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Decade of Developments Changed DOD's Focus on Weapons of Mass Destruction

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Oct. 19, 2023) -- Back in 2014, the Defense Department's strategy for countering weapons of mass destruction was focused largely on places like Iran, North Korea and a variety of violent extremist organizations. In 2023, the focus has changed to address new realities, said the department's assistant secretary of defense for space policy.

The Defense Department late last month released its 2023 Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction. In the same way last year's National Defense Strategy prioritizes China and Russia, the new WMD strategy does the same.

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"The defining WMD threats we faced [in 2014] were drastically different than they are today, just 10 years later," said John Plumb, who spoke Wednesday at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Today, he said, "the challenges posed by China and Russia are front and center. So this is a new security environment and that demanded a new strategy."

Weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs, include things like nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons and radiological weapons. Plumb said both China and Russia are making advances in at least some of these areas.

"China is aggressively pursuing a rapid expansion and modernization of its nuclear forces," Plumb said. "The speed and scale has been nothing short of breathtaking. This effort includes the expansion of fissile material production, such as their fast breeder reactors ... and the development of more and more diverse nuclear weapons systems."

Plumb said China could, at its current pace, field an arsenal of about 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035, adding that China's compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention is also a concern.

"China regularly conducts research and activities with potential dual-use applications for bio threats, such as its military's [research and development] for toxins," he said.

Like China, Russia is also expanding and modernizing its nuclear weapons program, Plumb said.

"It continues to build non-strategic nuclear weapons and develop new and novel delivery systems," he said. "Russia has also engaged in irresponsible and troubling nuclear saber-rattling throughout its unprovoked and indefensible invasion of Ukraine."

Russia has also violated its biological and its chemical weapons convention obligations, Plumb said. That the Russians used the Novichok nerve agent as part of attempted assassinations in both 2018 and 2020, he added, have erased doubts that Russia retains an undeclared chemical weapons program.

"We also know they maintained an offensive biological war program," he said.

While China and Russia have re-emerged as possible threats in regard to WMD, Plumb said that old threats have not gone away.

North Korea and Iran continue to strengthen their own WMD programs, he said.

"The department has not lost focus on the WMD threats posed by North Korea or Iran or [violent extremist organizations]," he said.

Within the 2023 Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, Plumb said, are four priorities. These include defending the homeland from WMD attacks; deterring WMD use against the United States and its allies and partners; enabling the joint force to prevail in a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear environment; and preventing new WMD threats from emerging.

While the 2023 strategy was developed by the Defense Department to guide its own efforts to counter the effects of WMD, Plumb said the U.S. will not be going it alone.

"This is a team effort," he said. "Like in so many other things we are all in this together. All integrated deterrence efforts are made stronger by planning with allies and partners and by integrating their capabilities with our own. The United States network of allies and partners is an asymmetric advantage and a force multiplier that China, Russia, North Korea, Iran -- they could never hope to match. So we will continue to work closely with our allies and partners as we implement this strategy."

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