The Outlook for CBRN Defense

September 21, 2012
By Rita Boland


The U.S. Defense Department has some hard decisions to make regarding where and how to optimize future research to counter chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons. A new report outlines the challenges that military officials must tackle with department and other partners, warning that the amorphous nature of threats limits the ability to identify or mitigate them all individually.

Developed by the National Academy of Sciences and commissioned by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense (ODASD(CBD)) as part of a strategic review of the Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP), the Determining Core Capabilities in Chemical and Biological Defense Science and Technology study addresses core science and technology proficiencies necessary to ensure successful defense against the dangers. It will inform internal processes that develop guidance for the CBDP. Due to the constant evolution of the weapons, leaders will have to choose which challenges to focus on without knowing exactly what they will face in the future. The military also will have to promote cooperation among its own research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) bodies as well as academia, industry and other government authorities.

The report made several recommendations, many focused on creating better specifics for goals and plans as well as improving overall knowledge of work carried out by different groups in the CBRN arena. An official with the ODASD(CBD) says the findings are hard-hitting and critical, but that they largely confirm previously identified issues. The deputy assistant secretary’s office believes the most important points in the report are the core competencies for the CBDP and a framework for engaging partners to help meet program needs. Also noteworthy are observations regarding the challenges presented by the decentralized execution by multiple program offices, which the official calls “particularly insightful.”

Dr. Miriam E. John, chairperson for the committee that conducted the study, says the committee members hope readers garner an appreciation for the need to take a systematic approach to evaluation agreed on by the CBRN community. “That was one of the things we found was missing in the overall program,” she explains. Currently, programs are organized in stovepipes with no accountability to one another.

The report also points out that running the RDT&E programs based on hard requirements makes it difficult to identify progress. “That’s because there are a lot of things about the threat that will be difficult to know,” John says. A scenario-based approach based on capabilities should yield better results. The differences in the approaches are highlighted in the report. Making correct decisions on where and how to devote resources is crucial because of the potential severity of the consequences of an attack. Because decisionmakers cannot know exactly what to prepare for, they have to stretch capabilities and plug holes they find.

The ODASD(CBD) has one disagreement with the report. The official explains that while the report’s language conveys the sense that the CBDP has little awareness of current and emerging chemical and biological threats, the committee’s exposure to threat information as part of this study was limited, and it is not clear that the writers’ assessment in this area is fully informed.

Moving forward, the office will use the study as a roadmap for further discussions with interagency partners on topics including: understanding the threat; identifying technological and capability gaps associated with everyone’s distinct missions; developing material and nonmaterial approaches to preventing and mitigating threats and events; and seeking opportunities to cross leverage programs, facilities and expertise.


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