Friday, January 27, 2006

Putting Together a WMD Task Force

Interesting read in today's Washington Times from Bill Gertz, who is without peer on the national security beat. According to Gertz, the Pentagon's latest four-year strategy report calls for establishment of a new task force to prevent weapons of mass destruction from being transferred to terrorist groups.

The new task force will reportedly include special operations forces, intelligence personnel, and aircraft dedicated for that mission. Reading between the lines, the proposed unit is consistent with the Bush Administration's proactive approach in dealing with terrorism. If we determine that a transfer is about to take place (or has just occurred), the unit will spring into action, before the terrorists can use their WMD on an American target.

As with any new military unit, the devil will be in the organizational details. According to the strategy document, the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), headquartered at Offut AFB in Omaha, Nebraska, has the lead for countering WMD threats, including chemical, biological, portable nuclear devices, and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons. STRATCOM is the successor to the USAF's Strategic Air Command (SAC), which once controlled the nation's land-based strategic nuclear forces. In recent years, STRATCOM has expanded its mission to include long-range strike and information operations, in addition to its nuclear deterrence role. Control of the WMD task force represents a further enlargment of STRATCOM's operational portfolio.

However, many of the personnel assigned to the WMD mission will be drawn from the ranks of U.S. special forces, setting up a potential tug-of-war between STRATCOM and U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). SOCOM is already stretched thin supporting the war on terror, and the command may be reluctant to surrender (or share control) of several hundred highly-trained operators with STRATCOM. The strategy document does propose transfer of the foreign military training mission to "regular" forces, freeing up more special ops troops for other missions, including the WMD task force.

Then, there's the critical issue of intelligence. The success of the WMD task force will largely hinge on the ability of the spooks to track the potential movement and transfer of WMD. While new technologies--including Measures and Signatures Intelligence (MASINT)--may help, the task remains daunting. Tracing the movement of biological pathogens or components for a small nuke is definitely a needle-in-a-haystack proposition. While our intelligence capabilities have improved measurably since 9-11, the intel chief of the WMD task force may have the toughest job in the intel community, with absolutely no margin for error.

The task force appears to be on a fast-track, reflecting the grave nature of this threat. According to Gertz, command and control elements will be ready by 2007, and (we assume) the rest of the unit will become operational in the same time frame. And not a moment too soon.

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