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

James McDonnell, acting assistant secretary for the DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office. Photo: DHS

“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, told an industry audience on Monday. “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 said 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 pointed out 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 said at an industry day hosted by his office in Washington, D.C. “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 said the stature of his office has been elevated within DHS versus where DNDO and OHA stood, 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 said that other interagency partners with counter-WMD missions are also at these meetings.

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 said. He added that personnel from his office will also be assigned to SOCOM for four-month stints to 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 said. 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, said at the briefing. He said 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 said. He added 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 said he is synching his rapid capabilities efforts with the national grant programs managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. McDonnell said 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,” McDonnell said.

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