The risks, and rewards, for giving the counter WMD mission to SOCOM

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The U.S. military’s enduring mission to counter threats posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has taken on renewed urgency due to troubling developments in recent years that have contributed to a more volatile and complex threat landscape.

As the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review warns, “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.”

In response, the U.S. government is recalibrating its counter WMD posture with agency reorganizations and reformulated strategies.

The Department of Defense recently transferred the Counter WMD mission lead from U.S. Strategic Command to U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), signaling a shift in strategy that places greater emphasis on identifying and preventing threats before they metastasize into crises. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security established a CWMD Office, consolidating numerous offices and functions across the department. Strategies and plans to address WMD threats are being overhauled with new or updated versions of the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review, Combined Arms CWMD doctrine, and National Biodefense Strategy and Implementation Plan.

These are positive steps that mark a potential tipping point in the nation’s mobilization around the WMD challenge. But these steps, by themselves, cannot sufficiently address the myriad challenges that come with countering today’s emerging WMD threats. These include:

  • A lack of coordination at the national level to ensure that centers of CWMD activity, authority, policy, planning, and expertise are operating cohesively, effectively, and efficiently.
  • Limited situational awareness across the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive communities concerning threats and CWMD activities.
  • The inherent complexity of the CWMD mission in which each CBRNE pillar consists of different stakeholders, authorities, required skillsets, strategies and tactics.
  • Threat actors that continue to evolve their resiliency, adaptability, strategies, tactics, and organizations, often by employing digital innovations.
  • A new lead agency in SOCOM that must rapidly develop the infrastructure, partnerships, expertise, strategy and tactics needed to address this mission successfully.

The transfer of responsibility to SOCOM, in particular, represents an important juncture that demands fresh thinking on how best to address the core challenges. The policy decision to vest SOCOM with this responsibility further acknowledges that CWMD and SOCOM’s ongoing counterterrorism mission share strong commonalities; both missions face highly complex, multi-regional, and overlapping threats, and both call for a networked interagency and interorganizational response.

SOCOM’s experience in counterterrorism brings critical advantages – namely, the know-how needed to establish, coordinate, and leverage needed relationships and partnerships, develop agile operational models and tactics, and employ innovative technologies and capabilities in pursuit of mission goals. But the sheer scale and relative complexity of the WMD threat, the support needed to sustain a “unity of effort” approach to the mission, and the extreme stakes intrinsic to CWMD that demand zero tolerance for failure all require a more deliberate approach to the intelligence and coordination challenges needed to keep the command and its mission partners in synch and at maximum effectiveness.

A critical first step when addressing a complex and multidimensional challenge involves aligning the five critical dimensions of the mission – policy, operations, people, technology, and management – into a single, mission-focused, integrated framework.

  • Policy: Coordination is needed to clarify responsibilities and authorities, leverage resources, optimize mission execution and reducing conflict and redundancy and achieving long-term mission goals, especially with the wide range of mission partners across the global CWMD community to support a “unity of effort” approach.
  • Operations: The execution of mission policies, strategies and tactics is the day-to-day culmination of the people, training, management, and technologies to integrate the joint, interagency, and multinational activities that enable a “unity of effort” approach.
  • People: As the first truth of Special Operations Forces says: “Humans are more important than hardware.” The human dimension encompasses everything from leadership and technical acuity to culture.
  • Technology: The tools that enable mission execution must be carefully aligned to the needs of the CWMD community and enhanced where needed to provide resilient, secure, effective C4ISR coordination, and data fusion.
  • Management: As the connective tissue throughout the mission enterprise, the management layer is where coordination and mission execution succeed or fail.

As the new mission lead for countering weapons of mass destruction, SOCOM is ideally suited to take on a coordinated, trans-regional approach to address today’s increasingly dynamic and multidimensional WMD threat.

By aligning these dimensions into an integrated whole and empowering them with robust situational awareness, this framework combines strategy expertise and technical prowess to inform decision-making, reduce blind spots in mission coverage, and strengthen responsiveness and resilience across the board.

Todd McNutt is a Principal at Booz Allen Hamilton. Brig. Gen. (Ret) William E. King IV is the former commander of the U.S. Army’s 20th CBRNE Command (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives) and is currently an Executive Advisor at Booz Allen Hamilton.