DoD Announces a New Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction

The Department of Defense (DoD) on Monday released an updated policy for countering weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that focuses on prevention, early action and partnering with allies.

The new policy is a step in the right direction. In an era of constrained military budgets, the report is correct to emphasize shaping security environments to dissuade actors from pursuing WMD, and partnering with allies to achieve shared goals. The alternative—a game of military whack-a-mole to knock down every new actor that manages to acquire a WMD—is unrealistic, costly, and dangerous.

The document, the Department of Defense Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, specifies goals, prescribes policy objectives, outlines strategies for achieving those objectives, and puts forward activities and tasks necessary to execute said strategies.

The policy establishes three end goals: ensuring that (1) no new actors obtain WMD, (2) those possessing WMD do not use them, and (3) if actors do use WMD, the effects of use are minimized. The Department’s objectives in achieving these goals focus on shaping security environments in order to discourage potential adversaries from acquiring WMD in the first place. The objectives are (1) to reduce incentives to pursue, possess, and employ WMD (2) to increase barriers to WMD acquisition, proliferation, and use (3) to manage WMD risks emanating from hostile, fragile, or failed states and safe havens and (4) to deny the effects of current and emerging WMD threats through layered and integrated defense.

These four objectives are slated to be advanced through three lines of effort: Prevent Acquisition (ensure those who do not possess WMD do not obtain them), Contain and Reduce Threats (mitigate risks posed by those who already have WMD), and Respond to Crises (activities and operations to resolve WMD crises).

The new strategy represents a notable divergence from DoD’s 2006 counter-WMD document. The 2006 document was heavily focused on the military mission to defeat and deter adversaries from possessing and using WMD. Of the eight mission areas outlined in the document, only one was focused on activities designed to enhance the security of existing WMD programs, stockpiles and capabilities.

A major factor that influenced the new direction of DoD’s counter-WMD strategy is the Congressional mandate to reduce military spending.

“Fiscal constraints require DoD to make strategic choices that protect and enhance countering WMD investments. The Department will accept risk in areas where WMD use is implausible, infeasible, or would have limited effects, allowing DoD to prioritize capabilities that facilitate efforts to preclude WMD acquisition and use,” the report states.

The new policy appears to be consistent with Washington’s latest counter-WMD efforts in Syria. Under the oversight of the Organization for the Prohibition Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Nations, the U.S. worked with 30 other countries and the European Union to successfully remove some 1,300 metric tons of chemical weapons from the hands of dictator Bashar al-Assad in the midst of a raging civil war. The most dangerous chemicals are currently being neutralized aboard the MV Cape Ray.

The Defense official noted that the Cape Ray is exactly the kind of flexible solution the Department will pursue in the future. “I think the most important part about that [the Cape Ray] in terms of future scenarios was our ability to look at a problem and to quickly apply creative solution sets by working across the department and pulling all those elements together,” he said.

The official also pointed to the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program as an example of something that was not included in the 2006 strategy, but has become an integral part of how the DOD performs its counter-WMD mission, hailing CTR as “an example of the strategy already at work.”

It is interesting to note, however, that the White House’s fiscal year 2015 budget request cuts $534 million in funding for nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear terrorism prevention programs at DoD and the National Nuclear Security Administration relative to the enacted fiscal year 2014 funding level. Specifically, the administration slashed $135.4 million in funding from CTR, a 27% reduction. If CTR is such an “integral” part of the DoD’s counter-WMD mission, what explains the steady decline in resources for the program, most notably in fiscal year 2015? Clearly resource constraints are a problem, but security programs such as CTR are too important to be a bill payer for other programs.

These are some of the critical questions that the DoD must answer if the new strategy is to become more than a hollow shell of nice ideas. Overall, however, the strategy is a good step that addresses current security challenges and is an upgrade over the previous iteration.