The news appears good on the surface. The Defense Department has doubled its investment in chemical and biological defense since 9/11, and proposes a 20 percent increase during the next five years.
But the additional funding has not yielded results.
“Most of the Army’s chemical and biological units, particularly in the National Guard and Reserve, are reporting their lowest readiness level ratings — meaning they are not considered sufficiently qualified for deployment,” said a Government Accountability Office report.
Fifty-eight of the Army’s 78 chemical companies reside in the National Guard or Reserve.
These companies have acute shortages of equipment and personnel. The shortages mean less time, or no time, to train.
“There is a misalignment between the high priority [the Defense Department] places on chemical and biological defense and the current low level of preparedness characterizing Army chemical companies, particularly in the National Guard and Reserve,” GAO said.
The implications could be grave if a response to multiple simultaneous attacks on the homeland is required, which is a stated national goal.
The Army disagrees with GAO on the equipment point. Taxpayers are getting their money’s worth for the increased funding, it said in a written response. A suite of new decontamination equipment will reach units soon. Heavy and lightweight multi-purpose decontamination systems, developed by the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense, are being fielded. The program office is refurbishing M12 power-driven decontamination systems. The Falcon, a compressed air foam truck and trailer system, used for fire suppression and chem-bio decontamination, is being introduced.
More difficult to address are the personnel shortages, GAO said.
The increased tempo of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is causing the Army to transfer personnel out of chemical units to perform other duties. A deeper problem is the perception among young recruits that serving in such units is a dead-end job.
It doesn’t appeal to those looking to fight in the infantry, and the skills don’t apply to jobs needed in the civilian world, such as a military police officer would find in law enforcement after retirement, the report said.
Rick Elsinki, for many of those reasons, was initially disappointed to find out after enlisting in the Army that he would be sent to a chemical unit. He served for five years in South Korea as a battalion chemical officer, and eventually grew to like the job. And he did find work in the field after retiring. He is a senior consultant at Smart Business Advisory and Consulting, a Devon, Pa.-based contractor that provides chem-bio training to first responders on military installations.
The personnel issue begins with the recruiters, he said.
“They’re not trying to push you into the chemical school. They want to put you into the infantry or some of the other high turnover or heavy demand fields,” Elsinki said.
Another question is whether chemical companies’ skills and equipment translate into homeland security missions.
Army chemical, biological and nuclear defense equipment dates back to the Cold War, which imagined an adversary such as the Soviet Union lobbing missiles at battalions, Elsinki said.
Meanwhile, GAO reports that “current operational plans for Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have little or no requirement for chemical companies.” These priorities are allowing the Army to reassign personnel from chemical companies to deploying units experiencing personnel shortages, the report said.
The unclassified version of the report, however, was released to the public on the same day that terrorists unleashed the second in a series of deadly chlorine gas attacks against civilians in Iraq. Improvised chemical weapons using readily available industrial agents are on the insurgents’ menu.
Domestically, the National Guard has set up more than 50 Weapons of Mass Destruction Civilian Response Teams. The 22-member teams are strategically placed throughout the United States to advise and support state or local agencies responding to a catastrophe, but they don’t perform decontamination duties. Their members are on duty full time. Their training and equipment are up to date, and their readiness levels are high, the GAO said in a separate report.
Other Guard and Reserve units seem to be low on the list as far as receiving the latest equipment.
“For some reason, the National Guard and Reserves don’t seem to get the most updated equipment,” Elsinki said, echoing the GAO report. “They spend a lot of their time just on upkeep.”
There are innovative technologies to detect chemical and biological agents, he said, but the new sensors are expensive. “Being able to replace [the outdated equipment] in one fell swoop is going to be very difficult.”
In addition to the WMD response teams, the National Guard and Reserves have units called chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, explosive enhanced response force packages. They are tasked with providing medical triage, decontamination and other response capabilities.
“It’s hard to determine what the real threat is,” Elsinki noted. What is the likelihood of a terrorist using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in the homeland? And such units may be also called in for natural disasters, pandemics, or accidents such as chemical spills.
Assessing the risk is tricky. Applying too many resources to the problem could lead to waste, he added.
Also, biological attacks differ considerably from chemical attacks, he said. Elsinki questioned how much a National Guard team could contribute to a biological attack response in the United States. If a bomb released a biological agent — an unlikely scenario, he said — or someone found an envelope stuffed with mysterious white powder , which is more likely — the teams could be of use.
A biological attack may be more insidious. It may result in a slow trickle of patients into a hospital. There may be some question at first whether it is a naturally occurring pandemic or a manmade plot.
“Most bio agents are going to be invisible, they’re going to start infecting people slowly over time, it may spread without showing symptoms… for a CST to be able to respond to that, it requires there to be some significant incident that allows them to be aware of the possibility of a bio-agent,” Elsinki said.”
Relying on the National Guard and Army as a whole to provide domestic response has its limitations, Elsinki said.
The Army’s focus is that of a forward deployed, mobile force. The chemical officer’s duty is to get his troops safely through a battlezone. That is an imperfect fit for domestic response. “If you are requiring Army chemical units to respond in this fashion, it’s a completely different mind set,” Elsinki said.
The Guard’s teams and units, meanwhile, have some important skills, but they have limited amount of time and training, he added.
The National Guard, after several inquiries, could not comment on the GAO report.
One of the overarching problems is that no one is sure what the expectations are for these Guard and Reserve units in the domestic arena.
The GAO said the Army Chemical School in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., has not updated the doctrine needed to address homeland security missions. The school said the Army has not provided sufficient funding, while the Army said rewriting chem-bio doctrine is not presently a priority.
A new doctrine incorporating this mission is due in June, although GAO expressed skepticism that it would be completed by then.
“Any deadline must account for the impact on other high priority doctrine development projects, particularly those supporting ongoing combat operations,” the Army said.
Furthermore, it is unknown how many active, National Guard or Reserve units would be needed to respond to a near simultaneous, multiple weapon of mass destruction attacks in the homeland. The criteria have not been established, GAO noted.
A written response to National Defense from the office of the secretary of defense said work on establishing these criteria is ongoing.
“The Department of Defense is working with interagency partners to develop appropriate planning factors including resource requirements to domestic chem-bio events … The interagency planning efforts will probably take another year or two,” the statement said.
Meanwhile, a classified number of chemical units are dedicated to homeland defense missions, OSD said.
“In the event of any WMD attack in the homeland, the Defense Department stands ready to provide available military chem-bio assets,” the OSD statement said.
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