Report warns of ‘future military failure’

Defense Science Board advises incoming administration to focus on weapons of mass destruction and quicker acquisition times.

The Defense Science Board released on Tuesday a sobering report that called for the incoming Obama administration to focus on a small but complex set of Defense issues, with protection of the country against weapons of mass destruction as the top priority of the new secretary of Defense.

Weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear and biological armaments, imperil both the safety of the United States and its military forces, according to the report, "Defense Imperatives for New Administration." The board urged the new Defense leadership "to do everything possible to prevent the worst people from acquiring and using the worst weapons."

This must include a strongly stated and unambiguous policy of retaliation to punish any nation or group that launches a weapon of mass destruction attack against the United States, according to the report, whose lead author is Craig Fields, chairman of the Defense Science Board and former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the late 1980s.

The new administration cannot ignore the pressing issues outlined in the report, which "could lead to future military failure," the Defense Science Board said. "We are at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, with over 180,000 military personnel and perhaps 30,000 contractors at risk. … We cannot know how militant Islamic jihadist terrorism will develop or what it will do. Nations of concern, both rogue states and the largest nations, are enlarging their armories. We need to feel a sense of urgency and act accordingly."

The science board also expressed strong concerns that terrorists could obtain supplies of the cesium135 isotope, which is widely used in medical applications such as cancer treatments, to make a radioactive dirty bomb. It urged the United States to encourage medical facilities to use another form of treatment to fight cancer.

The National Research Council issued a similar report in February, which called for the federal government to promote replacing cesium chloride, which is used in medical applications, with lower risk alternatives because of the compound's potential use in dirty bombs.

The science board said the new administration must mobilize forces worldwide to deter enemies and protect allies. But the board emphasized that the United States' military and civilian information infrastructure remains highly vulnerable to cyberattack, which could deter force projection capabilities.

Poor Defense business practices undermine military capabilities as they raise costs and impede "modernization that they threaten to compromise America's technology lead and force capability," said the report, which was dated August 2008 but released on Election Day.

The report also urged the new administration to focus on nation-building, stabilizing and reconstructing countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and on thwarting terrorist threats at home and around the world.

In addition, Defense and other agencies such as the Homeland Security Department must devise better operational contingency plans to respond to domestic catastrophes, whether they are natural disasters such as hurricanes or attacks carried out by terrorist groups or foreign nations, the report said.

The Defense Science Board forecasted a grim scenario if an attack larger than Sept. 11 occurs or if the United States is hit by a natural disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina and the government's response is slow and ineffective. The consequences, the science board predicted, would be a breakdown of civil order, leading to riots, vigilante actions and gang violence.

The new administration should reform "cumbersome business practices" within Defense, which could cause a gradual long-term degradation of U.S. forces, "in effect a self-inflicted wound," the report said. The Defense Science Board said a slow acquisition process limits ability of Defense to take advantage of cutting-edge technology developed in the United States, and more agile adversaries can acquire technology quicker.

Defense needs to adapt the best practices of the commercial sector to its missions and have an authoritative business plan that enforces discipline in the allocations of resources by mission purpose: what is to be done, with what resources and by when.

Defense can no longer afford to perform its wide range of missions alone, the report said, and will have to work with other agencies and private sector partners at home and abroad. Stabilization and reconstruction missions in foreign countries demand not only military skills to ensure public safety, but civilian skills needed to understand local cultures, histories and language, the report said.