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Monday, February 26, 2024

Biotechnology and AI Advances, Disinformation Campaigns Compound Increased Risk of WMD Attacks

DoD's Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Strategy says that state and non-state actors "have learned from and are adapting to traditional U.S. counterproliferation tools and approaches."

Countering the development and potential use of weapons of mass destruction has grown more complex with biotechnology advances that could be exploited by bad actors as well as rampant disinformation campaigns that could hamper the ability to prevent or respond to an attack or other incident.

The unclassified version of the 2023 Department of Defense (DoD) Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Strategy released Thursday says that the risk of the United States or allies and partners “facing a military confrontation that includes chemical, biological, radiological, and/or nuclear (CBRN) weapons has increased since 2014.”

The WMD strategy expands upon the 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS) guidance by outlining four CWMD-specific priorities: defending the homeland from WMD attack, deterring WMD use against the United States and its allies and partners, enabling the Joint Force to prevail in a CBRN-contested environment, and preventing new WMD threats.

DoD said the strategy has six ways of implementation: “develop credible options to deter WMD use and assure Allies and partners,” “build a Joint Force that can campaign, fight, and win in a CBRN environment,” “enable Allies and partners to counter WMD proliferation and use,” “degrade actor capability to develop, acquire, or use WMD,” “take action, as part of whole-of-government efforts, to prevent proliferation and respond to use of WMD,” and “pursue advanced research and development efforts to counter future chemical and biological threats.”

“In order to address the challenges of the current and future security environment, the Department must now recapitalize, and in some cases reconstitute, its ability to conduct large-scale joint operations within a WMD-contested battlespace,” the strategy states. “The Department must also account for evolving factors in relevant DoD operations, activities, and investments to prevent potential adversaries from developing and exploiting an area of perceived asymmetric advantage across the spectrum of conflict.”

As major nuclear powers “armed with a suite of nuclear, chemical, and biological capabilities,” China is called the “pacing challenge” making significant investments in its WMD programs and Russia is referred to as an “acute threat.” North Korea, Iran, and violent extremist organizations “remain persistent regional threats that must also be addressed.” The WMD ambitions of state and non-state actors are “compounded by rapid advancements in technology, including the life sciences, artificial intelligence, automation, nanotechnology, hypersonic delivery systems, and defensive systems, such as hardened and deeply buried structures.”

“The global availability of dual-use technologies, particularly in the biotechnology space, may erode traditional barriers to proliferation and reduce opportunities to deny or disrupt development of offensive WMD programs and delivery systems,” the strategy says. “Meanwhile, potential adversaries have learned from and are adapting to traditional U.S. counterproliferation tools and approaches, including by indigenizing their supply chains and procurement mechanisms.”

The proliferation of mis-/disinformation also influences the WMD landscape, as China and Russia have “proven adept at manipulating the information space to inhibit attribution of its activities, to reduce trust and confidence in the effectiveness of countermeasure, and to potentially slow decision-making following WMD use.”

China likely intends to deploy at least 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030 and 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035, DoD says, and “has engaged in research and activities with potential dual-use applications, which raise concerns regarding its compliance with the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention (BWC) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).”

“The United States has compliance concerns with respect to PRC military medical institutions’ toxin research and development given their potential as a biological threat,” the strategy notes. “Further, the United States cannot certify that the PRC has met its obligations under the CWC regarding the PRC’s research of pharmaceutical-based agents and toxins with potential dual-use utility for chemical weapons applications.”

Russia is “expanding and modernizing its large and diverse arsenal of nonstrategic nuclear weapons to create effects in the air, land, and maritime domains” and made clear that the country “retains an undeclared chemical weapons program” through 2020 and 2018 assassination attempts by Russian operators using the novichok nerve agent. “The United States is concerned that Russia has a pharmaceutical-based agent program intended for purposes inconsistent with the CWC. Furthermore, the United States assesses that Russia retains an offensive biological warfare program.”

North Korea is “developing and fielding mobile short-, intermediate-, and intercontinental- range nuclear capabilities that place the U.S. homeland and regional Allies and partners at risk,” and “maintains up to several thousand metric tons of chemical warfare agents and the capability to produce nerve, blister, blood, and choking agents.” The DoD strategy assesses that Iran “is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program at this time, but has the capacity to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear device in less than two weeks.

“The United States is also concerned that Iran is pursuing dual-use central nervous system-acting chemicals for offensive purposes,” DoD adds.

The strategy stresses that “the same biological and chemical science advancements created to develop life-saving medical countermeasures could also be used by potential adversaries to develop new or enhanced agents,” while “reservoirs of naturally occurring pathogens of high consequence are potential avenues for biological weapons research.”

“Adversaries can also leverage this more complex operating environment to constrain U.S. strategic choices by masking an attack, augmenting other activities, or conducting an opportunistic disinformation campaign,” the document adds.

The strategy cites intelligence and information sharing, the engagement of leaders prior to crisis and conflict, investment in human capital, investment in research and development, and “an adaptive and responsive acquisition system” as critical to executing implementation of the strategy’s priorities.

“DoD must maintain and, where necessary, establish scientific and technological advantage to prepare for and respond to ever-evolving threats, particularly in biotechnology and chemistry that could produce new strategic or operational impacts,” the strategy says. “…The Department must leverage public-private partnerships focused on chemical and biological defense to reduce risk to the Joint Force and to prepare to respond to and mitigate future threats.” Managing that risk includes understanding and predicting threats, monitoring exposure to chemical and biological agents and having real-time detection and diagnostic tools, having therapeutic countermeasures, and fielding better protection for those who could be exposed.

WMD challenges should be “actively” featured in service, joint, interagency, and multinational exercises and “U.S. force design should assume adversary CBRN use and capabilities consistent with the best and latest intelligence assessments.”

“For established WMD programs, disruption efforts will seek to inhibit the advancement of existing or planned capabilities,” the strategy states. “…As potential adversaries expand and modernize their capabilities, it is critical that the Department strengthen its ability to deter and, should deterrence fail, achieve our objectives in the face of WMD use.”

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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