Evolution or Revolution in WMD Advances:
Are We Ready?
Brigadier General (Retired) William E. King IV Senior Fellow and Executive Advisor Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc
The mission to counter threats posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has taken on renewed urgency due to the troubling developments in recent years that have contributed to a more volatile and complex threat landscape. There now exists an unprecedented range and mix of threats, including major conventional, chemical, biological, nuclear, space, and cyber threats and violent non-state actors. These developments have produced increased uncertainty and risk.
Russia and China are acquiring new advanced types of nuclear capabilities and giving those nuclear forces increased prominence in their plans and strategies. North Korea is developing and testing weapons and missiles that can deliver those weapons across continents, in defiance of international law and widespread condemnation. North Korea also continues to pursue chemical and biological weapons that could also be delivered by missile. And Iran, while it has paused its nuclear program for now, is believed to possess the capacity necessary to develop a nuclear weapon within one year.
Perhaps even more troubling is the rising WMD threat from non-state actors, such as violent extremist organizations (VEOs). The potential threat of non-state actors getting their hands on a nuclear weapon remains at the front of all of our minds. Nuclear terrorism is still a major threat in this century, and one we must work to mitigate at every opportunity.
The evolving tactics and operation strategies employed by terrorist organizations have compressed the time and space needed to plot and carry out attacks, further challenging traditional U.S. counter-terrorism approaches. Now they have become highly networked online, allowing them to spread propaganda worldwide, recruit online, evade detection by plotting in virtual safe havens, and crowd-source attacks. The result is that our interagency partners and allies have tracked a record number of terrorism cases. Certain WMDs, once viewed as out-of-reach for all but nation states, are now closer to being attained by non-state actors. Unfortunately, the WMD threat today is not strictly academic — chemical weapons have been employed repeatedly with devastating consequences by both state and non-state actors.
Further complicating the threat landscape is the fact that the know-how and materials needed to produce WMDs continue to proliferate, and commercial technologies that enable hostile actors to obtain and deploy these weapons continue to advance.
These troubling developments challenge traditional CWMD paradigms and test the ability of government organizations to keep peace. We talk about evolving threats and recent CBRNE/WMD incidents such as: North Korea’s use of binary VX in Malaysia; the Syrian and ISIS use of nerve agents in the Middle East; the Russian use of the Novichoks in UK; VEO development of toxins; Ebola on the African continent; the concerns over use of Pharmaceutical Based Agents like Pentenyls; and the concerns over Synthetic Biology and the potential re-emergence of Ancient Diseases i.e. the need for expansion of what BSL4 means.
What is next and can we predict new threats’ emergence before they materialize? If we cannot anticipate the next threat, what are the implications of being a capabilities-based force?
There has been a re-emergence of interest in toxins as a threat. What are the impacts of the existing control regimes like CWC and BWC as we see threat agents skirting between whether they are chemical or biological-based agents? Do our treaties need to be more effects-based descriptors versus currently specific agent-based restriction listings?
What do you foresee as some of the challenges with regards to the legal enforcement of using pharmaceutical-based agents for nefarious purposes i.e. the opioids? Can you foresee a merging of efforts between the anti-drug war, counter-WMD efforts, illegal pharmaceutical markets, etc.?
There are tremendous positive potential opportunities with regards to synthetic biology advancements and the renewed interest and national-level encouragement in STEM learning. With this there come obvious concerns about how easy and cheap it has become to develop genuine intentional or accidental WMDs. What do you believe are some of the policies and control mechanisms that must be put in place to ensure we can minimize the potential for global destruction?
We are rethinking homeland security for a new age. We sometimes speak of the ‘home game’ and ‘away game’ in protecting our country, with the US’ DHS especially focused on the former. But the line is now blurred. The dangers we face are becoming more dispersed, and threat networks are proliferating across borders. The shifting landscape is challenging our security, so we need to move past traditional defense and non-defense thinking.
The abovementioned issues discussed are just ‘stray voltage’ and it is my intent to spark debate and discussion. To make you the reader uncomfortable and wanting to take action in order not to be the victim waiting to be attacked. We must stop simply just examining the problem and instead commit ourselves to doing something today, and again tomorrow, to be better prepared to respond to and defeat WMD threats.
Brigadier General (Retired) William E. King IV
Senior Fellow and Executive Advisor
Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc
BG(R) William King has served in a wide variety of command, leadership, and staff positions across numerous levels of the U.S. Army, Joint Task Forces, Regional Commands, and most recently as the Commanding General 20th CBRNE Command before retiring on 19 July 2017 with 30+ years of active duty US Army service. He joined Booz Allen Hamilton in 2017 as an Executive Advisor for the Joint Combatant Commands (JCC) Account and on 12 Oct 2018 was designated as an Industry CWMD Senior Fellow. He is developing the market for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, assessing synchronization and integration, advising senior government clients, and serves as the Booz Allen market lead on challenges/opportunities, and providing strategic thinking for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives (CBRNE) policies, modernization, capability and capacity development. BG(R) King’s expertise, honed through a series of multi-echelon capability and leadership positions, has prepared him to tackle the nation’s most complex CWMD challenges. He is a known luminary and clear leader in the field. He is widely recognized for his breadth of knowledge, experience, and depth of understanding of CWMD challenges. He is skilled at addressing complex problems, is intellectually agile, and is a recognized leader who inspires others and builds teams with ease.