The New Threat of Unconventional Warfare

By Mauroni, Albert J. | Joint Force Quarterly, October 2008 | Go to article overview

The New Threat of Unconventional Warfare


Mauroni, Albert J., Joint Force Quarterly


Current discussions on the nature of nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) warfare inevitably lead to the popular statement that the potential terrorist use of chemical and biological warfare agents, radiological "dirty bombs," and nuclear (CBRN) devices represents the greatest threat to Western civilization. (1) There is little, if any, discrimination made between the military application of NBC weapons by a nation-state such as North Korea or Pakistan and the terrorist application of CBRN hazards against noncombatant targets, despite the disparity in mass, sophistication, and impact of the two threats. Eleven of the 15 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) scenarios feature the adversarial use of a CBRN device or threat against the U.S. population, often with greatly exaggerated casualties and economic impact. (2) They are, without question, worst-case scenarios, designed more to stress decisionmakers by proposing numerous "what-if" cases than to seriously develop operational capabilities and allocate appropriate resources.

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This intentional mirroring of nation-state capabilities onto terrorist organizations has been driven largely by the events of September 11, 2001, and the tone of the White House's National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction. (3) Because of the 9/11 event, many analysts believe that the natural inclination of terrorists will be to escalate from the use of conventional munitions to military-grade chemical-biological (CB) warfare agents and even tactical nuclear weapons. (4) These military-grade agents and technologies will, according to the National Strategy, come from rogue nations who have (or intend to develop) a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program. These two issues have unnecessarily caused the counterproliferation and counterterrorism communities to come to blows over policy direction. Although one could argue that terrorists' statements and attempts to use crude industrial chemicals represent "intent," there have been no cases of the successful terrorist use of military-grade CB warfare agents, radiological "dirty bombs," or stolen nuclear weapons with the end result being a mass casualty event.

There are constant debates on how the United States should respond to a nation-state's or terrorist organization's actual employment of a CB hazard or weapon. What if a terrorist CB incident does not cause mass casualties, as with the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States? Assuming that we have the forensics capability to assign attribution to a particular country or organization, then what? Are we clear on the culpability of that nation? Should the U.S. Government respond to a military CB weapons attack against our forces with a nuclear weapon, regardless of whether or not the state is a nuclear power? Ironically, many of the same people and organizations who advocate the use of nuclear weapons as a retaliatory tool against CB warfare incidents are often the same ones who dismiss the idea that CB weapons represent a true WMD capability equivalent to nuclear weapons.

Military analysts and academics have failed to examine the technological evolution of NBC weapons (and CB weapons in particular) against the development of military strategy over the course of history. They apply the Cold War model to past, current, and future employment of CB weapons, viewing any and all chemical or biological weapons use or terrorist incidents as large area, mass casualty events. For example, note the recent cases of analysts identifying terrorist-employed chlorine as a WMD merely because it was once used as a chemical weapon in 1915. This application of the Cold War model ignores the type or amount of CB warfare agent, the delivery system, the purity of the agent, and a host of other factors required for a successful CB weapons attack. That process has resulted in the stagnation of ideas and concepts on how the United States ought to address the threat of terrorist CBRN incidents.

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