Chem-Bio Field Suffers a Knowledge Gap

By Stew Magnuson
On Aug. 3, helicopters dropped barrels of suspected chlorine gas on the Syrian town of Saraqeb, sending dozens of victims, including women and children, to the hospital.

A half a world away on the same day, the National Defense Industrial Association’s chemical, biological and nuclear defense division held a conference at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, co-sponsored by the joint program executive office for chemical and biological defense.

One of the underlying messages at the three-day conference was that the mission to protect warfighters from these two categories of weapons of mass destruction doesn’t receive a whole lot of attention in the halls of the Pentagon.

The often repeated joke among troops is that the NBC in nuclear-biological-chemical stands for “nobody cares.”

Army Col. Scott Estes, deputy director of the joint requirements office for chemical-biological radiological and nuclear defense, said, “I carry stuff to generals all the time, [and] the first question I get is: ‘Why are we doing this?’ … And I think, ‘Oh no, here we go again.’ And this goes all the way up to the three-star level.”

Estes was responding to an inquiry from Brig. Gen. William King III, commander of the Army 20th chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear and explosive command, as to why in more than three decades there hasn’t been a major live exercise involving the simulated employment of weapons of mass destruction. A new exercise and its subsequent studies could inform the forces of their shortcomings and needs. The last one was the CANE exercises, or Combined Arms in an NBC Environment, where troops participated in full-blown wargames and were called upon to fight during simulated chemical and nuclear attacks. The Pentagon has two studies about CBRN threats in the works, Estes said, but King wondered how effective they would be.

“Yes, to answer your question directly, we are kicking the can to the right,” Estes responded. CANE-type exercises are expensive to stage because they involve equipping and training soldiers, Estes said.

“It’s not just cost, but it’s senior leader bandwidth when right now they are trying to fight these wars ... but I will take things in there that I think are no-brainers — this is easy — first question I get [again] is: ‘why are we doing this?’” Estes said.

King responded: “What gave us our 30-year plan was the CANE study. … The environment has dramatically changed. So we have to figure out how to take advantage of someone else’s exercise and team with them or realize it’s a big bill, but it’s worth a 30-year investment if we do it now.”

The 1983-1985 CANE exercises included large-scale nuclear-chemical scenarios with friendly and enemy units that lasted up to 96 hours. In some cases, soldiers were expected to carry out tasks in their full protective gear for up to 12 hours. The studies looked at different areas including the effects on infantry platoons, battalions and tank company teams.

The results were not surprising. Fighting on a battlefield contaminated by radiation and chemicals resulted in severe command, control and communications issues, large drops in fighting efficiency and the ability to return fire. The exercises resulted in numerous academic papers.

King’s assertion that a lot has changed since then is, of course, true in many regards. Generations of leaders have cycled through the services since the CANE exercises were completed. The Army doesn’t fight the same way it did in the Cold War era. One example King mentioned is how special operations forces are now fully integrated into missions.

And then there is the equipment. JPO-Chem-Bio has fielded an entirely new protective ensemble since then, and is about to embark on an effort to field a new one. The sensors it uses to detect threats have improved exponentially since 1985.

The world of command, control and communications is radically different, with new software defined radios coming online and cyber defense to keep in mind. How will personnel operate these delicate systems while wearing full protective gear?  

There are entirely new platforms that didn’t exist in 1985 such as Strykers, the Gray Eagle and smaller unmanned aircraft, plus a major new one to be fielded soon, the joint light tactical vehicle. For many speakers and participants at the conference, the signs of an impending WMD attack on U.S. forces are everywhere.

Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, who retired the week of the conference after spending almost his entire career in the chem-bio protection field, said there have been 25 chemical incidents in Syria and Iraq since 2013. The chlorine being used today is newly manufactured and is not derived from old chemical weapon stocks. Intelligence indicates the Islamic State is working on manufacturing its own mustard gas.

“If they can gain an advantage, they will use them,” he said.

Chemical weapons are dispersed in a relatively small area and are employed today primarily as a weapon of terror, although the CANE studies showed how effective they can be in slowing down a large army.

Nuclear and biological weapons are a whole different ballgame, with their employment potentially much more devastating and affecting wider areas. The Ebola crisis — while a natural phenomenon — is a good example of how catastrophic a biological threat can be.

Chemical, biological and radiation threats are lumped together but they are very different weapons requiring different kinds of protection, sensors, prophylactic and therapeutic medicines and decontamination technologies.

JPO-Chem Bio leaders report that they have good support on Capitol Hill. They have a few strong advocates there who understand the threat and have kept budget levels even as other programs have taken funding hits. A champion is now needed to find the money for a new series of CANE studies.

Hopefully, it won’t take a chem-bio attack on U.S. forces to change “nobody cares” to “everybody suddenly cares.”

Topics: Chem Bio Protection

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.