Pentagon Should Elevate the Importance of Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction in Operational Planning

For Release

September 24, 2014

Although the United States military has determined countering proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to be a strategic priority, policymakers have invested too little in the forces and capabilities needed to eliminate vulnerable arsenals, according to a new RAND report.

The study finds that arsenals of weapons of mass destruction are vulnerable and that the most likely ways extremists may obtain such weapons is theft during a civil war or the collapse of a nation's government.

“The U.S. military has made important progress in developing ways of countering weapons of mass destruction, but there is little evidence it has adequately resourced the means to carry out counter-proliferation missions,” the report's authors write. “There appears to be a serious gap between the urgency of the nuclear proliferation threat, and the resources the Pentagon has allocated to the threat.”

Ground forces, and in particular the U.S. Army, are especially well-suited to perform missions to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, provided sufficient resources are provided, according to the report.

Researchers examined the efforts by U.S. and coalition forces during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom to locate and destroy Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, as well as two scenarios involving North Korea and Syria.

In Iraq, thousands of munitions and thousands of metric tons of chemical weapon agents and precursors were left untouched by the initial air campaign during Operation Desert Storm. Meanwhile, Department of Defense efforts to seize, secure and search suspected sites during Operation Iraqi Freedom were hastily conceived, significantly under-resourced and difficult to accomplish.

In examining possible efforts to eliminate weapons of mass destruction in Syria or North Korea, researchers find that the potential ground force requirements associated with the mission are substantial, and could consume most — or all — of the Army's ground maneuver and assault aviation forces.

The size and complexity of eliminating weapons of mass destruction will require the dedicated efforts of a joint task force, the study finds. Such a force will require not only special operations and technical units, but general-purpose forces for security and logistics operations, as well as combat forces if hostile forces are defending suspected sites.

The number of troops needed for eliminating weapons of mass destruction can range from as few as 15,000 for small efforts in relatively low-threat environments to more than 270,000 troops for large operations in high-threat areas, according to the report.

RAND researchers recommend that joint force commanders carefully consider requirements for eliminating weapons of mass destruction in their contingency and operational planning for states like North Korea. Additionally, they suggest that Department of Defense policy decisions involving Army force structure consider the conventional ground force requirements of such operations.

“If a state like North Korea collapses, its weapons of mass destruction and related facilities would be exposed to theft and sale to other states or violence groups, posing a grave and urgent threat to the United States and its allies,” the report says. “This analysis demonstrates the importance of including the weapons of mass destruction elimination mission in broader U.S. force and campaign planning.”

Among the study's other recommendations:

  • Military leaders should promote the elimination of weapons of mass destruction to the status of missions that drive force size and structure.
  • Defense policy planners should include in their contingency and operational campaign planning those missions related to the elimination of weapons of mass destruction.
  • Policymakers need to determine the number and size of weapons of mass destruction sites that the United States should be prepared to assault, secure and neutralize at the same time, which are key factors in sizing the forces needed for eliminating weapons of mass destruction.

The report, “Strategy-Policy Mismatch: How the U.S. Army Can Help Close the Gaps in Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction,” can be found at Authors of the study are Tim Bonds, Eric Larson, Derek Eaton and Richard Darilek.

The report results from the RAND Investment in People and Ideas program. Support for this program is provided, in part, by donors and by the independent research and development provisions of RAND's contracts for the operation of its U.S. Department of Defense federally funded research and development centers.

The study was prepared by the RAND Arroyo Center, which provides objective analytic research on major policy concerns to leadership of the U.S. Army, with an emphasis on mid- to long-term policy issues intended to improve effectiveness and efficiency. The center also provides the Army with short-term assistance on urgent problems and acts as a catalyst for needed change.

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