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U.S. Agency Works to Reduce WMD Threat

By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service

FORT BELVOIR, Va., April 3, 2006 – The United States is aggressively pursuing ways to lessen the threat from weapons of mass destruction, the director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency said here last week.

"Our goal is to combat weapons of mass destruction and protect Americans and U.S. forces, military infrastructure, bases and facilities against their use," Dr. James A. Tegnelia told American Forces Press Service March 31. "The United States has, in my view, a very aggressive program to secure fissile and WMD material."

The threat reduction agency's mission is to safeguard America and its allies from all types of weapons of mass destruction by providing capabilities to reduce, eliminate and counter the threat. Weapons include chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosives.

The agency works to achieve its goal in three distinct ways. The first is through nonproliferation agreements with countries that cooperate with the U.S. in trying to secure weapons and material that could be used to make them.

"We spend a lot of time overseas working with countries who cooperate with us to secure those weapons," Tegnelia said. Russia and former Soviet states are among agency's closest partners in this arena.

Tegnelia said the process to secure Russia's nuclear weapons following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 continues to this day, and has gone well for the most part. But "we have had some difficulties in negotiating protocols for working together to store and demilitarize weapons-grade nuclear material," he said. "It requires cooperation between the two organizations and can only move as fast as the parties decide they want to move."

Soviet weapons located in its former states, such as the Ukraine, are brought back to Russia for demilitarization, while the weapons-delivery systems are destroyed in place, he said.

The second area the agency focuses on is counterproliferation. This means working to counter weapons of mass destruction with people and nations that do not want to cooperate with the United States.

Through the Defense Department's International Counterproliferation Program the agency works to stop proliferation of WMD-related materials and technologies across international borders and through the independent states of the former Soviet Union, the Baltic region and Eastern Europe.

The program works with law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection, Tegnelia said, and involves techniques like boarding ships suspected of carrying weapons or material.

Another component of the agency's counterproliferation mission is its Hard Target Defeat program, which deals with eliminating enemy underground facilities that might be used for producing weapons of mass destruction. "It looks at ways of destroying those facilities without spreading material all over the world," the director said.

One weapon Tegnelia commented on is the HTD program's Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a multi-ton bomb. He stressed that it's a defensive, not offensive, weapon. He told AFPS that the MOP is a test article meant to understand the design principles on which a country might build a weapon to counter hard targets. "We are not in the process to convince anybody to field a large earth penetrator," he said.

The third prong of the agency's approach is to explore the best ways to respond if a weapon of mass destruction was set off. "We're concerned about how you would restore operations if one went off," he said. "Decontamination, protection of people, those kinds of things."

Also, the agency explores methods to defeat improvised explosive devices by researching and fielding technological solutions. It partners with the Joint IED Defeat Task Force in this venture.

Tegnelia said the U.S. faces multiple threats, but emphasized that his biggest concern is terrorists getting access to a nuclear weapon. "Nuclear weapons in the hands of a terrorist ... that to me is the most serious problem because of the damage it could do," he said.

New biological techniques, such as genetic modification, concern Tegnelia. For example, someone might take an anthrax spore and modify it genetically so vaccines no longer work.

"We're reasonably satisfied with where we are with regard to biologicals today, but very worried about what new advancements in biologic technology might bring us five or 10 years from now," he said.

The agency is also responsible for handling the military component of treaty verification for the federal government. This responsibility is divided into two categories.

"The first responsibility is to perform inspections (of foreign weapons facilities) where the Department of Defense is the inspecting organization," Tegnelia said. "The second one is to host people who have the right to inspect the United States because of treaty obligations."

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency came into existence in 1998 with the merger of several agencies. The agency was spread out in five separate locations until it consolidated into a new headquarters facility at Fort Belvoir, Va., in November.

Contact Author

Dr. James A. Tegnelia

Related Sites:
Defense Threat Reduction Agency

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