What is the Defence Threat Reduction Agency?


The Defence Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) is a combat support agency within the United States Department of Defence (DoD) for countering weapons of mass destruction (WMD; chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high explosives).

According to the agency’s Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2018 to 2022, the DTRA mission:

“enables DoD and the U.S. Government to prepare for and combat weapons of mass destruction and improvised threats and to ensure nuclear deterrence.”

The agency is headquartered in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

Brief History

DTRA was officially established on 01 October 1998, as a result of the 1997 Defence Reform Initiative, by consolidating several DoD organisations, including the Defence Special Weapons Agency (successor to the Defence Nuclear Agency) and the On-Site Inspection Agency. The Defence Technology Security Administration and the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction programme office in the Office of the Secretary of Defence were also incorporated into the new agency.

In 2002, DTRA published a detailed history of its predecessor agencies, Defence’s Nuclear Agency, 1947-1997, the first paragraph of which makes a brief statement about the agencies which led up to the formation of DTRA:

Defense’s Nuclear Agency, 1947–1997, traces the development of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project (AFSWP), and its descendant government organizations, from its original founding in 1947 to 1997. After the disestablishment of the Manhattan Engineering District (MED) in 1947, AFSWP was formed to provide military training in nuclear weapons’ operations. Over the years, its sequential descendant organizations have been the Defense Atomic Support Agency (DASA) from 1959 to 1971, the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA) from 1971 to 1996, and the Defense Special Weapons Agency (DSWA) from 1996 to 1998. In 1998, DSWA, the On-Site Inspection Agency, the Defense Technology Security Administration, and selected elements of the Office of Secretary of Defense were combined to form the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).

DTRA employs approximately 2,000 civilians and uniformed service members at more than a dozen permanent locations around the world. The majority of personnel are at DTRA headquarters at Fort Belvoir. Approximately 15% of the workforce is split between Kirtland Air Force Base and the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, and the Nevada National Security Site (formerly called the Nevada Test Site), where they do testing and support the US military’s nuclear mission. The remaining 15% of the workforce is stationed at locations in Germany, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, Kenya, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore. DTRA also has liaisons with all of the US military’s Combatant Commands, the National Guard Bureau, the FBI and other US government interagency partners.

In 2005, the Commander, United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) was designated as the lead Combatant Command for the integration and synchronisation of DoD’s efforts in support of US government “Combating WMD” objectives. It was at this time that the SCC-WMD was co-located with DTRA. The Combat Command designation was changed again in 2017, when responsibility was moved to US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

In 2012, the SJFHQ-E was relocated to the DTRA/SCC-WMD headquarters at Fort Belvoir. This centralised the DoD’s Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction operations, a move recommended in the 2010 Quadrennial Defence Review.

On September 30, 2016, the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency (JIDA) became part of DTRA and was renamed the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization (JIDO) in accordance with the 2016 National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA). In Section 1532 of the NDAA, Congress directed the DoD to move JIDA to a military department or under an existing defence agency.

DTRA requested a base budget of $1.2 billion for fiscal year 2017 (FY17). The three other components of DTRA’s overall resource portfolio include executing the $361 million Science and Technology portion of the DoD Chemical and Biological Defence Programme (CBDP); managing the CBDP’s remaining $833 million budget; and $408 million in overseas contingency operations funds requested by the JIDA (now JIDO). These additional amounts bring DTRA’s total resource portfolio to approximately $2.8 billion for FY17.


Destruction of Soviet Arms

After the end of the Cold War, DTRA and its predecessor agencies implemented the DoD aspects of several treaties that assist former Eastern Bloc countries in the destruction of Soviet era nuclear weapons sites (such as missile silos and plutonium production facilities), biological weapons sites (such as the Soviet biological weapons programme), and chemical weapons sites (such as the GosNIIOKhT) in an attempt to avert potential weapons proliferation in the post-Soviet era as part of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction programme.

Other Treaty Responsibilities

DTRA is responsible for US reporting under the New START Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

DTRA is also responsible for reducing the threat of conventional war, especially in Europe, by participating in various arms control treaties to which the United States is a party, such as the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, the Treaty on Open Skies, the Transparency in Armaments activity of the United Nations, and the Wassenaar Arrangement, as well as the Vienna Document and the Global Exchange of Military Information programme under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

On 26 January 2006, the director of DTRA was given the extra responsibility of the director of the USSTRATCOM Centre for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction, a subordinate component to the US Strategic Command.

Domestic Chemical and Biological Management

DTRA has the responsibility to manage and integrate the DoD chemical and biological defence science and technology programmes. In accordance with the Recommendation 174 (h) of the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment Commission, part of the Chemical Biological Defence Research component of the DTRA was re-located to Edgewood Chemical Biological Centre (ECBC), Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland in 2011. This represented a move of about ten percent of the staff of the Chemical Biological Defence Research component of DTRA to Aberdeen Proving Ground; the rest of the staff remain at Fort Belvoir.

Notable Missions, Projects, and Programmes

Ebola (2003-2014)

DTRA has spent approximately $300 million on scientific R&D efforts since 2003 developing vaccines and therapeutic treatments against viral haemorrhagic fever, including Ebola. Starting in 2007, DTRA partnered with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) to fund research on the drug now called ZMapp, which has since been used on several patients.

DTRA also funded and managed the research on the EZ1 assay used to detect and diagnose the presence of the Ebola Zaire virus in humans. EZ1 was given Emergency Use Authorisation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in August 2014. DTRA first developed EZ1 as part of a 2011 “bio-preparedness initiative” for the United States Department of Defence to prepare for a possible Ebola outbreak. EZ1 was used to identify infected patients in West Africa.

The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction programme provided for the DTRA to award a $4 million contract to MRIGlobal to “configure, equip, deploy and staff two quick response mobile laboratory systems (MLS) to support the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa.” The labs were deployed to Sierra Leone.

Transport Isolation System (2014)

DTRA was the program manager for designing, testing, contracting, and production of the Transport Isolation System (TIS), a sealed, self-contained patient containment system that can be loaded into United States Air Force C-17 Globemaster and C-130 Hercules cargo planes for aeromedical evacuation. The TIS was designed to deal with any US troops exposed to or infected with Ebola while serving in Operation United Assistance, but it is for transporting anyone exposed to or infected with any highly contagious disease. It can hold eight patients laying down, 12 sitting, or a combination of the two. DTRA worked with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Centre (AFLCMC) and United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) on the TIS; St. Louis-based Production Products was awarded a sole-source contract to produce 25 TIS units.

Syria’s Chemical Weapons (2014)

DTRA was one of the key United States Department of Defence agencies that developed the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS) used to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons aboard the U.S.-flagged container ship MV Cape Ray in the summer of 2014 after Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons stockpile under international pressure and in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2118. DTRA partnered with the US Army ECBC to develop the FDHS and then modify it for ship-borne operations after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to turn over his country’s poison gas arsenal and chemical weapon production equipment to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) but no country volunteered to host the destruction process.

Two FDHS units destroyed more than 600 tons of Sarin and mustard agents, completing the task several weeks ahead of schedule. The remaining materials were then taken to Finland and Germany for final disposal. DTRA was awarded its third Joint Meritorious Unit Award for successfully destroying Syria’s declared chemical weapons.

Massive Ordnance Penetrator (to 2010)

DTRA funded, managed, and tested the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) bomb until February 2010 when the program was turned over to the United States Air Force. DTRA developed the MOP to fulfil a long-standing Air Force requirement for a weapon that could destroy hard and deeply buried targets. The MOP is a 30,000 pound, 20.5 foot long bomb dropped from B-52 and B-2 bombers at high altitude that can reportedly penetrate 200 feet of reinforced concrete. The MOP contains a 5,300 pound explosive charge, more than 10 times the explosive power of its predecessor, the BLU-109 “bunker buster.”

Project MAXIMUS (to 2003)

In 2003, a DTRA task force was identifying, collecting, and securing radiological material in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, including almost two tons of low enriched uranium (LEU), several hundred tons of yellowcake (a type of uranium powder), and other radioactive sources. Code-named Project MAXIMUS, DTRA, and the United States Department of Energy moved 1.77 metric tons of LEU and approximately 1,000 highly radioactive sources out of Iraq by the summer of 2004. DTRA task force members also secured the yellowcake in a bunker in Tuwaitha, Iraq, which was turned over to the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology; the remaining 550 tons of yellowcake were sold in 2008 to Cameco, a uranium producer in Canada.


In late 2019, DTRA established a programme called Discovery of Medical Countermeasures Against Novel Entities (DOMANE). Shortly afterwards, the COVID-19 pandemic began, and DOMANE started researching existing, pre-approved medications like Pepcid (famotidine) for potential cost-effective treatments for COVID-19.

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