WASHINGTON, Dec. 13, 2013 – Recognizing the growing threat of an attack in the Middle East and Central Asia involving weapons of mass destruction, officials at U.S. Central Command are working closely with partner nations across the region to prevent one and, if it occurs, to be able to respond quickly to mitigate the consequences.
CENTCOM stood up its Cooperative Defense Program in 1999 to increase regional partner nations’ capabilities in light of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats posed primarily by Iran and violent extremists, Ron Rook, chief of the command’s partner nation capabilities branch, told American Forces Press Service.
“The overall goal of the program is to enhance each country’s, as well as regional, capability to deter, detect, defend against and mitigate the circumstances of a WMD incident – whether it is intentional or accidental,” Rook said.
The United States has worked with regional partners since the early 1990s, following the first Gulf War, to deal with the WMD challenge as part of its national counter-proliferation policy, he noted.
But in light of the growth of transnational Islamic-extremist terrorist groups and WMD proliferation, the Cooperative Defense Program now provides a broader, more comprehensive approach to confronting what the U.S. and regional nations recognize as the No. 1 threat to regional security, Rook said.
The multifaceted program extends in some facet to every country in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility except Iran, he reported.
Although not yet formally part of the program, Afghanistan receives U.S. assistance in addressing the WMD threat, he noted. As with other security functions, the Afghan government will assume full responsibility for that mission when its ministries and national security forces are ready.
Because proliferators regularly cross national borders and a WMD attack in one country would have devastating effects to its neighbors, regional partners recognize the importance of working together to confront the challenge, he said.
“Dealing with WMDs requires cooperative defense on a regional basis. Everybody has to cooperate. Everybody has to be interoperable. It takes a team,” Rook said.
That recognition has prompted a level of cooperation not previously seen among the partner nations in the CENTCOM region, he noted.
“Because of a mutual threat, by Iran, these countries have come together, and they know they have to work together and pool their resources and manpower and equipment in order to deter or defend against a major nuclear incident,” he said.
Strong regional capability and cooperation makes it more difficult for adversaries to transport or use WMDs, he said. Intelligence-sharing and communication like that demonstrated by members of the Gulf Cooperation Council makes it easier for partners to identify potential WMD threats and monitor their movements.
If an incident occurs, regional countries are ready to respond, most importantly, during the first and most crucial hours. If needed, they also know they can count on their neighbors to assist, Rook said. And by working together, he added, regional partners provide a strong deterrent through the message they send to potential adversaries.
“Their cooperation basically says, ‘If you do something against one country, you are going to have to deal with the others, who are cooperating on a regional basis,’” Rook said.
CENTCOM’s Cooperative Defense Program aims to build regional capacity and capability in four primary areas: consequence management, medical countermeasures, chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear passive defense, and WMD interdiction and border security.
These efforts range from small, bilateral workshops to regional conferences and seminars to three major exercises that CENTCOM co-sponsors in the region: Eagle Resolve, Eager Lion and Leading Edge.
In addition, regional partners frequently send their military and civilian responders to the United States for conferences, training, or courses at military schools provided through the State Department-funded International Military Education and Training program.
One of the most important issues in an incident involving WMDs or other toxic materials is ensuring each country’s military and civilian responders are prepared to work together in the event of an incident, Rook said. That begins with a national response plan that spells out what entity would lead the response, what others would assist and what support they would provide.
“Our program is designed as military-to-military [engagement], but we realize that just like in the United States, the military can’t handle this [challenge] all by themselves,” Rook said. “It takes a whole-of-government approach. So what we try to inculcate into their mindset is interoperability between all the various ministries.”
That’s something Rook said needs to be coordinated before a crisis. “You cannot wait until an incident goes down to determine who is in charge and how you would operate. So we help them develop a national response plan that lays all that out in advance,” he said.
CENTCOM works with its regional partners to exercise those plans and ensure they are up-to-date. U.S. teams provide bilateral support to individual countries and weave WMD scenarios into their exercise program.
“If you just have a plan and wait for ‘it’ to hit the fan, it is too late to work out all the bugs that you are going to experience,” Rook said.
CENTCOM also helps regional countries develop and train the forces they would need to operate in a contaminated environment. It also supports training for medical personnel who would provide a mass casualty response following a WMD incident, and planning about how they would deploy medical assets.
The United States would respond immediately to a WMD incident in the region, but it could take hours before its responders and their equipment actually arrived on the scene, Rook said.
“And what is really crucial after an incident goes down is what happens in those first few hours,” he said. “So it is prudent and imperative that a country be able to take appropriate action so that when we come in, the response is already underway.”
Regional partners recognize that the capabilities developed through the Cooperative Defense Program extend well beyond incidents involving WMDs or toxic materials.
“A big selling point of this program has been that the skills they learn are the same skills they would need in the event of a natural disaster such as an earthquake, plane crash … or flooding,” Rook said. “In those situations, you have to do triage and medical evacuations. You need to cordon off the scene. You have people in charge and you need a plan.
“That has made countries really embrace this program,” he said.
As regional countries increase their own capability to respond to crises, they will be less reliant on U.S. assistance in the event of a crisis, Rook noted.
“Building regional capability supports stability across the region,” he said. “Everything we provide these countries that increases their capability to deter, defend against, and mitigate the circumstances of a WMD incident is in the best interests of the United States.”