Integrated CBRNE Detection and Response: Challenges and Opportunities

While the United States faces a multitude of security threats, there are few as complex as chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high-explosive (CBRNE) weapons. Various efforts undertaken since 9/11 have built and strengthened the nation’s capacity to detect and respond to CBRNE weapons, but the inherent differences among these weapons and the complexity involved in defending against them have resulted in a profusion of actors and technologies intended to counter various facets of the threat. Given the need to detect and respond to CBRNE events as effectively as possible, some have suggested greater integration of various capabilities, programs, and offices as a means to coordinate efforts and increase capacity across the homeland security enterprise.

The wide variety of actors involved in elements of CBRNE detection and response necessitates close coordination. At the federal level, these entities include the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) and Office of Health Affairs (OHA), the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), the National Guard’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team (WMD CST), the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST), and the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and U.S. Strategic Command Center for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction  (SCC-WMD), among others. The challenge of coordinating CBRNE detection and response among these federal entities is significant. They must work closely not just with one another, but with the state and local first responders who are likely to be the first line of defense against a CBRNE incident, as well as with private industry, which owns the vast majority of critical infrastructure likely to be affected by such an attack and much of the technology potentially involved in biological or chemical incidents. Although each of these entities is responsible for different elements of CBRNE detection and response, their shared goal of protecting the United States from these weapons and the complex nature of the threat they face means that coordination as part of a comprehensive homeland security enterprise is essential.

Greater integration of various CBRNE detection and response capabilities has been pointed to as a possible means to increase coordination and thereby the effectiveness and efficiency of detection and response efforts. Countering and containing a CBRNE event will require both speed and precision, yet this can be difficult to achieve in a crisis. For instance, local first responders and hazardous materials (HAZMAT) teams may arrive at the scene of a CBRNE event within minutes, yet their capabilities are likely to be quickly overmatched in the face of a serious incident. Department of Homeland Security or National Guard experts may possess the requisite skills and insight to address the situation, but they may be located thousands of miles away from the site of the incident and so unable to respond as quickly as needed. An integration of capabilities could potentially serve to bolster both the speed and precision of detection and response by bringing entities such as local first responders and federal experts closer together.

Some steps have already been taken to explore greater integration. In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) launched the Integrated Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive (ICBRNE) Detection Demonstration pilot in conjunction with several private corporations and the city of Los Angeles. This system incorporates a hand-held device to be used by first responders that can transmit data related to chemical toxins and biological agents from the scene of the incident to experts around the globe. Capable of streaming live data across multiple locations, this system enables both technical specialists and strategic decisionmakers to assess the situation and provide guidance in real time. Such integration of capabilities might allow those involved to collaborate and share information to a greater degree, potentially increasing the speed and precision of CBRNE detection and response.

Yet even as some steps toward greater integration are being taken, there remain a number of outstanding questions. There is significant space for dialogue regarding the challenges and opportunities associated with increased integration, including whether the various entities involved are properly aligned for maximum effectiveness, how on-the-ground efforts can be better coordinated, and how new technologies can be best utilized and integrated. Through addressing these questions, there is an opportunity for the federal government, local first responders, and private industry to advance the effectiveness and efficiency of CBRNE detection and response efforts and increase the nation’s ability to counter this complex threat.

Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ashley Nichols is an intern with the CSIS Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Ashley Nichols