Army Takes Stock of Its Domestic Chem-Bio-Nuclear Response Capabilities

By Stew Magnuson
More than a decade after the Army reluctantly took on the responsibility for responding to domestic chemical, biological and nuclear attacks or accidents, it has built a force of more than 18,000 dedicated personnel.

In 2001, only 10 of the planned 57 National Guard WMD civil support teams were certified to respond to weapon of mass destruction attacks on the homeland, said Robert Salesses, deputy assistant secretary of defense for homeland security and defense support of civil authorities.

Those National Guard units are intended to advise local authorities and have only 22 members, he said at the Association of the United States Army annual conference.

Today, there are 57 such teams in all the states and territories which can respond to a crisis within three hours. In  addition, there are 17 enhanced response force packages with more than 180 personnel who can respond within six hours and provide search and extraction, decontamination and medical response.

There are 10 homeland response forces with some 566 personnel with similar capabilities, which can deploy within six to 12 hours. One of these units is assigned to each of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s regions.

In addition, U.S. Northern Command can deploy the defense CBRN response force with some 5,200 members for catastrophic incidents. It can arrive on the scene within 24 hours and has a range of capabilities including command and control, enhanced medical response and rotary wing lift and medevac.

Together these units are known as the CBRN response enterprise.

“The terrorist threat that drove the establishment of the [CBRN response enterprise] nearly 10 years ago, in my opinion, is evolving and in most estimates is actually more dangerous today than it was back then,” Salesses said.

Along with the terrorist threats, the Fukushima incident in Japan showed that accidents can be equally destructive, he said. Thirty-one states have nuclear power plants, totaling more than 100 reactors, he noted. About 50 million residents live within 50 miles of these power plants.

As for chemical plants, “there are thousands of them,” he said. About 500 of them he characterized as “extremely dangerous,” with 100 million people living less than 30 miles from them.

“There is certainly an expectation by the citizens of this country that we will be there to support them in their time of need,” he said of the military.

Jim Kish, deputy assistant administrator for response at FEMA, said it was after the anthrax attacks of 2001 when the Army was tapped to take on the WMD response task. There was initially substantial resistance and skepticism about the service carrying out the mission, he added.

Salesses said: “We looked to the Army and knew that the Army would carry the majority load…. How it stepped up to the plate was critical … even when it was engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Maj. Gen. William F. Roy, commanding general of operations at Army North/Fifth Army, said there is now a tiered response in place, with state and local personnel on a scene first, then the National Guard advisory team brought in second. Depending on the scope of the incident, the larger teams with decontamination or medical response capabilities can be called in.

“In my opinion, speed of response equals saving American lives,” Salesses said.

Roy said by the end of fiscal year 2015, there will be 80 units spread out at 38 different posts and camps.

“Looking at the glass half full — we have somebody close to whatever may happen. Glass, half empty. It is hard to get together to train,” he added.

Training is one area that can be improved upon, said Steve Cichocki, program manager for CBRN response at Northern Command.

“Northcom has matured over the past couple of years as a combatant command and we have vastly improved the way we have organized and prepared for the mission,” he said.

The CBRN response enterprise needs to man, train and equip its forces, and this should all culminate in a National Training Center exercise before troops are presented to the combatant commander.

“It’s Northcom’s view that this should be normal and prepared for in the same way as other Army missions,” Cichocki said. This “is not the case now.”

Salesses said there is a risk that the force, which took more than a decade to build, could backslide with troop reductions and budget cuts.

“For those who want to look at reducing the force structure, I would be cautious in that regard,” he said.

“There is a clear expectation that the nation expects the Department of Defense to answer the call when something goes bad,” he added.

“It’s a national asset and with shrinking force structure across the all the services, I think it is critical that the investment DoD has made be maintained at the full rate it is now,” he added.
Roy said Northcom and Army Forces Command are looking into how the CBRN response enterprise can be resourced to be more effective based on the mission set.

Topics: Chem Bio Protection, Expeditionary Warfare

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