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Deterring Chemical and Biological Attacks

​THE U.S. GOVERNMENT should reexamine its program for chemical and biological weapons defense, according to a recent report by the RAND Corporation. The program should focus more on dissuading adversaries from even developing or using such weapons, suggest the RAND researchers.

The report, titled Early Observations on Possible Defenses by the Emerging Threat Project, highlights the major challenges of the U.S. chemical and biological agent (CB) program. First, due to secrecy in chemical and biological weapon development by adversaries, it can be a difficult intelligence undertaking that could take years before defense agents find out about the development of such weapons. Additionally, it might take years more to figure out a way to defend against such weapons.

Although physical countermeasures such as safety suits offer some protection against any type of biological or chemical warfare, the current program is only focusing on defending against agents that have already been identified and validated, says RAND researcher Bruce W. Bennett. “But what of new agents developed specifically to exploit limitations in the existing CB defenses? What if detection is the trigger for donning protective gear, and U.S. detectors are incapable of sensing new categories of agents? These concerns pose real challenges for a program that delays the development of an operational defense strategy until potential CB threat agents are validated and well characterized," states the report.

Bennett tells Security Management, “it can easily take 10 to 20 years after an adversary has come up with a new chemical or biological agent for us to find out about it and be able to adequately confirm it.”

He goes on to note how, “that may have worked okay historically when science wasn’t advancing as rapidly as it is now. But in the current time frame, that kind of an approach is going to put us behind adversaries and leave us potentially vulnerable.”

For that reason, the report’s authors urge the Pentagon to augment current work with an increased emphasis on dissuasion and deterrence. “If you go back to the Cold War, if we didn’t deter the Soviet Union from using its nuclear weapons, we were going to be fighting a nuclear war. And we didn’t want to fight a nuclear war…. Similarly, with chemical and biological agents today, especially new ones, which may jeopardize our existing protections, we don’t want to fight a war with an adversary using those,” says Bennett. He adds that the use of dissuasion to convince adversaries not to develop those agents in the first place, and deterrence, to convince adversaries not to use what they develop, is best.

One of the ways to enable dissuasion and deterrence, according to the report’s authors, is to make the program implementation much more dynamic. “Today, if you buy a new protective suit against a chemical weapon, it will take maybe five to 10 years to develop the suit and then we produce four million of them, and that takes another decade or two, and so the program looks like it is very slowly evolving, it’s not dynamic,” explains Bennett. He says that one way to make the program more progressive and dynamic is if “we do a lot more rapid prototyping, which is to say that you discover new classes of threats that may exist, rather than wait 10 years until you’ve got the perfect solution. You try very rapidly to field at least partial solutions. And you don’t buy four million suits, you buy...a hundred thousand of the next generation.”

By purchasing new increments of suits as changes are made, the program is continually evolving, and an adversary would see that it would not take as many years for the United States to protect against any chemical and biological weapons. And that “tends to push them much more to be deterred or dissuaded from pursuing chemical agents or new biological agents,” says Bennett.

Another recommendation is to study specifically how chemicals or biological compounds cause human damage, rather than focusing just on what an adversary may be developing. “So what we’re really saying is, let’s take modern genetic engineering, let’s take chemical practices, and apply them to defense,” says Bennett. The goal would be to “work out the basic science behind how chemicals or biological compounds affect people, and work out with that how those can be defeated.”

That’s not currently the main focus, perhaps because it’s costly. Bennett concedes that such an approach would be expensive, but he thinks it’s the right direction.