The First Responders: Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction

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Written by Paul Evancoe Feb 1, 2013

Preventing terrorism directed at the United States and its interests, both domestically and overseas, is a top priority. Over the past three decades the U.S. has worked with other nations to form bilateral and multi-lateral coalitions for cooperation in countering terrorism and the global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (or WMD). The objective, of course, is to stop terrorists and their state supporters overseas before they can project their deadly agenda against the U.S. homeland.

On the other hand, the 9/11 terrorist attack that destroyed the New York World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon demonstrated that U.S. counterterrorism preparedness still lacked the overall readiness and technical capability to adequately deal with a major terrorist’s attack against our homeland. It revealed that the greatest failing for preparedness rested with the intelligence community’s lack of warning and with first responder capability limitations at the state and local level. Obviously, the dominating issue today is what level of preparedness is adequate when dealing with weapons of mass destruction that have fallen into the hands of terrorists and how much it will cost to achieve acceptable preparedness.

Weapons of mass destruction fall into three major categories: nuclear, biological and chemical. Recognizing that some definitions also include large conventional explosives and a myriad of lesser evils, they will not be recognized for the purposes of this discussion.

As much as the horrific destructive consequences of nuclear weapons are generally well understood by the public, they are blissfully ignorant of the devastating consequences of a biological or chemical attack. Further, while detecting the radiation signature of a nuclear device is within today’s technical capability given the limiting physics of source type, strength, range and shielding, detecting a biological or chemical weapon prior to its use is not.

The U.S. Government believes that approximately 20 countries are developing or already have weapons of mass destruction. About half of these countries are located in the Middle East or South Asia and some of them are known to be state supporters of terrorist groups further heightening concerns that WMD could fall into the hands of terrorists.

Current thinking assumes that the intelligence community will detect the development or intended use of such weapons by rogue states or terrorist groups and that there will be warning. Based upon this warning there will be sufficient time to act. The appropriate countermeasure operations will be taken by the appropriate federal inter-agency, state, and local response assets who possesses the appropriate capability to find, neutralize, disable, or interdict the weapon prior to its use. Or, for that matter, prior to it reaching our shores.

The 9/11 attack on the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon led to the reorganization of the U.S. intelligence community under the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with both organizationally reporting directly to the president. Even with this major reorganization, it is still doubtful if the intelligence community will ever be able to guarantee the necessary warning to provide adequate time for DHS and other concerned federal agencies to organize or conduct countermeasure operations to prevent catastrophe here at home.

This intelligence shortcoming underpins the difficulties involved in penetrating terrorist organizations at a level sufficient to have information access of their technical capability and operational plans. It also demonstrates the continuing lack of crosscutting information sharing, not only between U.S. government agencies, but between nations, further illuminating the requirement to do so. Lofty-sounding anti-terrorism policy legislation certainly provides the illusion of progress but is often aimed at fixing the wrong problems or things that simply aren’t broken. Until the issue of focused intelligence is resolved, the best that can be hoped for is that WMD detection will occur as a matter of luck.

How then might the U.S. best protect itself from a WMD terrorist attack? Keeping mindful that intelligence is the leading edge – top prime ingredient of the solution, the foundation is development, maintenance and training of a WMD counter-terrorism technical capability. Better detection and response methods are necessary for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. This includes the requirement to search out and reliably detect such weapons through non-invasive means from safe stand-off distances.

While this requirement is being avidly pursued by a number of U.S. government agencies, academia and industry, its technical solution has, for a variety of reasons that include the limits of the physics involved, largely remained beyond our technical grasp. Assuming that new technology will require dedicated research and development, understanding the risks and costs associated with new technology must be minimized and accepted. And that is most often a show stopper on “The Hill” where operational improvements meet budget constraints and political realities and where better is always the enemy of good enough.

Nonetheless, better and more efficient technology is necessary to increase the diagnostics capability once a suspect weapon is located. Diagnostics today generally involves X-raying a suspected weapon. Weapon design experts then interpret the radiographs, much in the same manner that a medical doctor reads a chest X-ray to find out how the weapon is constructed and how it works to determine its disablement vulnerabilities. This diagnostics technique is common for all WMD. Although the radiography technique is reliable, it does have inherent risks. For example, a suspect weapon can have “penalties” built into its firing circuit that will trigger the device if it’s exposed to radiation surges above normal background. This makes radiography risky and usually very time consuming. And, depending upon the situation, there may not be sufficient time. Better and faster diagnostic means need to be developed for first responders that are “user friendly.”

Disablement of a suspected weapon is, at best, a risky business. The classic disablement approach, often depicted in Hollywood’s motion pictures, is to gain access to the weapon’s internal firing circuit by removing an inspection plate. The hero then cuts the red wire in the fire set which disables the weapon just seconds before the clock ticks down preventing the device from detonating. Although suspenseful, in truth it doesn’t quite work that way.

There are a variety of sophisticated disablement technologies in use today that range from non-abrasive cutters to explosive or thermal disruption of critical fire set components. For obvious security reasons, most of the techniques and technologies used for WMD disablement are classified and will not be discussed here. Because of the obvious risk of detonation involved in any disablement attempt, better more reliable methods, along with new disablement technologies, need to be developed.

Just because a weapon’s fire set is disabled doesn’t mean the weapon has been rendered safe. The sad reality is that many designs, especially those involving a fissile critical mass in nuclear weapons, still have the potential to detonate after disablement. Render safe procedures are normally done by specialist weapon design scientists and engineers after the weapon has been packaged and transported to a protected remote location and then only after the weapon has been extensively studied and its operational attributes have been fully evaluated and understood. Thus, render safe procedures are not done by explosive ordnance disposal teams or bomb squads in the field. This makes proper packaging and safe transport of a disabled weapon a critical element of the overall procedure.

Containment of effects and consequence management are additional challenges that are only now receiving the national attention they deserve. Containment and mitigation of the effects resulting from a disablement attempt, or from a weapon that explodes prior to a disablement attempt range the spectrum of consequences straining available technical resources. Containment schemes used for nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons are similar even though the effects of these weapons are very different.

Containing the effects of a nuclear yield is understandably impossible. However, containing a non-nuclear explosion is possible. One containment technology involves methods that employ large tent-like, or pillow-like structures filled with aqueous foam that acts to absorb the blast and suppress the dispersion of radioactive particulate, biological or chemical agents. Use of these techniques is space-dependent and time consuming to put into place and assumes that there is no clock ticking or remote firing device built into the weapon’s fire set.

A more common technique used by police bomb squads requires that the rogue weapon be placed inside a specially built armored container designed to withstand and contain the force of a small explosive device. While this method works for small explosive devices it will not contain or mitigate the potential effects of a large explosive device, or most biological or chemical devices. When containment methods fail a weapon’s consequences must be physically confronted to reduce the threat to human safety and limit damage. Consequence management may simply involve evacuating a downwind area in the path of a radiological or chemical weapon dispersal pattern (contamination footprint) or it could involve providing a medical response for mass casualties. FEMA’s Federal Response Plan (FRP), for all its strengths, still falls short of providing a favorable solution in the event of a WMD terrorism incident. Perhaps, in FEMA’s defense, there can be no favorable solution and the outcome will always result in varying degrees of bad.

But how bad? In most cases, those within range of a WMD weapon detonation will suffer the most. First responders like police, firemen, emergency medics, rescue squads, etc. will undoubtedly be exposed to the effects and suffer the consequences of a WMD. While we are far better off today than we were on 9/11, in general, the local first responders are ill-trained to fully recognize and ill-equipped to adequately deal with a WMD incident. They will arrive on-scene and be subject to the same effects as those persons they have come to aid. And, they will join the victims.

First responders need specialized training as well as the appropriate detection and protective equipment. They need to understand and recognize the wide range of effects caused by WMD. They need the training and equipment to take the appropriate action to first, protect themselves and second, to properly handle victims and protect others from becoming victims. As DHS has learned, training and equipping the first responders is not without significant cost. However, it is slowly being accomplished under existing federal, state and local first responder – emergency response programs by reprioritizing training and equipment acquisition budgets and through federal government cost sharing and grants.

State and local authorities also require access to threat-related intelligence. The FBI and DHS share responsibility to provide such threat warning and intelligence to state and local authority. The problem is that by the time the intelligence reaches the state and local level it is usually too diluted in declassification to be effective or too lukewarm to provide advanced warning. This has been a continuing sore spot with state and local first responders because they are many times forced to rely upon incomplete information about the threat, especially where WMD is concerned, while still attempting to serve the public safety interest at great personal risk.

The lack of reliable threat warning intelligence available to state and local authorities underscores the overall lack of solid terrorism-related intelligence at the national level. But again, this shortcoming is more a result of putting the national emphasis into anti-terrorism training programs overseas rather than investing in counterterrorism and consequence management efforts at home that are specifically designed to provide adequate threat warning, training and equipment to first responders. Unfortunately, today’s policy can only be characterized as imprecise and risk adverse.

The solution lies squarely with the emergency response and consequence management agencies of federal, state and local governments and their ability to effectively recognize and communicate their operational requirements to the science and technology community for the development of new tools and techniques to deal with weapons of mass destruction. That said, the solution is not exclusively one that involves better technology. As mentioned previously, good intelligence also plays a major role.

DHS’s FEMA, as the lead federal agency for consequence management, needs to more aggressively pursue the WMD solution. This may begin by offering the 50 states and our territories in-depth WMD emergency response and consequence management training followed by a nationally-funded first responder technical equipment upgrade. Dedicated federal WMD training facilities have been established where live chemical and biological agents, to include radiological materials, can be used for training but their use by the first responder community is low because of the dollar and manpower costs involved.

Standards for training, both in consequence management and equipment interoperability, are being addressed by DHS. Likewise, communication connectivity and interoperability is essential between federal, state and local crisis managers and first responders. Communications interoperability is slowly being achieved but it still has a long way to go – again mostly because of the cost involved.

These many challenges must be completely and systematically addressed if this nation is to continue to enjoy its liberties without intimidation by the WMD terrorist threat aimed so squarely at us. To be sure, WMD must be reliably stopped before it reaches our shores, but if it can’t be, we must have the capabilities to adequately mitigate it here. Finally, it is the first responders’ relationship between effective intelligence and technology application that will win the day – nothing less.

Paul Evancoe is a novelist and freelance writer. His action novels “Own the Night,” “Violent Peace” and Poison Promise,” deal with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and are available at




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