Efforts to counter WMD threats complicated by data challenges

Pentagon (DoD photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force) 

The Defense Department is aiming to create a data-fueled environment that improves everything from administrative tasks to warfighting capabilities. But when it comes to monitoring and guarding against weapons of mass destruction (WMD), current policies are getting in the way.

Ed Lawson, director of integration for the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense said more executive authority is needed to close the intelligence gaps and better coordinate efforts when it comes to preventing and detecting WMD risks.

"I'm looking for an executive order," Lawson said during a Dec. 11 event on the topic hosted by FCW and Noblis.

"Catastrophic is the way WMD is characterized," he said. "Every other catastrophic event is characterized in those documents, have an executive order to follow them, to coordinate and facilitate all across government. There is no authority there."

There's also the infrastructure issue.

"We've got legacy systems that have decades of data available to us, but how we layer that with current data also builds on a need for better data curation because they don't have a common data architecture," Amanda Richardson, chief of operations for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency's Research and Development Directorate, said at the same event.

"So I have data … you have data, we all have data, but getting it into a form that we can use in a single tool is a pipe dream at this point," she said.

The Pentagon and the military branches are collectively working on making sense of the massive amounts of data DOD components collect via disparate systems. The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which the House passed Dec. 10 is and expected to be signed into law, further these efforts by directing DOD's CIO to make mission data more accessible and increasing data sharing for cybersecurity across the enterprise.

DTRA is in the midst of creating a common data architecture, Richardson said.

"Right now, we're working on that just internal to our agency, much less what DOD is gonna do and what the government's going to do," she said. "But being able to leverage more data gives us more information to help us better respond to potential risks, potential threats."

"We are trying to work toward a place where we can leverage a lot of AI tools, a lot of advanced data analytics tools to help us," she said, though she stressed that the goal is not to "take the human out of the loop completely."

However, gaps in those humans' abilities can also hinder detection and mitigation efforts, Lawson said.

"User competency is at an all-time low in compared to technology," he said. "We're doing great stuff, but collectively, where are we showing that success?...I can out-speed intelligence by looking at Twitter."

Lawson said that was his biggest concern: "a limitation of user competencies that are relying on current policies yet they want something different. And then I have no overarching strategy that I can plug into which I can measure success. And when I look at funding and I look at authorities, they don't match up."

Richardson said one reason today's whole of government approach falls short is that WMD events are low probability, but very high risk.

"One of the struggles, I think that … we don't really know how to address non-probabilistic risk," she said.

"How do we find not just the actual weapon that [a bad actor is] about to use, but how do we find the people who are buying the precursors for that weapon?" Richardson asked. "How do we find the people who are looking for money to do that? How do we find the people who are just researching but interested in that?"

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is a staff writer at FCW covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.


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