Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 20, 2007

QFR No. 2: What Deployment Strategy?

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Technology for HLS — by Jonah Czerwinski on May 20, 2007

This is another question for the record Chairman Wu submitted after the March 8 hearing on the DNDO and DHS S&T budgets (previous post here).  His question gets to the heart of how technology and strategy should be required to work together.  He rightly points out that too much emphasis on technology (detectors) at the expense of smart tactics (deployment strategy) results in a waste of money and time, not to mention the introduction of unnecessary vulnerabilities.  In some ways, this issue is central to rationalizing what DHS calls a global nuclear detection architecture.

From the FY 2008 budget request and information I’ve received from DNDO, It seems that deployment of detection technologies is limited to highly-visible, highly-trafficked ports of entry with relatively little attention given to intercepting smuggled materials in foreign countries or detecting materials smuggled across more remote borders. Is this an appropriate way to deploy detection technologies? If not, what factors should DNDO consider when determining where to deploy their detectors?

The deployment strategy of detectors and other countermeasures in combating smuggling nuclear weapons may be one of the most important considerations in assessing the DNDO strategy.  However, that the strategy and budget seem to indicate a focus on domestic choke points (i.e. highly trafficked points of entry) is appropriate at this stage for two reasons.  First, efforts to detect or otherwise counter the threat of smuggled nuclear material overseas are mainly conducted by other agencies, although there is an important role for the DNDO.  Second, the DNDO was wise to begin their deployment strategy at major points of entry first given the priority of closing obvious gaps soonest, but they must move forward with a plan to deploy along less populated, and therefore less guarded, sections of the
U.S. border, among other improvements.

The effort to combat smuggled nuclear material is a global one.  Indeed the DNDO was originally named the National Nuclear Defense Office to reflect a broader mission than the one it is perceived to have today.  After working its way through the interagency process, this title lost the word “national,” which was replaced with Domestic, and the word “defense” became detection, in an apparent effort to winnow the mission of this new office.  In practice, this makes some sense since both the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense also play a role in this area.  The DHS office was given the detection mission only, but that has since evolved, and for good reason.  Today, the DNDO works very closely with other agencies to develop not only new capabilities, but also the global deployment strategy that reflects and informs the use of detection efforts by all federal agencies including DOE, DOD, and others.

When the DNDO was created in April 2005, the White House placed significant emphasis on deploying detection capabilities quickly and in the most needed places.  This had both positive and negative effects.  The priority on deploying detectors quickly naturally sacrificed quality in the short run.  The “pagers” and first-generation portal monitors (RPMs) suffered from poor selectivity that forced them to signal an alarm when encountering non-threatening materials that naturally contain radiation.  This led to news reports and internal assessments that showed RPMs signaling a “hit” when only ceramic tile or other commercial material was found in an a container or truck hold.  The other major trade-off that resulted from an accelerated deployment schedule was the low sensitivity of the earlier detectors (many of which are still in use).  Low sensitivity leads many detectors to be unable to sense the presence of source material because, ironically, HEU and other elements actually give off very low levels of radiation prior to detonation.  Current research and development underway at DNDO already shows major progress in both selectivity and sensitivity in a variety of settings.

The priority of placing detection capabilities at highly trafficked points of entry reflects a judgment call the DNDO and DHS leadership had to make at the time DNDO stood up and began using its first budget in FY 2005.  Given limited resources, the constraints of a new organization, and an evolving threat, the choice was made to start with the most likely choke points based on traffic patterns (both licit and illicit) and the risk these areas posed to surrounding infrastructure and populations.  Over time, the DNDO plan reflects an intention to contribute to anti-terrorism programs overseas by supporting the DHS-DOE-State Department Secure Freight Initiative and NATO’s Operation Active Endeavor.  This is a positive development that also indicates the aggressive progress DNDO is making in the field of nuclear detection.  Future development in DNDO’s deployment strategy certainly includes efforts like Securing the Cities, but also networked detection capabilities in less traveled sections of the border to close those serious gaps you cited.  An important improvement in strategy would include the use of decoys, hidden detectors, and mobile sensors to offset the adversary and increase the deterrent value of our anti-terrorism capabilities.

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1 Comment »

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 25, 2007 @ 5:39 pm

If current posture is prologue then the DHS Nuclear Detection Program may lose 1/2 of its funding in FY2008!

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