The recent release of the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy has caused no end of debate by the national security enterprise as to what it means as an indicator of future policy actions and whether it truly displays the intent of this president. One can argue that the National Security Strategy is just an intellectual exercise for the policymakers in the administration, mandated by Title 50 US Code 3043. Do the armed services and combatant commands really shape their capabilities and theater campaign plans based on the raft of strategic documents such as the Quadrennial Defense Review, National Defense Strategy, and other similar, unclassified guidance? Other articles will surely seek to answer this question. But at least one national security cohort—the technical community that addresses the threat of weapons of mass destruction—does appreciate mention in the document and indications of what their future might be. For this community, the National Security Strategy, at the least, represents the aspirations of senior policymakers who have to do the daily work of addressing national security threats, and so we need to take a look.

The Army in particular, having a dedicated branch that seeks to address threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and medical specialists who lead the Department of Defense in medical research and development, needs to know whether the new administration’s policy direction will change. Given the new leadership within the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council, the National Security Strategy is a good indication of what is in store. Similar to the Obama and Bush administrations, the 2017 National Security Strategy identifies WMD and “biothreats” as things against which the American people need to be protected. While the general direction of policy (as articulated here) has not changed from these former administrations’ guidance, there are some discordant points that need to be explored.

Both WMDs and biothreats (defined in the strategy as natural emerging outbreaks, deliberate attacks, or accidents) are addressed in the first section that identifies directions to protect the American people and the homeland. Two things need to be explained. First, biological weapons are a class of WMD and yet a particular advocacy wants to address biological threats (as a general topic) under a separate policy function. This direction started with the Obama administration in 2009 and has caused more confusion within DoD than clarity. Second, this desire to address WMD and biothreats as homeland concerns started in the Obama administration when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel disestablished the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Security Affairs and moved the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering WMD under the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Security. Countering WMD has traditionally been a global proliferation concern, but the past four years have seen a stronger emphasis on countering terrorists with ambitions of obtaining chemical, biological, and radiological hazards than protecting against nation-state WMD programs.

The WMD and biothreat sections of the National Security Strategy are not long and do not demonstrate a different direction from the last administration. That said, there are troubling indications within both sections that indicate more guidance is needed, both in terms of terminology and direction. Starting with the WMD section, the document uses the term “defend against WMD” instead of “counter” or “combat” (the latter two terms being the traditional form). To an outsider, these terms may appear interchangeable, but they are carefully chosen with policy implications. Counterproliferation strategy and concepts were initially developed to protect US military forces and their allies from adversarial nation-states that had nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. This was an interagency effort, mostly focused on the State and Defense Departments. Combating WMD spoke to a muscular offensive focus, while countering WMD emphasized arms control and cooperative security. Using the term “defend against WMD” moves the dynamic away from military forces and toward homeland defense, which leads one to question whether the original intent—protecting US forces—has been lost.

Another terminology change is the use of the phrase “nuclear, chemical, radiological, and biological,” which appears three times in the document. This may seem pedantic, but within the Defense Department, the common phrase since 2001 has been “chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear” or CBRN. It’s not a perfect term of art but we all know what it means. Are we now supposed to change all of our terms to “NCRB”? It doesn’t make sense on its own, but seeing the phrase three times in a national security guidance document certainly can’t be ignored. One has to ask who put this phrase in this document. Was it a person who has not been part of the traditional counter-WMD community? Does it reflect a change of priorities? Or is it just someone deliberately using a different term from previous administrations just for the sake of change?

The document seems to define counterproliferation as “measures to secure, eliminate, and prevent the spread of WMD and related materials.” To be clear, this is more appropriately a definition of nonproliferation, which falls under the purview of the State Department. It’s true that the State Department has, ironically, appropriated the term “counterproliferation” for its purposes, while the Defense Department has consciously eschewed the same term in its 2014 strategy. Back in the late 1990s, the State Department was very upset about the concept of counterproliferation, thinking that it would replace their international nonproliferation discussions. It may be that few people outside of the WMD community notice these terminology issues, but they do call into question where the US government and DoD in particular are going in terms of future policy objectives.

More to the meat of the discussion, the strategy says that “the danger from hostile state and non-state actors [acquiring WMD] … is increasing.” That’s fundamentally untrue—the number of states and terrorist groups seeking out these weapons has measurably gone down over the past twenty years, but this is a popular thing to say in this (and past) national security documents. Yes, there are still states with WMD programs, and we do still need defensive concepts and capabilities, but it’s hard to justify words identifying an increase in the threat. The general strategic threat from the big four concerns—Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea—has not fundamentally changed, even with North Korea’s apparent success in developing an intercontinental ballistic missile. To be clear, North Korea’s nuclear weapons represent a regional threat that emerged several years ago, and are best addressed through deterrence operations rather than through counter-WMD strategies. The document also assures us that the national missile defense program is not aimed at disrupting relationships with Russia or China (again, not a change from past administrations).

The remaining paragraphs, addressing the potential threat of terrorists armed with “NCRB” weapons against the homeland, also do not reflect a change of policy direction. There is a call to “bolster efforts to detect [NCRB] agents and keep them from being used against us.” This bold statement seems to be discordant with a recent article suggesting that the Department of Homeland Security is in fact cutting back on funds to respond to WMD threats, but it aligns with actions initiated a few years ago to consolidate DHS’s different offices addressing these threats. The effort to interdict and stop “WMD terrorists”—most likely with military and law enforcement actions—will continue. These are not significant changes in policy direction.

Neither, unfortunately, are the National Security Strategy’s call to “combat biothreats and pandemics.” The Obama administration’s “National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats” developed guidance to address the deliberate or accidental release of a biological agent. The public health community has advanced the notion that not enough has been done in this area, despite the many billions of federal dollars that are spent every year toward preventing and responding to infectious disease outbreaks. The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, an industry advocacy group, has been instrumental in lobbying Congress since 2014 to develop a more comprehensive national approach to dealing with biological threats. In fact, its actions have directly led to Congress adding language to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 to demand a national biodefense strategy, developed between the Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Agriculture Departments.

While the focus of the “combat biothreats” section is similar enough to Obama’s 2009 strategy, the required actions in the Trump guidance are decidedly different. It calls for detecting and containing biothreats at their source; supporting biomedical innovation; and improving emergency response. This may correspond to continuing the “Global Health Security Agenda” that was launched in 2014, continuing to protect the efforts by US pharmaceutical firms to advance biotech efforts, and continuing to support existing public health measures. But that’s just a guess. It’s hard to pin down a definitive agenda here, other than as a starting point for a proposed new National Biodefense Strategy.

And that’s unfortunate, because the real limitation to the US government’s efforts to respond to biological threats has not been insufficient federal funding or an unwillingness of industry as much as it has been a failure to define the challenge and understand the need to develop distinct, but complementary approaches to public health challenges and actors who might deliberately use biological weapons. By addressing infectious diseases and biological weapons under one policy initiative, there is the continued likelihood that efforts to respond to biological warfare will become overshadowed and subsumed by the larger and more significant danger of natural disease outbreaks that demand much more funding. As an example, between 2010 and 2015, the DoD Chemical and Biological Defense Program was directed to fund global biological threat reduction and biosurveillance programs and cut validated military programs for chemical and biological defense countermeasures. This held back several necessary modernization efforts designed to ensure military forces could effectively operate in future joint operating environments involving WMD-armed adversaries.

Addressing WMD threats and biological threats (within the scope of public health) are both significant challenges and, to a large degree, nonpartisan issues. Although different administrations have used the threat of WMD-armed adversaries to justify their foreign policy actions, both Republicans and Democrats have generally agreed that these challenges need to be addressed as a top national security priority. More direct guidance is required, however, than what is within this National Security Strategy, and that would be the role for a “WMD Czar” on the National Security Council. A significant indicator as to how important the Trump administration believes these topics to be will be whether a replacement for Christopher Ford, the former Special Assistant to the President for WMD and Counterproliferation, is named.

I have no doubt that the National Security Strategy was developed by serious national security experts who understand the need to prioritize and address the nation’s security interests, with protection against WMD threats among those priorities. But a year into the administration’s first term, can the armed services take anything out of this document for the purposes of addressing WMD threats and biothreats? The statement it makes is, “continue what you’re doing, but be cognizant that there’s a new administration that thinks differently than past administrations.” This is insufficient: there are significant challenges and capability gaps in these areas, not the least of which is clear policy whose objectives are measured and assessed. Given the contemporary threats posed by Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and nonstate actors, we can’t afford this lack of clarity.


Al Mauroni is the Director of the US Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies.

The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, US Air Force, or Department of Defense.


Image credit: Frank Oliver, US Air Force (adapted by MWI)