U.S. Commandos Trained to Stop Terrorists With `Dirty Bombs'

  • Special operations forces a resource as summit weighs threat
  • Pentagon plans to spend $1 billion through 2021 on technology

Moonlight active-duty Special Boat Team members from the Navy's Gulf Coast team participate in drills on the Pearl River at the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, on Feb. 20, 2013.

Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Getty Images

U.S. commando units have been trained to seize and disable nuclear or radioactive bombs, providing a crucial last line of defense if terrorists get their hands on such weapons, according to the general in charge of the forces.

The U.S. Special Operations Command “has sufficient ‘render-safe’ capacity to respond to the most likely” scenarios involving weapons of mass destruction under the current analysis of threats, Army General Raymond Thomas has told lawmakers.

The Pentagon rarely discusses publicly its plans to use commandos if terrorists obtain a nuclear weapon or build a “dirty bomb” from radioactive material. While U.S. officials say there’s no sign yet that Islamic State has such a capability, the prospect was on Friday’s agenda for the Nuclear Security Summit of world leaders being hosted by President Barack Obama in Washington.

Thomas described the role U.S. commandos might play in written responses to the Senate Armed Services Committee before his confirmation as head of the Special Operations Command, a post he took this week. He moved up a rung from his previous role heading the Joint Special Operations Command, directly overseeing fabled -- and secretive -- units such as the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team 6.

‘Proper Threshold’

Even with U.S. special forces spending significant time conducting counterterrorism operations, Thomas said those deployments haven’t interfered with preparations to handle a weapon of mass destruction. 

Thomas said his commandos have “found the proper threshold of maintaining the world’s foremost counterterrorism force” for missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere “while ensuring our counterproliferation forces, including the no-fail mission of render-safe, are manned, trained and equipped and prepared to address WMD threats as they arise.”

More about the Defense Department’s preparations for using commandos to disarm weapons of mass destruction can be found in the fine print of budget documents.

Funding Plans

From fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2021, the Pentagon plans to have spent more than $1 billion equipping the Special Operations Command with “a full spectrum” of counterterrorism technologies developed by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, according to budget documents supporting a $103 million request for fiscal 2017.

From fiscal 2010 to 2016, the threat-reduction agency received $655 million to spend on these technologies, and it’s proposing about $537 million in additional funding through 2021.

The program is intended to give special forces units the “tools to locate, identify, characterize, assess and attack WMD production and storage facilities with minimal-to-no collateral damage or loss of life,” according to the documents. One of last year’s accomplishments was described as development of a “precision shaped charge using a proven manufacturing process.”

The Special Operations Command’s embrace of the mission against weapons of mass destruction is something of a turnaround.

Maintain Ability

In 2010, Admiral Eric Olson, who then headed the command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in written answers that the commitment of elite commandos to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had compromised their skills to hunt worldwide for such weapons, diluting the capability.

The number of commandos “available for counterproliferation” was limited and their expertise was degraded by “the decreased level of training,” Olson said.

In March, Thomas told the panel, “I will continue to use current training and exercise programs” to “maintain our ability to meet our mission to counter” weapons of mass destruction.

He said he’ll also push for state-of-the-art technology and transfer “as much capability as is reasonable to forward-deployed” special operations units.

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