DOD Leaders Brief Congress on WMD Threats and Department’s Response

April 04, 2019

The lethality of the U.S. military “depends on our warfighters’ ability to deter, prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons and their effects, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for chemical and biological defense programs told Congress yesterday.

“CBRN agents pose uniquely destructive threats,” D. Christian Hassell said during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on intelligence and emerging threats and capabilities.

“They can empower a small group of actors with terribly destructive potential,” Hassell said. “Thus, countering weapons of mass destruction as far from our homeland as possible is a key mission for the U.S. military we help enable.”

Hassell was joined by Theresa Whelan, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security; Navy Vice Adm. Timothy G. Szymanski, deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command; and, Vayl S. Oxford, director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

A robust and modern nuclear deterrent has been the cornerstone of American security for more than 70 years, and “underwrites U.S. security, diplomacy and conventional military operations worldwide,” Hassell said, adding that given the strategic environment, nuclear deterrence is more important now than at any time since the end of the Cold War and is DOD’s highest-priority mission.

Hassell outlined a number of steps DOD is taking to strengthen its anti-WMD effort.

Nuclear Physical Security

The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, or NCB, is rewriting physical security guidance regarding protection of nuclear weapons and nuclear command and control facilities, as well as special nuclear material, he said.

NCB provides oversight of the Mighty Guardian program, a realistic force-on-force exercise against threats as determined by the Defense Intelligence Agency, he noted.

CBRN Defense Efforts

Through its Chemical and Biological Defense Program, DOD provides the equipment that enables service members to operate in a CBRN environment, Hassell said, whether conducting combat operations abroad or supporting first responders in a domestic incident

Strengthening Partnerships

The United States can dramatically improve its preparedness for and response to WMD threats through effective collaboration with its allies, Hassell said. This collaboration includes opportunities to share the cost of research and development, and the chance to improve the interoperability of systems and processes, he said.

For example, Hassell told the House panel, NCB maintains a bilateral relationship with the United Kingdom to improve collective readiness to eliminate foreign chemical and biological weapons. “This cooperation has resulted in intelligence and information sharing, identification of mutual gaps in capabilities, and shared investment to develop solutions to address them,” he said.

Destruction of Chemical Weapons Stockpile

In adhering to the Chemical Weapons Convention, Hassell said, DOD is working to safely eliminate the remaining U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles, located in Colorado and Kentucky.

“We are confident that complete destruction of the remaining chemical weapons will occur by the congressional deadline of Dec. 31, 2023,” he added.

Monitoring WMD Threats

Whelan said CBRN threats from North Korea are still a concern.

DOD “must remain postured to prevent WMD and missile-related proliferation to or from North Korea, counter and respond to WMD and missile attacks from North Korea, and continue to work with allies and partners to ensure they are postured to mitigate North Korea-CBRN threats,” she said.

Chemical weapons use is one of DOD’s top concerns, she told the panel, noting that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its citizens.

The United States “remains concerned Iran is developing chemical weapons agents intended to incapacitate for offensive purposes and did not declare all of its traditional CW agent capabilities when it ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention,” she said. “Iran’s uncertain WMD pursuits heighten the WMD risk in an already-volatile region of the globe.”