Many big problems get dumped on the US Army. Recent examples include counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Count on the Army to figure things out.
Now comes counterproliferation. What would happen if the United States had to fight in countries that possess weapons of mass destruction, and soldiers stumble on unfamiliar dangers? Are we prepared to fight and win on battlefields where WMDs and the means to produce them are present?
The problem is much bigger than what can be achieved by sending small specialized teams to seize and neutralize nuclear, chemical or biological installations. What happens after such teams breach a facility and manage to “clip the green wire” to disarm deployed weapons? WMD production and storage sites may be massive and include industrial scale facilities manned by hundreds of technicians and defenders.
Even if they succeed, small teams would find themselves engulfed in a witches brew of complicated machinery, dangerous materials, frantic scientists and hostile forces. What then?
The Army would confront the challenge of securing actual WMD and related facilities in hostile territory. Big jobs would include securing weapons, components and delivery vehicles, securing large and possibly contaminated facilities, characterizing dangers to US forces and local populations, holding and interrogating enemy scientists and plant personnel, maintaining access routes and providing logistical support for ongoing counterproliferation operations.
The Army would eventually play a major role in dismantling WMD capabilities. This would involve close cooperation with a variety of US government agencies, foreign governments and international organizations.
In thinking about possible conflicts involving countries such as North Korea, Iran and Syria, the Army can learn important lessons from previous WMD elimination efforts in Iraq and Libya, where there were plenty of surprises.
The first lesson is the importance of intelligence to guide every phase of counterproliferation operations, from planning to execution. Tapping into existing resources is the key. Too many Army officers don’t know much about WMD or how to access relevant intelligence support for counter-WMD operations.
Another lesson is the importance of preparation and training. If counterproliferation is a priority, it must receive resources to train and prepare a larger population of special forces and general purpose units to plan and execute the CP mission.
This includes the use of protective gear but also depends on leaders possessing enough knowledge about WMD to make decisions at every level — from the individual soldier to combatant commander.
Beyond the modest number of specialized technical experts available, such as explosive ordnance disposal, Army officers need basic education in the technologies and politics of WMD. It is not enough for high-level policy officials to make pronouncements from Washington and expect operators to take it from there.
The good news is that all of this can be achieved through existing means of education and training. If the Army is serious about WMD counterproliferation, it must be prepared to act when soldiers say, “Sir, I think I found something.” ■
Davis is a senior lecturer at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.This piece was written with the help of Army Special Forces officers working on a thesis class on counterproliferation. These views represent only those of the author.