By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 7, 2008 - It is an agency that seems tailor-made to combat the threats the United States faces today: nuclear proliferation, chemical weapons and the possibility of genetically modified diseases. But the Defense Threat Reduction Agency was formed when Americans still thought there was such a thing as a "peace dividend" and few had ever heard of al-Qaida. When then-Defense Secretary William S. Cohen tried to draw attention to the threat of biological warfare, some were very skeptical of this focus.
The agency marked its 10th anniversary last week, and it still is dedicated to reducing the present threat and anticipating future threats, Dr. James A. Tegnelia, the agency's director, said.
On Oct. 1, 1998, three activities – the Defense Special Weapons Agency, the On-Site Inspection Agency and the Defense Technology Security Administration – merged to form DTRA.
In a ceremony at the new agency's headquarters, Cohen said the world was at a "pivot point" in combating new types of dangers. New threats had replaced those of the Cold War, Cohen said, identifying rogue regimes and fanatical groups capable of buying or developing weapons of mass destruction and willing to use them as the new agency's targets.
Today, from its headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Va., the agency continues to work to reduce the number of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons worldwide and to make sure they don't fall into the wrong hands, Tegnelia said during a recent interview. "My sense is the agency has been pretty faithful to the mission," he said.
The director said that Cohen, Deputy Secretary John Hamre and the agency's first director, Jay Davis, "were prescient, considering there was no 9/11 at the time, no Department of Homeland Security and no Northern Command."
"They were very much ahead of their time, in that if a nuclear or chemical or biological weapon was used on an American city, this would become a national problem -- not a defense problem or just a state and local problem," he said. "The entire federal government and the state and local governments were going to have to have the capabilities to respond to this."
How the agency operates has changed in a decade. The combatant commands need assistance in fighting weapons of mass destruction. "They don't have all the in-house competencies to do that; helping them and supporting them in this process is very important," Tegnelia said.
Making that capability operational was an imperative, Tegnelia said. "That became pretty evident during Operation Iraqi Freedom, when the combatant commander was getting ready to overrun suspected nuclear and chemical facilities, and he wondered, 'What will be the consequence to my soldiers?'" he said.
As a combat support agency supporting U.S. Strategic Command, the lead operational command for dealing with weapons of mass destruction, DTRA helps the combatant commands prepare for problems that might occur.
Aiding in consequence management is another DTRA function. What is needed for the nation to respond to an attack by a weapon of mass destruction? Who is responsible for what? How do local, state, federal agencies work together?
A natural disaster – Hurricane Katrina – showed how far the nation still had to go, as local and state capabilities quickly were overwhelmed. The same concerns may arise if the nation were attacked with weapons of mass destruction, Tegnelia said.
"Depending on the circumstances, you might end up with Northern Command, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Energy, the Department of Justice and possibly other agencies responding," he said. DTRA provides key support and participates in joint exercises with those agencies and state and local governments.
The agency's predictive capabilities are available at all times for state and local responders. For example, if a rail car full of chlorine derails and begins leaking, the agency can use simulation and modeling capabilities to assist in evacuation recommendations.
"The thing that's different between 2000 and now," the director said, "is that now it's a national response. There is a cadre of people on the national level prepared to respond."
A third area of responsibility for the agency is in the international realm. The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program that DTRA implements to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction and their associated infrastructure in former Soviet Union states -- is one of the agency's main international responsibilities. The program has expanded in recent years to help Russia build the infrastructure to protect stockpiles.
The agency is finishing building the largest single Nunn-Lugar program, the chemical weapons demilitarization facility at Shchuchye.
"We will continue those commitments with the Russians and then expand cooperative threat reduction to not only the former Soviet Union, but [also to] a worldwide capability," Tegnelia said.
Finally, the agency is committed to being a technical innovator. Scientists in the agency are building capabilities that try to respond to the future. Special programs look at new technologies to detect weapons of mass destruction, for example, and agency officials also look at new gear and procedures that can be used.
But the sad fact, Tegnelia said, is that nuclear weapons are proliferating.
"If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, what will the nations of the area do?" he said.
American forces may find themselves fighting on a nuclear battlefield. The agency is looking at ways for the forces to do this and still be successful.
"How do they operate? How do they survive? Will their radios work?" Tegnelia asked. "We've not talked as much as we need to about a nuclear battlefield since 1990. We have to start to think where we are going in regard to that."
Another possible threat is in biological weapons. The director noted that every promising Technology has a dark side. Chlorine can purify water, but it also can be used as a killer gas. Nuclear research produces both cancer treatments and weapons. Biological sciences are moving ahead at lightning speed.
The agency has formed the Transformational Medical Technology Initiative. "It looks at what we would do with a bio-engineered threat," Tegnelia explained.
To illustrate the complexities that would arise, Tegnelia described a scenario in which an early warning system "finds a funny bug, and none of your vaccines work against it."
A bio-engineered disease might not respond to vaccines or antibiotics, he said. Researchers would have to discover what type of treatment would be useful against such a bug. They would also have to figure out what the proper vaccination would be. They would have to test the vaccination for safety and then figure out how to produce enough to contain the problem and wipe it out.
Combating weapons of mass destruction is, unfortunately, a growth industry, and the agency is not in danger of losing its mission, Tegnelia said, acknowledging that while DTRA has made significant progress, more needs to be done as the agency begins its second decade.