The past year has witnessed a renewed emphasis by US government agencies addressing the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In December 2009, the Obama Administration released its second presidential policy directive, a "National Strategy to Counter Biological Threats," which addressed the challenge of combating infectious diseases, regardless of whether they were natural or manmade. In February 2010, the Quadrennial Defense Review stressed how the proliferation of WMD "continues to undermine global security." In April, the Nuclear Posture Review was released for the first time as an unclassified document, along with a newly signed Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, reducing the deployable number of Russian and US nuclear weapons. In May, representatives from across the globe met to renew the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which attempts to reduce (and eventually eliminate) the total number of nuclear-owning weapon states in the world. It has been a busy spring.
During talks related to these initiatives, President Barack Obama directly connected the threat of nuclear terrorism to the success of nuclear proliferation efforts. He declared, "The greatest threat to US and global security is no longer a nuclear exchange between nations, but nuclear terrorism by violent extremists and nuclear proliferation to an increasing number of states." (1) The current focus on nonproliferation activities, however, does not stop terrorists from seeking and potentially obtaining nuclear and biological materials, technology, and devices. For that matter, the emphasis on combating terrorism has not resulted in a reduction of terrorist ambitions to obtain these materials, either. The US government, and the Department of Defense (DOD) in particular, needs to review its strategy to combat weapons of mass destruction.
The combating WMD framework is based on a counterproliferation strategy developed in response to the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons to military forces in the 1990s, however, its scope was broadened after September 2001 to address concerns relating to homeland security. For all the talk about "the most dangerous weapons in the hands of the most dangerous people," there has been little discussion on whether the combating WMD strategy is adequate against current and future threats. This article will review the development of the combating WMD strategy from its initiation in the 1990s, as a result of the post-conflict analysis of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. It will outline the creation of the combating WMD strategy during the George W. Bush Administration. The article focuses on challenges in interpretation, largely due to the thesis that terrorists were actively seeking WMD materials and technology from "rogue states" that had developed this capability (or were in the process of doing so). Last, it will offer suggestions on how to improve the framework, largely by defining the strategy to counter nation-state WMD programs as distinct from the strategy to counter terrorist pursuit of WMD. If the US government clearly articulates these two strategies as separate but related, as opposed to being one single strategy to counter WMD, the agencies responsible for executing these strategies will be much more effective.
Genesis of DOD's Combating WMD Strategy
In 1993, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) initiated a Defense Counterproliferation Initiative with the image of ill-prepared US forces facing Iraq's chemical and biological (CB) weapons still fresh in its mind. There was some initial concern by the nonproliferation community that DOD was attempting to usurp its role that a focus on developing offensive and defensive capabilities to counter adversarial use of CB weapons would come at the cost of reducing nonproliferation efforts. (2) After a few years of discussion, OSD tasked the Joint Staff in 1996 to develop a counterproliferation strategy, stating in Defense Planning Guidance that "all US forces must be prepared to conduct wartime operations against adversaries armed with chemical or biological weapons. …