The national security establishment, the U.S. Congress, the media, and the American public are all aware that an enemy threat exists. U.S. adversaries have clearly demonstrated their capabilities and stated their intent to do grievous harm to the nation. A large new federal agency is created, first by Presidential Order and then by Congressional action. The federal government is fully engaged with ambitious plans and budget requests for both federal spending and grants to state and local governments.

Despite all this, and the known and continuing threat to the nation, only 10 percent of the budget requests submitted by the President are actually funded by Congress. In addition, it is an election year and several presidential candidates have expressed concern about the significant economic commitment required to fully fund all of the defense measures proposed by the current administration.

This position strongly resonates with the members of the opposition party in Congress – who several times have announced that they intend to curtail federal spending significantly and balance the overall federal budget. That position also resonates well with numerous state and local governments that also are under enormous fiscal pressure and have little or no use for yet another unfunded federal mandate.

To all who think the preceding sounds all too familiar and needs no repeating: Welcome back to the 1950s – and to what was then called the Federal Civil Defense program. Over the following 25 years – into the middle and late 1970s, in other words – a total of 16 federal agencies would, despite severe budgetary limitations, make considerable progress in creating a reasonably workable civil-defense infrastructure. Public fallout shelters were created, plans for homemade family shelters also were distributed, and emergency operations centers were established in many cities and states throughout the country.

In addition, stockpiles of food and medicine were funded, warning sirens were installed, the CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation) emergency broadcast system was created, and scores of planning documents – ranging from mass-evacuation routes to continuity-of-government contingency plans – were designed, developed in considerable detail, and promulgated. Distribution of the plans was usually limited, though, to those certified as possessing the correct “need to know” credentials.

The Era of Dual-Use Civil Defense By the 1970s (another period of major economic challenges), interest in civil defense had all but evaporated. In what might be called frugal innovation, civil defense morphed into the “dual use” category and was no longer focused solely on military attacks, but also on natural disasters (and, not incidentally, on the accompanying disaster-associated federal grants available to state and local governments).

Today, the case for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) defense is in much the same position as civil defense was in the 1970s. Almost every state and major city in the entire country faces difficult budget shortfalls. In addition, federal grant funding is now less than half what it was four years ago and, in many areas of special concern, almost evaporated. Moreover, after having purchased equipment and pharmaceuticals in the relatively prosperous funding years that immediately followed the 2001 terrorist attacks, almost all states and local jurisdictions are now facing the follow-on cost of: (a) maintaining (and/or replacing) the equipment purchased earlier; (b) sustaining the associated training costs; and (c) replacing the expiring pharmaceuticals. One major consequence of these new budget pressures is that the still relatively new requirement to provide an effective CBRN defense capability is rapidly becoming unaffordable to many agencies and organizations.

Dirty Bombs, Bird Flu & Other Emerging Threats Nonetheless, the CBRN threat is frighteningly real – and still growing. The disintegration of the previous Western technological oligopoly puts potentially catastrophic weapons into the hands of almost any group, organization, or individual terrorist seeking to harm the United States. Moreover, the knowledge base required, as well as the materials that could be used, is already widely available for: (a) making homemade explosives and improvised explosive devices; (b) making rudimentary chemical and biological weapons; and (c) building explosives with a radiation source (which are readily available in almost any hospital). The result of this combination of increase in knowledge and easy availability of materials is the recipe to build a “dirty” bomb.

In that context, it is relevant to note that, in November 2011, many people around the world were “shocked” to learn that a group of scientists in The Netherlands had created an H5N1 Avian Flu strain (Bird Flu) that was just as lethal as the original virus and could be easily passed between mammals. Perhaps equally shocking is that anyone was or could be shocked to begin with. Even science students know that bio-engineering tools and the ability to genetically modify organisms have become exponentially simpler each and every year over the past decade.

Despite diminished resources, therefore, it is evident that effectively addressing the CBRN threat must remain a key component of any “all hazards” U.S. preparedness and planning doctrine for the foreseeable future. It is, in short, once again time for a period of frugal innovation. For those who plan, develop, and implement programs, and/or provide the products and services needed, this means building much greater flexibility into the system. It also means developing the capacity to deal with the “most probable” events – an effort that could and would also increase the capacity and capabilities critical to dealing with less probable CBRN events as well.

Most importantly of all, though, it also means making adaptability a very high priority. As Winston Churchill once so aptly stated, “We have run out of money. Now we have to think.”

Stephen Reeves

Major General Stephen Reeves, USA (Ret.), is a highly accomplished senior executive and an internationally recognized expert on chemical and biological defense as well as defense acquisition. He has testified as an expert witness on multiple occasions before the U.S. Congress and has been interviewed numerous times by the national and international print and television press. He also is a frequent speaker at both national and international defense and homeland security conferences. Experienced in leading and managing large, diverse, global, multi-billion dollar organizations, he established, and for seven years led, the first DoD Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense.

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