Counterproliferation Efforts Pay Unexpected Dividends

January 2002
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Searching for weapons of mass destruction spawns spin-offs that can serve homeland security.

While analysts now are keeping a sharper eye on possible weapons proliferation, some of the technologies they employ may play an increasingly important role in maintaining homeland security. In the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States, experts charged with detecting overseas programs to develop weapons of mass destruction are refocusing their efforts on a new list of nations that pose more immediate threats.

The information system that these experts employ to process and disseminate their intelligence itself offers the potential to assist in civil government activities ranging from disaster relief to emergency response. This information system includes an advanced object-oriented database that helps users collate disparate facts into a coherent threat picture. The same technology can be applied to gauge the effects of natural disasters as well as model accidental or deliberate dispersal of toxic gases into the atmosphere.

The focal point of this global program is the counterproliferation, analysis and planning system, known as CAPS, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California. Staffed by 54 people, CAPS analyzes major proliferation efforts by focusing on how countries may attempt to build weapons of mass destruction. This involves examining a country’s infrastructure and how it can support weapons-building activities. By analyzing these types of data, CAPS tries to assess the choices—and possible consequences—of an executive decision to interdict this weapons development.

CAPS is not an intelligence organization. Rather, it is a consumer of intelligence information that processes and disseminates specific intelligence to its customers. It depends largely on imagery and human intelligence to draw a picture of a country’s potential for developing weapons of mass destruction.

The program was designed for the armed forces—CAPS’ sponsor, through the major combatant commands. A Joint Staff-created committee, the Counterproliferation Mission-Support Senior Oversight Group, gives CAPS its working orders. Comprising flag-level officers from each of the U.S. combatant commands, this group is responsible for identifying threat countries and establishing a priority list for CAPS activities.

CAPS is funded to 2006-2007 with an annual budget of approximately $15 million, which comes from two major sponsors—the Strategic Command and the Office of the Secretary of Defense through the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Both groups have program managers assigned to CAPS.

Additional funding comes from the Special Operations Command, and some of the capabilities it specifically requested have been incorporated into CAPS. These capabilities include higher resolution analysis, including the ability to analyze systems and systems of systems down to very detailed resolution.

Thomas F. Ramos, CAPS program leader, explains that the organization’s expertise lies in examining structures. For example, a factory might already be known to intelligence experts as a weapons development site, but CAPS would aim to determine how that factory operates, its internal machinery and its critical aspects.

Developing any kind of suspect weapon tends to require a significant industrial backbone for supporting a concerted effort. Nuclear weapons development, for instance, requires a large national infrastructure of reactors and material processing plants that consume considerable amounts of electricity. Accordingly, CAPS is geared more toward tracking rogue nations than terrorist groups.

Lateral proliferation, however, is a concern. A rogue nation that develops a weapon of mass destruction could transfer that expertise to terrorists or to other countries that might support terrorism. Part of CAPS’ mission is to understand the potential capabilities of a well-financed organization, Ramos points out.

Destroying a specific weapons site raises a number of issues. CAPS analysts try to determine how a specific action would affect the designated weapon program, from local consequences and collateral damage to how much time it would delay a program.

The organization is built around deliberative planning rather than reactive response. “We are not a 72-hour-crisis operation,” Ramos says. If a hitherto unremarkable nation suddenly becomes a world threat, CAPS is ill-equipped for rapid response. It takes the organization months, with its systematic approach, to carefully analyze a problem and provide worthwhile information.

The attacks on September 11 changed CAPS activities dramatically, Ramos allows. The organization’s pace picked up significantly as experts worked weekends to provide information to several customers “who needed it very quickly and very badly,” he relates. The pace has slowed a bit since the early period immediately after September 11, but the list of priorities has changed dramatically from the pre-September-11 slate. Some countries that were further down on the earlier list have moved up significantly.

Ramos relates that CAPS has reached outside the laboratory for the necessary experts who can analyze diverse data on facilities and processes. Known as the Process Analysis Group, these 20 people, average about 25 to 30 years of experience in industry. During that time, they have designed and built dozens of the types of factories that CAPS needs to examine in other countries.

“People who actually have been around the block a few times and built these places—and who understand the commercial aspects as well as the technical aspects of the problem—are actually more valuable,” Ramos states.

Chemical engineers are a critical component, he warrants, and CAPS has several on its staff. One engineer built petrochemical plants, while another has expertise in chlorine and phosphorus facilities.

The group’s biological specialists include one expert who has built and designed bacteria manufacturing plants for legitimate agricultural uses. Yet another expert is knowledgeable in viruses, especially with regard to vaccine plants that easily could be converted to manufacture biological weapons.

The Process Analysis Group also includes metallurgical and rocket industry experts. Ramos relates that one rocket expert worked on the Peacekeeper missile program, while another worked on the Sidewinder. Another expert built propellant factories in other countries.

For dealing with nuclear proliferation, the group includes experts on plutonium processing plants and uranium enrichment facilities. This expertise can combine both chemical engineering and metallurgy.

Analyzing trends and predicting outcomes constitute only half the task. CAPS also relies on a sophisticated network to disseminate information to its customers. Ramos offers that this network architecture has applications far beyond CAPS’ original mission.

CAPS disseminates its information to military planners through classified military networks. Anyone on these classified networks can access the system’s Web site for vital information. The system uses a Netscape browser as the basis for access and dissemination. CAPS currently comprises approximately 10,000 Web pages of information.

The intelligence dissemination effort is headed by an internal CAPS organization known as the Computer Architecture Group. This group encompasses several thrusts that Ramos describes as cutting edge.

One example involves incorporating analytic tools into the program for their availability to CAPS users worldwide. One key tool, which dates back to a laboratory program begun at the height of the Cold War, is known as the atmospheric release advisory capability. This tool permits a user to model the atmospheric release of toxic materials such as radioactive fallout, poison gases or biological aerosols. Users can predict where a toxic cloud would spread contaminant following a sudden release from the suspect facility.

Military planners can use this tool to determine the aftereffects of a bombing mission on a suspect factory, for example. Other uses include predicting the dispersal pattern for an atmospheric release of a gas or aerosol.

Ramos relates that California’s Office of Emergency Response employs this tool for natural calamities. He cites one example of when an 18-wheel truck overturned while carrying toxic chemicals near Mt. Lawson. The software was able to illustrate the flow of the toxic fumes and determine where authorities needed to deploy damage-control forces. A similar application emerged when police used the atmospheric release tool to identify neighborhoods requiring evacuation in the face of a toxic fire.

Anyone using CAPS can click on a hot button for a specific location to initiate a calculation back at Lawrence Livermore. Real-time weather data from the target location is factored into this calculation, so the user can view a depiction of a plume release affected by winds blowing at that moment at the site. The entire process takes about seven minutes, Ramos says.

Providing this service proved “not to be a trivial exercise,” Ramos relates. It involved moving a capability that originally ran off of a DEC mainframe computer onto a laptop in a classified network. Multiple firewalls and operating system/code compatibility problems had to be overcome. For example, a DEC computer might perform the calculations, a UNIX computer would be the server and a PC would receive the information. Designers had to implement an architecture that allowed multiple platforms running different operating systems to interoperate.

Another challenge lies in maintaining the 10,000 CAPS Web pages. These originally were input manually, but designers now have set out to automate their maintenance. This involves transitioning to a dynamic HTML environment with the database serving as the backbone. Ramos relates that CAPS opted for an object-oriented database from Versant Corporation in Fremont, California. This database, in which one country is already up and running, is in the beta testing phase.

Ramos continues that this powerful database allows an analyst to fill in spaces in a template that is submitted to the computer. By pressing a button, the analyst can see how this information would appear on a CAPS Web page before it actually is processed into Web page language. A related program, known as Insight, enables users to mine the object-oriented database. An analyst could prompt a full interrogation of the database with a simple question. Ramos describes this as “a semi-cognitive data mining capability.”

This capability is directly applicable to homeland defense, Ramos offers. Diverse assets such as National Guard units are dispersed geographically and organizationally. A homeland defense program might encompass a threat assessment capability for identifying vulnerabilities and likely terrorist targets as well as responses to large-scale disasters. This assessment could entail both how terrorists might access or strike a target as well as how available units could respond.

Local officials could enter vital facility or organizational information into the database, Ramos continues. Not only would this allow a local official to use the CAPS database capabilities, the same information would be available to national authorities should they become involved. All user information would be entered using a common template that lists data by standard protocols.

“We believe we’re at a cutting edge with this technology,” Ramos maintains.

Future iterations may enable automatic information input. A network of unattended sensors could contribute data that would be assembled into information relevant to counterproliferation analysis. For example, if a spectrometer records a particular millivolt reading in a certain wavelength, the CAPS system would interpret it as light given off by a specific chemical compound that is either a weapon’s residue or its component.

If these sensors are placed near a laboratory suspected of producing weapons, they could provide confirmation of the work inside. If the sensors are located in U.S. population centers, the system could warn of a deadly gas or aerosol release and alert authorities to the direction of the plume.

Ramos believes that future advances in CAPS capabilities likely will come in the realm of information management and related technologies. The organization’s mission largely will remain the same, but it probably will be tasked with providing more detailed information.

This will involve developing an architecture that will help consolidate data from a number of diverse sources to reach a determination. This system would automatically recognize that certain pieces of information may lead to specific deductions. Ramos relates how U.S. officials had all the information necessary to point to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. Unfortunately, the information was widely scattered and, in its disparate form, was not recognized as significant. This future CAPS architecture would prevent that type of lapse and would provide decision makers with more options.