It may not be a household name, but the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, or DTRA, marks 25 years in business this year. It operates in some 50 countries around the world, including within the U.S. armed forces’ combatant commands. DTRA helps build the U.S. military’s capabilities to counteract so-called CBRN threats – chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear – as weapons of mass destruction.
“We’re both what’s called a defense agency and a combat support agency,” said DTRA Director Rebecca Hersman in a detailed interview. On the combat support side, “we work directly with all of the combatant commands. The Joint Staff have personnel embedded in all of those commands, so that we can make sure we have a finger on that pulse. We know what they need, what kind of tools and expertise they need from us to support them in countering WMD.”
On the defense agency side, DTRA helps with what Hersman called capacity-building with friends and allies around the world, principally through a program known as Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR).
“CTR is a centerpiece of the agency’s work. It was part of our beginning 25 years ago, it’s been part of everything that we’ve done since,” she said.
For example, DRTA is active in Ukraine, a country which Hersman said has long been part of the CTR.
“Russia is well armed in terms of its CBRN capabilities,” Hersman said. Part of our job is to step in with those Ukrainian partners and make sure they have the support they need from us.
In general, Hersman said, the DTRA, and in particular Cooperative Threat Reduction, receives its funding in such a way as to have maximum flexibility to deal with contingencies.
“We have contracts in place that were designed entirely for the purpose of making sure that we have flexible contracting mechanisms that let us go places,” Hersman said. “We’re supposed to be nimble, we’re supposed to put tools in the hands of operators and policymakers. And to do it quickly. We have a long track record of that.”
Challenges lie in what Hersman called intersections, or intersectional technologies. These include dual use technologies that can work for good or harm, such as delivery systems that enemies would deploy in CBRN threats. Cybersecurity threats might also intersect or coincide with CBRN.
“How do we make sure countries have the ability to investigate and attribute if they are attacked by chemical or biological weapons?” Hersman said. She added, “Think about what we see in biotechnology, just over the course of the pandemic. We’ve seen this fantastic arc of technology, innovation, moving at just the speed of light. All of those things can be applied to good. Unfortunately, they can be applied to ill or malign purposes.”
People and research
Besides operational capability in the face of CBRN threats, Hersman said, DTRA bring two other assets to the fight: people and research.
“Our Research and Development Directorate is about our largest, certainly in terms of overall dollars,” she said. The R&D group awards about a billion dollars a year in grants and contracts yearly. It houses expertise across what Hersman called the WMD realm.
“The people factor, that’s the biggest thing we bring,” she said. She emphasized expertise in test and evaluation.
“They cover the gamut from the chemical and biological threat space to nuclear issues, to innovative technologies that help work directly with our warfighters,” Hersman said. That knowledge gets paired to the operations side of DTRA, she added, with “operational elements that are forward with our combatant commands” who can reach back to the R&D side as needs arise.
A lot of DTRA effort, Hersman said, goes into translating products from R&D into equipment and services that operate at scale in the field.
“I think the more we can tighten that loop between the operators [and] with the test and evaluation component, we stand a better chance of success,” she said. DTRA, like the armed services themselves, works to get ideas across they call the valley of death, from R&D, through test and evaluation, to operational capability.
“DTRA’s job really is at the front end of that. We’ve really tried to focus on that R&D front end, as well as the test and evaluation,” Hersman said.
She’s also focusing the agency on its information environment, which houses DTRA’s accumulated knowledge.
“Increasingly, we have to think about this information environment, this information system that we’re in. It’s really like a domain,” Hersman said. That domain is under attack by Russia at the moment, with attempted cyber intrusions aimed at “our entirely benign and public health-oriented, biological threat reduction program.” She said Russian actors have “targeted that and tried to suggest there’s malign activities underway when there aren’t.”
In response, Hersman said, DTRA will establish a new office called the information resiliency office. Its goal will be to ensure the trustworthiness of DTRA data to partners, and to train people in how to keep information safe.
“Our idea is that we want to be strong in the face of these attacks,” Hersman said, “transparent, public, open. That’s what we are in the information environment. We can be trusted, our information is solid, our technical expertise is the best. And that’s what we want to bring to people.”