Congress Seeks New Strategies Against Weapons of Mass Destruction

April 4, 2019 by Tom Ramstack
In an undated file image, a trio of Los Angeles city firefighters in full Haz Mat suits make their way out of the U.S. Post Office on Beacon Street in Los Angeles' San Pedro neighborhood after a call. (Richard Hartog/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Two congressional committees met Wednesday on Capitol Hill to figure out the resources they should dedicate to confronting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

During a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing, Pentagon officials explained emerging threats from nuclear, chemical and biological weapons while suggesting strategies to control them.

Their testimony follows a 2019 defense spending bill that requires the Secretary of Defense to designate an advisor to oversee the nation’s strategy against weapons of mass destruction.

Witnesses and congressmen at the hearing said the U.S. government appears to be playing catch-up to a threat they are unlikely to be able to completely control.

“Rogue actors and technological advances still challenge the strategy’s goal of ensuring that the U.S. and its allies and partners are not attacked or coerced by adversaries possessing [weapons of mass destruction],” said Rep. James R. Langevin, D-R.I., chairman of the subcommittee on intelligence and emerging threats and capabilities.

In the past year, Russian and North Korean agents used nerve agents to assassinate political adversaries. The Syrian government and ISIS used chemical weapons on both military enemies and civilians.

“Emerging capabilities in biotechnology may allow individuals acting with nefarious intent – or even just by chance – to produce biological agents in a scope and scale not yet encountered,” Langevin said.

David C. Hassell, deputy assistant defense secretary for chemical and biological defense, gave a rundown of the Trump administration’s budget requests for weapons of mass destruction.

For the Chemical and Biological Defense Program, he is requesting $1.4 billion “to develop capabilities to increase the resiliency of our warfighters,” Hassell said in his testimony.

The “Chemical Demilitarization” budget would get $985.5 million for “the safe, complete, and treaty-compliant destruction of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile,” he said.

The “Nuclear Matters” budget needs $64.6 million to develop “policies that guide the safety and security of the nation’s nuclear deterrent and counter threats of nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation,” Hassell said.

Another $1.9 billion would go for an international defense network to identify and respond to threats globally. Specialized defense agencies, such as the U.S. Special Operations Command and the Air Force Technical Applications Center, would get $61 million to close vulnerability gaps.

Theresa Whelan, a defense under secretary for policy, told the subcommittee about new guidelines the Defense Department announced in February for confronting risks.

The three-part guidelines seek “to restore military readiness as we build a more lethal force; strengthen our alliances and build new partnerships; and drive business reform for innovation and modernization,” Whelan said.

She described Russia and China as two potential adversaries for weapons of mass destruction.

“We must ensure that our policies focus on meeting requirements to enable our forces to fight and win in a contaminated environment, in part, so our adversaries see that our preparedness will deny them the advantages they seek,” she said. “Chemical weapons use is one of our top concerns.”

In a separate Senate hearing Wednesday, Pentagon officials said they were developing low-yield nuclear-tipped cruise missiles that could be launched from submarines.

They said they are needed to match threats from Russia and China, both of which are adding to their nuclear arsenals with low-yield nuclear missiles.

The nuclear tips would be added to existing submarine-launched missiles as a modification, John Rood, an under secretary of defense for policy, told the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.

So far, the Defense Department has only done an analysis of options for the low-yield nuclear-tipped missiles, he said.

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