11 Questions the U.S. Senate Should Ask the Nominee for Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense

U.S. Marine Corps chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defense specialists with Marine Wing Headquarters Squadron suit up in level B hazardous material suits during a training exercise at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, San Diego, Calif., April 30, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Keonaona C. Paulo 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing Combat Camera/Released)

By Bill Beaver, Yong-Bee Lim, Christine Parthemore, Christine Parthemore and Andy Weber

On April 23rd, 2021, the Biden administration released a list of nominees for positions in national security. Of particular note amongst the impressive list of nominees is Deborah G. Rosenblum for the position of the Assistant Secretary for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense at the Department of Defense (DoD) – an exceptionally important position that directly impacts the U.S. and its ability to address nuclear, chemical, and biological threats.

2016 through 2021 was a time of flux fraught with lessons – some of which we are still trying to decipher. Specific to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the past five years have seen many events unfurl that raise concerns particularly related to chemical and biological threats. On the chemical side, there appears to be an erosion in the norm against chemical weapons use: examples include the 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother with the nerve agent VX, as well as the multiple uses of the Russian nerve agent Novichok on victims in the United Kingdom and most recently in Germany. On the biological threats side, the impacts and challenges of addressing the COVID-19 pandemic may change existing calculations that state and non-state actors have for pursuing or avoiding biological weapons programs.

Further, addressing biological, chemical, and nuclear threats in the 21st century is complicated by the accelerated pace of science and technology research and development from a technical lens. Advances in science and technology have resulted in significant capabilities gains, particularly in the areas of biology and chemistry. The concern on every biosecurity expert’s mind is on the development, distribution, and outcome of gene-editing and gene-synthesis technologies like CRISPR-based techniques and desktop synthesizers, respectively. Pharmaceutical companies are able to make a large number of chemical compounds on a small scale through combinatorial chemistry, resulting in large compound libraries that may contain future cures, but also potentially harmful compounds. For nuclear experts, advances in additive manufacturing raise questions about the future of export controls and sanctions in a world where people can print parts on demand.

In this complex environment, the role of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs (ASD(NCB)) in the U.S. government is perhaps one of the most important in addressing current and future WMD threats. The ASD(NCB) position within the Department of Defense (DoD) has broad responsibilities related to addressing strategic threats, both traditional and WMD-related, including 1) sustaining and modernizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent; 2) developing capabilities to detect, protect against, and respond to WMD threats; 3) ensuring DoD compliance with nuclear, chemical, and biological treaties and agreements; 4) continuing to work with allies and partners to strengthen our collective countering weapons of mass destruction (CWMD) capabilities; and 5) advancing U.S. nonproliferation goals.

Resources to meet these important tasks need to be more consistent in the coming years. In 2020, then-Secretary Mark T. Esper implemented a Defense Wide Review of spending that proposed investment cuts to eliminate nearly 15%, from $1.4 billion to $1.2 billion, of the research and procurement initiatives in the Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP) in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic: a biological event that has, to date, resulted in over 285,000 cases in the DoD, with nearly 4 thousand hospitalizations and more than 300 deaths.

While the issue of budget cuts to a program addressing chemical and biological threats to DoD personnel in the midst of a pandemic was partially ameliorated through an FY 2021 NDAA amendment co-sponsored by Utah Senators Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, this is not the first time that the nation’s efforts to counter chemical and biological threats have been undermined. CBDP itself has faced consistent budget tightening over the past decade, such that the current CBDP 2021 budget is approximately 30% lower than it was in 2010 when accounting for inflation. Further, the inadequate priority associated with addressing chemical and biological threats compared to nuclear threats is unsurprising given the history of the ASD(NCB) position: the title for this position was Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Atomic Energy) and predominantly focused on nuclear matters until a change in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY1996 incorporated chemical and biological elements into both the position’s title and portfolio.

The Biden Administration has a unique opportunity to set priorities and empower the ASD(NCB) position to make great strides to address biological, chemical, and nuclear threats to the United States, its allies, and the global community. This is particularly true given that the administration’s nominee for this position is Deborah G. Rosenblum – a knowledgeable expert on threats across biological and nuclear weapons and an experienced leader who has held multiple senior-level positions focusing on homeland security, peacekeeping operations and support, nuclear forces, and counter-proliferation policy at DoD.

With Rosenblum’s nomination, we recommend that the Senators active in her confirmation hearing seeks answers on the following subjects.

On Countering Biological Threats

COVID-19 put on full display the deadly vulnerabilities that the United States and the world face when it comes to addressing biological threats. The next ASD(NCB) should be given all the tools and support necessary to work with DoD senior-most leaders and the White House to address current, emerging, and future biothreats from natural, accidental, and deliberate sources. In addition, the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) and Deputy Secretary of Defense (DepSecDef) should each be provided with regular intelligence on existing and emerging biological threats to maintain situational awareness and to inform high-level priorities in strategy, planning, and budgeting. The ASD should also facilitate visits to key facilities that run biodefense and countering WMD programs and initiatives for the SecDef and DepSecDef.

During the confirmation hearing for the next ASD(NCB) nominee, the Senate should ask the following questions:

  1. The U.S. military, like the civilian population in the United States, has experienced several waves of COVID-19 infections. The first wave peaked in mid-April at roughly 250 new DoD cases a day before declining in May. The much larger second wave peaked in mid-July at around 800 new cases a day. In November 2020, there were indications of a third wave of infections. More recently, the USS Theodore Roosevelt was found to have positive COVID cases on board: the same USS Theodore Roosevelt where more than 1200 crew members (26.6% of the total crew) tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 back in March to May 2020.

It is clear that infectious diseases have a significant impact on force readiness, and can have strategic effects on the nation. With this situation in mind, what broad priorities will you establish in addressing natural, accidental, and deliberate biothreats if confirmed? Will you help ensure these threats are well reflected in the administration’s strategic reviews?

  • Innovators in the private sector and academia are researching new technologies that hold great promise for addressing biothreats through biosurveillance and detection technologies, data analytics, and rapid medical countermeasure development. If confirmed, how will you leverage the ASD(NCB) role to make sure DoD is researching, developing, and acquiring the best technologies U.S. innovators have to offer to address the strategic goals and overcome the principal challenges associated with this position?
  • Operation Warp Speed was a historical initiative by the U.S. government to facilitate and accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. Through public-private partnerships and interagency cooperation that included components of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, this initiative has produced novel vaccines for COVID-19 in less than a year.

If confirmed as ASD(NCB), how would you support future interagency initiatives that match this ambition? How would you work with interagency counterparts at your level, in addition to how you might encourage your teams in doing so?

On Chemical Weapons Threats

The last remnants of the former U.S. chemical weapons stockpile are set to be destroyed by the end of 2023—work overseen by this office. The next ASD(NCB) should work with DoD senior-most leaders and the White House to have President Biden oversee a celebration of this success, congratulating the great work across the United States to get the job done and reaffirming U.S. commitment to work toward the eventual end of weapons of mass destruction. The Senate should ask the next ASD(NCB) nominee:

  1. How will you balance oversight that the destruction of the final elements of the U.S. chemical weapons stocks is done on schedule and safely (in Pueblo, CO and Blue Grass, KY) with providing support and encouragement to the people undertaking this work?
  2. If confirmed as ASD, how might you use this milestone to promote U.S. commitment to reducing WMD threats?

Additionally, chemical weapons threats have not fully diminished despite successes in destroying stockpiles of many countries over time. Syria, North Korea, and Russia continue to raise concerns given their uses of chemical weapons in the past decade for assassinations and attacks on civilian populations (in Syria’s case). Pursuit of chemical weapons by terrorist groups like the Islamic State remains a persistent issue as well, even after success in recent years by the United States and others regarding this threat. The landscape of chemical weapons threats will also continue evolving due to technological changes in the civilian, peaceful chemical fields, convergence of chemical and biological threats, and other trends. At the same time, DoD risks losing some of its in-house expertise in this field that was more robust when U.S. chemical weapons destruction was a larger-scale effort.

  1. If confirmed, how will you use the international relationships (e.g., with key U.S. allies and international organizations) to best leverage DoD’s significant assets in addressing chemical weapons threats?
  2. Will you work to ensure that DoD commits the resources necessary to maintaining a strong workforce in this area?
  3. How will you promote getting the best innovation from taxpayer dollars and drawing the best technology companies and academic centers to want to work with DoD?

On Nuclear Threats and Responsible U.S. Nuclear Leadership

Finally, on the nuclear side, the ASD(NCB) has a range of responsibilities for both maintaining a strong U.S. nuclear deterrent and supporting future presidential goals that may relate to nonproliferation, arms control, and disarmament. This comes at a time of rising nuclear weapons risks, including those being fostered by U.S. and other nuclear armed states’ investments in new and so-called “low-yield” nuclear weapon capabilities that are driving new and unsettling dynamics in the global security environment.

In terms of bureaucratic processes, the last administration and some members of Congress have in recent years driven unsettling proposals to move more decision-making regarding nuclear weapons to the DoD, potentially reducing civilian oversight and autonomy in executing new policy directions by future presidents. The Senate should ask the next ASD(NCB) nominee:

  1. As a key civilian leader of the U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise, how will you help execute and ensure proper civilian oversight of the military in this field?
  2. If confirmed, how will you use your Nuclear Weapons Council leadership to help pursue policy directions set by the president?
  3. How will you use the ASD(NCB)’s relationships with allies regarding nuclear weapons to provide reassurances that the U.S. deterrent and political commitments regarding it are strong, and discuss with them that some changes to U.S. nuclear modernization plans would be optimal for our nations’ mutual security interests in the near- and longer-term?


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