SOCOM Will Soon Lead the Pentagon’s Anti-WMD Efforts. Here’s What It Still Needs.

U.S. Army and Air Force special operators train at Naval Station Pascagoula, Miss., during Southern Strike 17, Oct. 26, 2016.

U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Gregory Brook

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U.S. Army and Air Force special operators train at Naval Station Pascagoula, Miss., during Southern Strike 17, Oct. 26, 2016.

America’s special operators know how to catch bomb-makers, but need new expertise on other areas of the fight.

U.S. Special Operations Command will soon begin coordinating the Pentagon’s efforts to counter weapons of mass destruction, which means the command is going to need new kinds of expertise and capacity.

This shift will require more than moving existing capabilities between commands. The challenge will be to elevate nonproliferation, counter-proliferation, and consequence management synchronization activities for disparate risks — think Fukishima nuclear disaster, Ebola public health emergency, Syria chemical weapons destruction and loose nukes — in a single command that is already engaged with a global counterterrorism campaign.

The DoD strategy for countering WMD has three components: containing and reducing threats, preventing the acquisition of related material, and responding to crises. SOCOM is well positioned for the first — thanks to long experience and expertise in counterterror operations and in tracking and rendering safe nuclear weapons and related material — but less so for the others.

(Such efforts had been coordinated by Strategic Command’s Center for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction, or SCC-WMD, at Fort Belvoir, Va., but STRATCOM lost the job amid criticism of lack of attention and investment.)

First, SOCOM must develop expertise in nonproliferation and consequence management. Preventing acquisition of WMD requires nonproliferation exercises, helping other nations develop policies and regulations to limit the flow of dual-use materials, and working closely with the political leaders of arms-control treaty co-signatories. Being able to respond to crises means creating and maintaining national preparedness and response capabilities, while consequence management requires planning to bring a foreign nation’s response capabilities to bear. Both of these missions also entail working closely with international bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and World Health Organization.

In taking on this new role, SOCOM can build on the counterterrorism model it has perfected but must expand and evolve as well. Building capacities in these other two areas will require a decidedly different approach. 

SOCOM will need to give appropriate, if not equal, weight to nonproliferation, counter-proliferation, and consequence management.

To this end, SOCOM should also consider just how much to get involved with DoD nonproliferation activities. Perhaps the command should participate in forums such as the U.S. Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which provided funding and expertise for eliminating WMD capabilities in the former Soviet Union. It might also consider participating in arms control treaties such as the Biological Weapons Convention and Chemical Weapons Convention, or international initiatives such as the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. These forums are critical for shaping policy and reducing the proliferation potential.

SOCOM leaders should also think ahead, and consider the strategic and deterrent impacts of various moves. For example, nonproliferation efforts can reduce the need for in extremis containments of WMD threats. Likewise, demonstrated response capabilities can serve as both a deterrent and an insurance policy.

Next, SOCOM leaders must figure out what they need from the geographic combatant commanders, other U.S. and foreign government organizations, and international bodies. For example, SOCOM’s success as a global synchronizer could depend largely on the degree to which the other combatant commanders include counter-WMD activities in their theater engagement plans.

Responding to a crisis can be a long, drawn-out affair requiring years of support and coordination.

SOCOM will need to learn a new way of thinking about consequence management. Responding to a crisis can be a long, drawn-out affair requiring years of support and coordination. SOCOM should determine what additional capacity will be required to fulfill this mission.

Finally, the structures and authorities required for this new mission will need to be considered. Will SOCOM retain a structure such as the SCC-WMD or employ liaison officers? How will SOCOM change its relationship to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and its nonproliferation and consequence management activities around the globe?

In order to avoiding the pitfalls that hindered STRATCOM in executing the counter-WMD mission, SOCOM will need to give appropriate, if not equal, weight to nonproliferation, counter-proliferation, and consequence management. A balanced approach to countering WMD could pay big dividends for DoD’s preparedness and response capacity.

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