Report: U.S. unable to keep up with CBRN threats

The U.S. cannot afford to develop defenses to all of the possible chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons being developed today, according to the results of a blue-ribbon study. More alarming, the U.S. has a "poor understanding" of its adversaries’ intentions for ever using them, and an even lesser handle on how to stop them. ...

read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. cannot afford to develop defenses to all of the possible chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons being developed today, according to the results of a blue-ribbon study. More alarming, the U.S. has a "poor understanding" of its adversaries' intentions for ever using them, and an even lesser handle on how to stop them.

As a result, the National Research Council is calling on Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense Gerald Parker to take some "bold moves" to get his house in order.

"The U.S. simply cannot afford to deal with all threats on an individual basis, and there is no universal solution - it has to choose which problems to solve," the National Research Council said, in the findings of a study released Monday.

The U.S. cannot afford to develop defenses to all of the possible chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons being developed today, according to the results of a blue-ribbon study. More alarming, the U.S. has a "poor understanding" of its adversaries’ intentions for ever using them, and an even lesser handle on how to stop them.

As a result, the National Research Council is calling on Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense Gerald Parker to take some "bold moves" to get his house in order.

"The U.S. simply cannot afford to deal with all threats on an individual basis, and there is no universal solution – it has to choose which problems to solve," the National Research Council said, in the findings of a study released Monday.

The panel reviewed DOD’s Chemical and Biological Defense Program, which includes several defense offices and agencies, to determine what capabilities DOD possesses and how much needs to kept alive inside the Pentagon or could be better found in the civilian world. One problem: all of those offices and agencies.

The panel found that almost all of DOD’s core "science and technology needs" for the defense of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons already exist outside of the military, but argues that a culture change is needed to bridge that gap.

The military, the group argues, needs to seek out breakthroughs and promote "blue sky thinking" to partner better with private research and development. "The committee found that almost all of the capabilities can be found outside of the service laboratories."

The NRC found it difficult to fully evaluate secretive military capabilities. But while some commercial capabilities often exceed military ones, the panel argued they also can be prohibitively expensive to move them into DOD.

For example, DOD is well-suited for using "Animal Models" (as PETA is well-aware, the military uses live animals for testing) and discovering methods of decontamination.

But the Pentagon is poor where defense or pharmaceutical industries or other government agencies excel, such as in developing the instruments to detect chemical or biological agents, or analyze how they are transported.

Additionally the missions of the many offices working under the program are "far from  seamless." NRC called on Parker’s office to align "all of the program elements and offices."

"Bold moves are needed to break the current stagnation that permeates the chemical and biological [science and technology] and acquisition environment. Tweaking the management or refocusing a few projects will not be sufficient."

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.