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Pentagon seeks more funds to counter bio weapons

Apr. 10, 2014 - 02:01PM   |  
Chemical, biological and radiological drill
Damage Controlman 3rd Class Sean Clooney tests for contamination during a chemical, biological, and radiological drill, as Executive Officer Jay Steingold evaluates aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu. (Navy)
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The Pentagon wants to spend more money on a secret program to track weapons of mass destruction because of new information showing an increased need to locate chemical and biological weapons, military budget plans show.

The increased funding for the Nimble Elder program of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) is “driven by recent classified DoD guidance,” according to DTRA’s budget plans, which were released in March.

Nimble Elder, Pentagon documents show, involves WMD-tracking teams that work with combatant commands around the world to either deploy rapidly to crisis spots around the world or are already based in those areas. They collaborate with technical support groups to “provide the (combatant commands) and other U.S. government agencies with the capability to counter WMD threats.”

DTRA officials want an extra $6.8 million for “low-visibility Chemical/Biological search” that would meet “specific Combatant Command requirements,” the budget document shows.

DTRA officials declined to comment, saying Nimble Elder is classified.

The threat from biological weapons is real and growing, said Gerald Parker, vice president for public health preparedness and response at Texas A&M University’s Health Science Center.

“Biological weapons are a considerable threat that we need to pay attention to and develop new capabilities that are able to respond to bio threats,” said Parker, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for chemical and biological defense. “Bio threats can emanate from state-sponsored and non-state-sponsored programs.”

The budget document contains the amount of extra funding the agency is seeking but not the total amount spent on the program. It also did not specify the source of the latest concern.

“It’s become a lot easier to manufacture these (biological weapons),” said Christopher Bidwell, a senior fellow in non-proliferation law and policy at the Federation of American Scientists. “It’s cheaper, there’s more knowledge being transferred and the gene sequence” for creating a biological agent “has gone from costing millions of dollars per sequence to a few thousand.”

Nimble Elder was expanded in 2011 to include technical support groups for Central Command, which oversees troops in Afghanistan, and Africa Command, which has been playing a greater role in fighting throughout that continent. DTRA records show the Central Command group is manned and equipped, while that for Africa is about 75 percent done.

The technical support teams work with DTRA’s operations center, which coordinates with various government laboratories around the country.

Bidwell said it’s unclear why DTRA is seeking more money but added that “maybe there are alternative explanations beyond threat that would cause the Pentagon to ask for more money for the program.”

Another indication of the Pentagon’s focus on biological weapons is found in the budget plans for DTRA’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which works to reduce the WMD threat with governments around the world. The Pentagon plans to cut overall spending on the program in the 2015 fiscal year from $500 million to $365 million, but its planned spending for biological weapons tracking will remain virtually the same from year to year.

DTRA is the primary military agency tracking weapons of mass destruction. In February, it announced a call for “researchers who can find small organic molecule inhibitors that can either slow or kill the growing number of drug-resistant bacteria, including the 11 pathogens on the government’s Tier 1 list” of most dangerous pathogens.

“There are a few pathogens that can keep me awake at night,” Parker said. “One of those is anthrax,” whose agent, Bacillus anthracis, is on the Tier 1 list. “The consequences of an effectively delivered anthrax as an intentional attack would only need a kilogram quantity to produce casualties in the tens of thousands if effectively produced and effectively delivered in an aerosol device.”

Contributing: Kendall Breitman, USA Today.

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