By Calvin Biesecker

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) prior to Christmas delivered its strategic nuclear detection plan to Congress, creating a framework to link implementation plans with strategic goals and objectives.

The Global Nuclear Detection Architecture (GNDA) Strategic Plan 2010 will be followed this spring by the annual interagency report–led by the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO)–that will describe what has been accomplished within the performance goals put forth in the strategic plan, what is planned and what the costs are.

The strategic plan will also be followed some time this year by a GNDA implementation plan, again as part of an interagency process, to outline programs, technologies, execution, and timelines in greater detail.

The strategic plan was crafted through an interagency process that consisted of the White House, DHS, the Departments of Energy, Defense, Justice and State, the Director of National Intelligence and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The GNDA, which is stamped “For Official Use Only,” contains four key goals.

The strategic plan “defines what the global architecture is, that is, where does it begin and where does it end,” Warren Stern, the director for DNDO, told Defense Daily‘s sister publication, TR2. That definition is important because “you can’t really begin to work on something in earnest until you have agreement on what that is,” he said.

Stern’s overseers in Congress are likely to agree.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I/D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, in September pressed DHS to complete the overdue report by November. Development of the GDNA was mandated in 2005 by then-President Bush and then again the following year by Congress.

The architecture itself refers to the worldwide network of sensors, telecommunications, and personnel, with the supporting information sharing, programs, and protocols that help us detect, identify, and report on illicit nuclear and radioactive materials and weapons.

Stern said that the GNDA begins with nuclear or radiological material outside of “regulatory control.”

The strategic plan has four fundamental goals, which are detect, analyze, communicate and coordinate.

“Within each goal we have objectives and below them performance goals where we define in much greater detail what we’re trying to accomplish and who is the lead and supporting agencies on each one,” Stern said.

Last fall, Stern previewed the GNDA Strategic Plan to a House panel, saying that an important result is the need to focus more on detection of illicit nuclear and radiological materials within the United States.

A key component of the interior focus is having “respond and surge capabilities” in response to intelligence information or an incident, Stern said. Federal, state and local officials are all key players here.

Stern said that in the past the nation’s assumptions about trafficking in nuclear and radiological materials have either been based on having no information, which led to the deployment of detection systems at chokepoints like sea and land ports of entry, or a lot of information, where small laboratory teams are given precise information to find the material. The reality is likely to be different, he said.

“That is we’ll have some intelligence information,” Stern said. “Maybe we’ll know it’s going to be next week in the northeast or in a given city or a given region and you need to deal with this middle ground of being able to surge a response to some intelligence information. And this gets back to not only the state and locals but equipping and arming a large number of federal entities to be able to search and find nuclear and radioactive material when there’s some information.”

The nation’s capability to respond and surge to information or an event related to illicit nuclear materials is “uneven and will evolve,” Stern said. It’s more than just equipping federal, state and local officials with radiation detectors, he said.

“It’s the ability to accept information and synthesize that information and communicate information to the right people and coordinate with the right people,” he said.

The idea of surging a lot of people to respond to a potential nuclear threat is different from the previous way of thinking, which Stern describes as a more passive approach, based in large part on DNDO’s past focus on the Advanced Spectroscopic Portal (ASP) program. ASP was originally intended to replace existing radiation portal monitors typically found at land, sea and even airports of entry, providing better detection of threat materials versus innocuous radiological materials while also having some capabilities against shielded nuclear threats.

Due to development problems, DHS decided last winter to quit pursuing ASP as a primary screening tool and instead continue testing systems for potential use in secondary screening modes. The decision to focus on the system for secondary screening applications was based on both cost and operational effectiveness.

“So I think there will be a lot more focus on mobile detectors and a lot less on non-portable systems,” Stern said.

Lieberman and the Government Accountability Office last summer said that DNDO had focused too narrowly on ASP at the expense of a national plan for a nuclear detection architecture, specifically pointing to the lack of attention on mobile and handheld technologies.

Another change going forward, which is a result of a recent National Academy of Sciences review of the ASP program, is to improve how DNDO does its testing, modeling and overall technical development, Stern said.

While there will be an increased focus on how DNDO supports interior detection, analysis, communication and coordination, Sterns said there will still be efforts to deal with things such as container-borne threats, as well as shielding and masking of threats.

There are still “physical limitations” to detecting these threats, Stern said. So “we need to do our best to deal with them but this is also what leads to the conclusion that we have to find a better approach, a better concept, a better strategy for fulfilling our mandate given by Congress.”