation-state WMD programs and non-state actors desires to acquire WMD without using specific labels.

This newest DoD strategy clearly notes the change of policy toward emphasizing nonproliferation activities over offensive military operations. Any astute observer of national security affairs recognizes the Obama administration’s emphasis on nonproliferation activities, but this document makes that a formal statement. And that’s okay, but the first question that ought to be asked is, where is the national strategy for countering WMD? Where is the “whole-of-government” approach to countering WMD threats that paints the big picture? Why is the DoD strategy articulating national-level policy objectives such as “ensuring no new actors obtain WMD, those possessing WMD do not use them, and – if WMD are used – their effects are minimized?” These are not traditional DoD policy objectives. These are lofty national goals that require non-military tools of government power.

Out of the four policy objectives in the new strategy — the “ends” of the strategy — three address nonproliferation activities and one calls for “denying effects” of WMD threats through “layered, integrated defenses.” There is no discussion on safeguarding the force and managing consequences until the last page of the strategy. This is a significant change of policy. Yes, our forces are not at risk as they were during the Cold War — and the emphasis even then was on nuclear and not chemical and biological weapons — but changing the emphasis away from protecting U.S forces within a DoD strategy document is unprecedented. If we’re assuming that no one is going to attack U.S. forces with WMD, that’s one thing, but I am not sure we can say that.

The “ways” of this strategic approach to countering WMD is directed along three lines of effort: prevent acquisition, contain and reduce threats, and respond to crises. These “ways” are supported by “preparing.” Literally, one could apply this mantra to any military concept, whether dealing with conventional, irregular, or unconventional threats. This might be deliberate. During the Cold War and through 2010, the counter-WMD bumper sticker used to be “prevent (proliferation), protect (U.S. forces), and respond (manage consequences).” This was very much oriented toward sustaining operations on the battlefield. Today, the goal is to better align the DoD’s efforts with those of other government agencies that address WMD terrorism, so a more general (less binding) concept is desired.

The “means” to execute this strategy are captured as specialized counter-WMD activities and missions for general purpose forces. In the last pages of the document, we are reminded that the United States does need strategic deterrence, missile defense, command and control, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. Although these capabilities generally support conventional operations, they offer means to deter and defeat unconventional weapons. But the specialized military capabilities aren’t meant to protect U.S. forces as much as they are to support nonproliferation, interdiction, and the disabling and disposal of nation-state WMD programs. It will be a challenge for the services to figure out what exactly is expected of them under this concept, let alone allocate forces and specialized expertise in this time of budgetary cutbacks.

Our military doctrine has stated that WMD — more specifically, chemical and biological weapons — are a challenge inherent in any future military operation. That is to say, the object of strategy was completing military operations despite the environmental impact of WMD effects. The Bush administration made WMD, rather than the military operation or specific actors, the object of its strategy. This was similar to the “Global War on Terror” phrase — GWOT was a popular and catchy saying, until wiser people started asking, “How do you conduct war against a tactic?” Similarly, how do we fight a weapon system without taking into context the adversary, its capabilities, and particular goals? What about the terrorists who can’t afford WMD and settle for crude toxins and industrial chemicals? Why would we use the same counter-WMD concepts and expect the same level of priority for these minor league attacks? The new DOD strategy manufactures a fantastical future where unnamed nations and illicit networks are supplying terrorist groups with WMD capabilities, justifying the need for a specialized and highly technical mission of countering WMD that the general force sees as outside its traditional interests.

This new strategy heavily weighs its priorities to nonproliferation activities. This is articulated up front in the secretary of defense’s foreword: “In a constrained fiscal environment, we are focusing our efforts on preventing acquisition and countering the most likely threats.” The emphasis is on gaining international cooperation on reducing a global threat, emphasizing the need to “accept risk” in areas where WMD use is either not expected or would have “limited effects.” It’s unclear how this risk management would play out since policymakers do not want to accept any risk when it comes to WMD. But that comes to what we think a WMD is.

Now I’ll bet that laypersons reading this article would be somewhat surprised. Surely everyone understands WMD as to be nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons? Actually, not so, not even within the DoD. Often, when people talk about WMD, they mean nuclear and not chemical and biological weapons. With the concern over chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorism, people have added toxic industrial hazards, radiological material, high-yield explosives, and natural endemic diseases to the mix. This larger definition has overly complicated policy and strategy, as well as acquisition efforts, as well-meaning defense programs try to either develop a single defense system to address a wider range of threat agents, or simply ignore Cold War chemical and biological warfare agents to support other priorities, such as a global health security agenda.

Laura Holgate, the Senior Director for Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism and Threat Reduction, announced in June 2012 the administration’s desire to advance key elements of policy in response to global health threats. She clarified this effort in a 2014 press briefing as “making the world safer and more secure by strengthening our ability as an international community to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease outbreaks.” So one has to ask, what does addressing infectious disease outbreaks have to do with countering WMD terrorism and threat reduction? We do have a rather large Department of Health and Human Services that has a “global health strategy” — does it need the DoD’s help in executing that mission? Certainly pandemic disease outbreaks are challenging, and the DoD does have a sizable force health protection program that also addresses biological diseases. But this has nothing to do with countering WMD capabilities or interdicting terrorists who want to acquire WMD materials.

To summarize, we have a new DoD strategy for countering WMD threats that has ambitions of addressing national-level policy goals without the cover of a national strategy. It attempts to address both nation-state WMD programs and non-state actor ambitions, although the number of nation-states with WMD has drastically declined since 1992 and no terrorist group has successfully acquired and used WMD material other than a singular case 20 years ago. We see a heavy emphasis on working the international community while neglecting the eroding defensive capabilities of U.S. forces. We have an evolving definition of WMD — a Cold War term if ever there was one — to include accidents, diseases, and deliberate incidents that don’t cause mass casualties. And now the military services are being directed to develop operational capabilities required to support this strategy in a time of reduced budgets and other higher priorities.

This is not a good policy approach. More to the point, this is not the counter-WMD strategy that the DoD needs. But until senior defense policymakers engage the technically focused counter-WMD community and challenge this concept, this is what we have to deal with.


Al Mauroni is the Director of the U.S. Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies. 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.


Photo credit: Maryland National Guard