DHS Counter WMD Chief Says Spending Focus Will Shift to Operators; Outlines Rad and Bio Defense Plans

The spending priorities for a new Department of Homeland Security office that is focused on countering chemical, biological and nuclear threats to the homeland will shift away from policy and analysis and toward getting operators the equipment and capabilities they need, according to a department official.

“So policy and analysis and all those kind of things are interesting and important but at some point you can say, ‘Okay, we have studied this enough, now we’re going to fix it,’” Jim McDonnell, acting assistant secretary of the DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office, says at an industry day for his office in late March. “So for the next several years we’re going to be in fixit mode and we’re going to be acting on things that we know and we’re going to be pushing forward and being very aggressive in pushing capability out to the field.”

McDonnell says he likes his office’s current budget and expects it to grow over time. His office is seeking $429.3 million overall in FY ’19, down from roughly $457.1 million appropriated in FY ’18.

McDonnell points out that border security and homeland protection is a key pillar of the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy and the first section under that pillar is defending against WMD followed by combating biological threats and pandemics. The strategy was published last December.

“I’d say the business outlook in the WMD industry is very good,” McDonnell says. “That’s a very unfortunate statement but it’s a reality.”

The CWMD office combines the former Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) and the Office of Health Affairs (OHA). McDonnell says the stature of his office has been elevated within DHS versus where DNDO and OHA stood previously, adding that the office also “has a seat at the table” with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) when they host senior level meetings and conference related to WMD.

In early 2017, SOCOM assumed responsibilities within the Defense Department as the coordinating authority for countering WMD. McDonnell says that other interagency partners with counter-WMD missions are also at these meetings.

BioDefense Plans

McDonnell says his office is planning to begin replacing the national biological threat detection system called BioWatch with a widely deployed network of sensors that can help authorities more rapidly detect, identify and react to a potential incident.

It takes a day now for the relevant authorities to know that deadly pathogen may have been released into the environment and “that’s not really an acceptable answer,” he says. BioWatch is a manually-intensive system and isn’t automated or integrated in a substantial way.

Under the “general” concept of operations being considered for the replacement to BioWatch, the time from detection of a potential threat to a decision to confirming there is a threat and reacting to it will be 10s of minutes to several hours, McDonnell says at the industry day event. Throughout the continuum of detection to response, there will be “real-time decision-making” going on, he says.

BioWatch works as intended but the technology is the same as was deployed in 2003 and it needs to be replaced with the next-generation of systems and sensors, McDonnell says.

McDonnell says his plan is to leave government service in three years and by that time he wants to have a “working capability” for a BioWatch replacement. A pilot phase with the replacement system could begin in “a couple of years,” he says.

McDonnell also says the development of a new system will be driven by capabilities as they exist rather than an imposed timeline. An important factor will be to understand what normal environmental conditions are in given areas, which could take at least a year to know, he says.

“We’re pretty comfortable we can do that,” he says.

The former DNDO office that is now within the CWMD office is responsible for developing and buying the various radiation detection equipment used by DHS components at air, land and sea ports of entry and in the maritime environment. OHA, among other things, supports BioWatch, which consists of air sample collectors distributed within 34 major urban areas of the U.S. The samples are collected every day and sent to local or regional laboratories for analysis to check if a potential threat has been introduced into the local atmosphere. From the time of sample collection until laboratory confirmation can be between 24 and 36 hours.

McDonnell says that beginning with his office’s FY ’19 budget request, the different budget categories are essentially operations and support, research and development, and acquisition, without over specifying programmatic details.

“We want to be able to respond to threats regardless of the threat vector that their coming from and do a good job on it,” he says, noting that in previous budgets the funding allotted to chemical threats was around $800,000 and for nuclear threats about $350 million.

While “parity” between these accounts isn’t necessary, having a “legislative cap” on the chemical program “doesn’t give you much flexibility to do much,” McDonnell says.

Potential Operating Concept

McDonnell provided a glimpse of how he sees the operating concept playing out for the replacement system for BioWatch. He envisions networked “triggers” that sample the air and provide real-time alerts to relevant authorities, including at DHS, the FBI and Health and Human Services. This technology is available today, he says.

Field testing of these triggers will begin this year to monitor the air and obtain data. McDonnell’s office will also begin to “look at the data analytics we can put behind that.”

The triggers would be deployed in the 9,000 federal buildings and facilities protected by DHS’ Federal Protective Service across the U.S., McDonnell says, adding that further deployments could be accommodated by incentivizing the private sector, naming venues like Madison Square Garden in New York City and the Charles E. Smith commercial realty company in the Washington, D.C. region.

Following an alert, trained first responders, whether that’s a fire fighter, a hazardous materials responder, or someone else, would arrive on scene with a handheld assay kit to test for the biological threat, which could be anthrax, smallpox, or something else. That kit would also be networked so that results are provided in real time. If there is a positive result, say for anthrax, then a second test would likely be done using the kit to confirm the result, McDonnell says.

From the time an alarm is triggered until a first responder gets results from a handheld kit could be 20 to 30 minutes, allowing an incident commander to begin making decisions to protect lives and contain a situation, such as ordering air handling systems be shut off and contamination controls, McDonnell says.

Meantime, the sample would be sent to a lab for further analysis. The laboratory results would let HHS know how to appropriately respond with the right pharmaceuticals and how many, he says. The laboratory analysis would take two to three hours, he adds.

Outlining the business case for the next-generation biothreat detection system, McDonnell says the prospect for multiple sensors at each of the 9,000 federal facilities allows for more opportunities than the current 34 city BioWatch system that is based on old technology. On top of that are the equipment and training that first responders will need as part of the replacement system.

“Now you’re talking tens of thousands of sensors,” he says. “Truly national deployment and thousands and thousands of pieces of handheld gear for people to do alarm adjudication. And couple that with big data analytics, and the ability to move data, understand the data, it becomes a system that from a business perspective starts looking at being enticing to be a part of in the solution set.”

McDonnell says the networking and data analytics for the replacement for BioWatch will be based on work underway to digitize and automate the networking of radiological and nuclear detection systems and other sensor types at the nation’s ports of entry and other pathways used to illegally bring drugs and contraband into the U.S. The networking of these systems is more manual today but as new systems are acquired, open architecture approaches will be paramount in order to integrate these, he says.

“Anomaly detection on the bio side is much more complicated than anomaly detection on the nuclear side,” McDonnell says. “So, the work that we’re doing on the nuclear big data analytics is going to be absolutely critical for us to be able to learn how to be able to do that on the bio side.”

There are currently about 57,000 different radiation detection devices and systems being used around the U.S., including radiation portal monitors (RPMs) that are typically used at the nation’s ports of entry to scan inbound cargo shipments for illicit nuclear materials. He points out that the RPMs are networked by Customs and Border Protection, but notes this is “not real-time data transmission,” because the data is captured with a handheld radioisotope identifier, downloaded, and then transmitted.

“We’re going to move to a real-time data transmission backbone that will allow for bio, chem, nuke sensors, any other type of sensors that we put out to real-time be transmitting data into a big data center,” McDonnell says. A team has already been stood up at CBP’s National Targeting Center to work on this issue.

New Approach for Rad Detection

McDonnell says he also wants to move radiation detection away from a the current static, goal line stand approach, that is, where the preponderance of detection capabilities are located at ports of entry with little capability  between ports of entry, to a “pathway defeat approach.”

“We’re going to overlay detection capability into pathways where we have known smuggling, known smugglers, known transnational criminal organizations operating and we’re going to do that in an environment where that information we generate from our sensor networks can be overlaid with other targeting information, whether it’s coming in from DoD, CBP and other sources,” he says.

The types of sensors deployed to the pathways will depend on the operator and the operational environment, McDonnell says. Sensor arrays won’t just be chemical, nuclear and biological, he says, they could be forward looking infrared, light detection and ranging, or something else. Eventually, there will be a mix of sensors, he says.

To plug into the digital backbone that McDonnell envision and says the technology already exists for, the sensors will have be built with open architectures.

McDonnell also wants to move to an anomaly detection operating concept and get away from the current focus of determining whether there is a threat involved every time an RPM alarms. In 2016, he says, there were about two million alerts by RPMs, of which 17,000 couldn’t be adjudicated using handheld identifiers. Of those, only three couldn’t be adjudicated by lab technicians at CBP’s targeting center, a manual system he says is “impressive.”

However, given the decade-plus of data collected on all containers entering the U.S., including information about shippers, the commodities they carry, the consignees, and data about containers that alert for radiation, McDonnell says that a container should be referred for a secondary inspection only if there is an anomaly instead of just because there is radiation present.

“Because we may expect there to be radiation depending on the commodity coming through,” he says, adding that if the contents of the container match what is known from the shipper, who has to be trusted, then it should enter the stream of commerce.

The digital backbone will also be used to help state and local officials that are part of Securing the Cities program to be able to quickly gain situational awareness. McDonnell says that if city’s radiation detectors alarm on a shipment, they should be able to enter the information into network to quickly know if CBP got the same hit and the agency’s adjudication result.

This will allow all operators to “make smart decisions,” he says.

McDonnell also says that the Security the Cities program will continue. The program, which helps major urban areas to detect and protect against radiological and nuclear threats, is working in five cities and urban regions.

Rapid Acquisition Plans

The DHS CWMD Office is being organized into two organizations, one focused on operations support and the other systems support.

The systems support division will include research and development and acquisition functions. McDonnell said that in addition to traditional, longer-cycle acquisition efforts, he has created a Rapid Capabilities Office that will help respond to operational needs faster than usual, hopefully at times in “months” if not “weeks.”

An Air Force detailee who is an expert in rapid capabilities is helping the CWMD office set up its Rapid Capabilities Office, McDonnell says. He adds that personnel from his office will also be assigned to SOCOM for four month stints take learn from the command’s rapid capabilities tools and become qualified in rapid acquisitions.

“What I want to be able to do as well is say, ‘Hey, we’ve got an emerging threat and we may not want to deploy a total national capability right now but we’d like to do a pilot capability and kick it out into 10 or 20 or 30 locations around the country and try it out,’” McDonnell says. Eligible technologies will have to be fairly mature, he said, “almost ready to go out the door” so that his office can then “get it ready to go out the door.”

The CWMD office will take advantage of non-traditional procurement mechanisms, such as Other Transaction Authority (OTA), Clarence Johnson, deputy assistant secretary, says at the briefing. He says one rapid acquisition tool the office is taking advantage of is the WCMD Consortium, which the Army’s Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense, stood up conducting other transaction deals.

“This is a great example of a partnership that we’re seeing emerge associated with more effective acquisition solutions that are more agile and responsive,” Johnson says. He adds that with the new Rapid Capabilities Office, “The idea is to not be chasing and reacting to the adversary but actually driving the decision calculus and affecting their behaviors in ways that they make mistakes. And in order to do that we have to be more agile, we have to be more rapid in our solutions and so the OTA is a way to do that.”

McDonnell also says he is synching his rapid capabilities efforts with the national grant programs managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. McDonnell says he hired someone who will be spending the next six months or more working this issue.

“So if I’m going to do proof-of-concept in say 10 locations and prove that it works, I’m going to have a system already in place where we can then just throw the switch and make the equipment eligible for grants and people will be able to buy it nationally and just use the big dollar grant funding,” he says.

McDonnell also wants to be more business friendly in terms of sticking to advertised schedules.

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