As part of its new job as the lead U.S. military organization managing responses to possible crises involving weapons of mass destruction, the Pentagon’s top special operations headquarters is running a dedicated office to gather intelligence and information about these potential threats. Since President George W. Bush’s administration made the case for its invasion of Iraq, “WMDs” has become something of a dirty word, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t real concerns about hostile foreign powers and other groups getting hold such arms, including nuclear, radiological, chemical, and biological weapons.
There’s a certain alphabet soup to the arrangement, with U.S. Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM) Counter-Weapons of Mass Destruction-Fusion Center (CWMD-FC) being situated somewhere in the greater Washington, D.C. area, known to the U.S. military as the National Capital Region (NCR), which is already home to another secretive special operations counter-terrorism element, sometimes referred to as SOCOM-NCR. The mission of “countering” these deadly weapons can be somewhat confusing, as well.
The fusion center’s job is to provide “a persistent focus on the weapons of mass destruction problem set,” Ken McGraw, a spokesman for SOCOM, explained in an Email. An extension of the work the command does at its headquarters in Tampa, Florida, the personnel actively work with their counterparts across the rest of the U.S. military, the Intelligence Community, and law enforcement agencies, among others, as well as foreign governments, he added.
From this description, the fusion center’s role sounds utterly banal. But coordinating the Pentagon’s strategy to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction, which is essentially equal arms control and direct action, is a complicated and multi-faceted mission.
Preventing countries or other hostile actors from acquiring or transferring WMDs involves monitoring the movement and flow of weapons, precursor materials, and funding, helping to secure and destroy these items when necessary, and making sure foreign governments abide by various international agreements, such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty. At the same time, SOCOM has to take the lead if the U.S. military ends up responding to related crises as diverse as a weapon accidently going off at home or abroad or there is a need to neutralize a hostile WMD capability.
It’s an amazingly complex set of problems and that’s part of the reason why President Barack Obama’s administration, as one of its final official acts, shifted the job from U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) to SOCOM in December 2016. Critics were concerned that STRATCOM, which manages America’s nuclear deterrent, strategic intelligence, and military space activities, was either unwilling or unable to give countering WMDs the attention it deserved.
STRATCOM “rarely invested the necessary political and intellectual capital,” one anonymous U.S. defense official told The Washington Post when it first reported on the shift in December 2016. As a whole, they said the U.S. military gave WMD threats an “overall low sense of priority as compared to its other missions.”
An additional factor was the difficulty in coordinating the activities of a myriad number of U.S. military elements charged with the mission, but not necessarily working directly together. These include the U.S. Army’s 20th Support Command and 21st Ordnance Company, the latter dedicated specifically to defusing WMDs, and the U.S. Marine Corps Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, among others.
There is also the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), a separate agency with the Department of Defense focused on responding to WMD threats. Many of these units and offices have individual agreements with other U.S. government agencies to better mesh their respective activities, too. According to a Memorandum of Understanding The War Zone obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, U.S. Special Operations Command North, which oversees special operations missions in North America, has had a contract expert working within the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate since 2015.
In part, SOCOM’s fusion center has the job of making sure these various parties are working together smoothly. With U.S. special operations forces themselves heavily committed, with some suggesting they are close to their breaking point organizationally under the strain of near constant operations, it’s possible that SOCOM could find struggling with many of the same problems.
The command does have a long-standing relationship with the counter-WMD mission itself, though. One of the “core activities” of U.S. special operations forces is supporting U.S. government efforts to stem the proliferation of WMDs, according to SOCOM’s website.
According to Sean Naylor’s Relentless Strike, the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) spent much the 1990s preparing to respond to a “loose nuke” or similar scenario. This is not particularly surprising, given the increased fear after the fall o the Soviet Union in 1991 that Russia or other former Soviet republics had limited control of their stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material.
While we don’t know how much time JSOC continues to devote to this mission, we do know the U.S. military still practices for these types of contingencies. In 2015, American personnel reportedly stopped a mock nuclear or radiological attack in Canada as part of an annual counter-terrorism exercise called Vital Archer.
And while the idea that Saddam Hussein had an active set of WMD development programs in 2003 turned out to be bogus, there have been a host of very real world examples of these potential dangers since then. Most notably, in 2013, the U.S. military participated in a failed international effort to destroy the Syrian government’s chemical weapon stockpiles and production capability. DTRA worked with the U.S. Army to develop and provide a mobile system to destroy the dangerous arms on board the M/V Cape Ray, a ship from the U.S. government’s Ready Reserve Force, which keeps various ships storage until just such a need arises.
In addition to the Syrian regime of dictator Bashar Al Assad, ISIS has employed chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria. It is very possible that American special operators have already worked with local forces in both countries to identify and manage chemical weapons and hazardous materials as they’ve pushed back the terrorist organization.
In 2011, American troops had also deployed to Libya to guard that country’s chemical arsenal after the dramatic fall of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi, a mission known as Operation Odyssey Guard. In February 2014, the U.S. government announced it had finished safely destroying the remaining weapons and associated materials, preventing them from falling into the hands of terrorists or other militants.
There is evidence that these organizations continue to be interested in radiological weapons, more commonly known as “dirty bombs,” as well, even though many experts suggest the biggest danger they pose is from panic. Just in August 2017, Indonesia authorities told Reuters that the country’s security forces had broken up a terror cell that was trying to make one of these devices. ISIS terrorists almost stumbled upon a potential source of radioactive material during their occupation of the city of Mosul in Iraq.
Regardless of whether or not these plans would work, it still makes sense to tightly control radioactive material as part of the counter-WMD mission. In August 2015, a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane quietly arrived at an undisclosed airport in Mexico to load up three irradiators, which the country had previously used to eliminate agricultural pests, full of cesium-137 and spirited them away to a secure disposal site in the United States.
There are an increasing number of much larger potential threats, as well. Any talk of military action against North Korea, no matter how remote, has to include a discussion of what to do about that country’s growing nuclear arsenal, as well as its existing stockpile of chemical weapons. So, it’s very likely that SOCOM’s D.C.-area fusion center has been part of the inter-agency work in response to the ever growing tensions with North Korea, especially after its sixth nuclear weapons test.
In addition, the office no doubt at least followed the reported Israeli air strike on Syria’s Scientific Studies and Researchers Center, which leads that country’s chemical weapon development work and has probably talked with DTRA about its operation to make sure WMD materials don't slip across the border from Syria into Jordan, the same country where JSOC has reportedly situated some portion of its effort to target and eliminate ISIS leaders, known as Operation Gallant Phoenix.
The center could be contributing information about Iran’s compliance with the international agreement about its controversial nuclear program, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). On Sept. 19, 2017, President Donald Trump called the Iran Deal "an embarrassment to the United States."
However, “the facts are that Iran is operating under the agreements the we signed up for under the JCPOA,” U.S. Air Force General John Hyten, head of STRATCOM, told a gathering at the Hudson Institute event on Sept. 20, 2017. “But at the same time they are rapidly, rapidly deploying and developing a whole series of ballistic missiles and testing ballistic missiles at all ranges that provide significant concerns to not just the United States, but our allies.”
And there's always the possibility of a completely naturally occurring WMD emergency, whether it be serious damage to a nuclear power plant from a natural disaster, as happened to the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan after an earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 2011, or an outbreak of deadly disease such as the Ebola outbreak that turned into a regional pandemic in West Africa in 2014. Both incidents resulted in massive U.S. government responses that involved American military personnel.
All in all, WMD-related security concerns seem to have been expanding rather than receding in the past few years. It’s now SOCOM’s job to lead the U.S. military’s numerous efforts to counter that trend and Counter-Weapons of Mass Destruction-Fusion Center looks set to be an important part of staying on top of the issues.
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