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Defense Experts Warn of New Threats From Weapons of Mass Destruction

May 5, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
1st WMD-CST passes training proficiency evaluation (Photo by Mark Olsen New Jersey National Guard)

WASHINGTON — Defense experts portrayed a bleak outlook Tuesday during a congressional hearing for risks to the United States and the world from weapons of mass destruction.

No recent example is better than the COVID-19 pandemic, which is fast approaching 3.5 million deaths worldwide, according to lawmakers and witnesses at the House Armed Services subcommittee hearing.

“The novel coronavirus was not weaponized but it could be,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who chairs the subcommittee on intelligence and special operations.

Viruses represent the biological portion of weapons of mass destruction, which also include nuclear and chemical weapons.

Witnesses at the hearing agreed the threats are growing but declined to give details of the worst risks and U.S. strategies for confronting them, citing national security concerns during a public meeting.

“As the nature of [weapons of mass destruction] threats is evolving, we know we have more work to do,” said Jennifer Walsh, an assistant defense secretary.

Much of their effort is directed at achieving “multiple returns on the same investment” to handle the profusion of threats, Walsh said.

Otherwise, there are too many potential weapons to manage on a one-to-one basis, she said.

“We recognize this spectrum of threats is crowded,” Walsh said.

Although the defense experts refused to openly discuss all of the growing menace, they acknowledged to lawmakers that many of the challenges could be found in recent news reports.

One of them was revealed Tuesday in a report from the Netherlands’ General Intelligence and Security Service.

It said the Islamic Republic of Iran tried to obtain technology in 2020 for nuclear weapons, despite denials from its Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

“Countries such as Syria, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea also tried to acquire such goods and technology in Europe and the Netherlands last year,” says the Dutch security service report published in April but disclosed by the Israeli news media on Tuesday.

Khamenei tweeted in February that his country had no interest in nuclear weapons.

Another emerging threat was described last month in a report from The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It discussed how drones could be outfitted with powerful explosives and assembled by software and radio waves into a formation that could travel to a target.

Even if one or some of the drones are shot down, hundreds of others in the swarm could continue to attack.

Although the Defense Department refuses to reveal all its high-tech deterrence systems, one of them was announced last month in a contract with government contractor Battelle Memorial Institute.

The company agreed to develop networked sensors to detect and identify biological weapons. 

The $8.5 million contract is one segment of the Defense Department’s SIGMA+ project. The project is using sensitive detectors and intelligence analytics to identify a range of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

However, Defense Department officials told the House subcommittee that even with the most modern defensive systems, they face an ominous dilemma.

“The pace of technology continues to move faster and faster,” said Brandi C. Vann, an assistant defense secretary.

Vice Adm. Timothy G. Szymanski, deputy commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, said the Defense Department needs personnel with “specialized expertise and authorities” to counter the sophisticated threats.

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