Soldiers Prepare for Possibility of Chemical Attacks

By Sandra I. Erwin

When Pentagon officials talk about urban warfare, it conjures up images of U.S. troops in the Middle East or Afghanistan, grinding it out from house to house, clearing booby-trapped buildings.

Now imagine having to do that while wearing bulky protective gear, gas masks that impair vision, in addition to having to monitor chemical detectors for the possible presence of poison gas.

Teams of U.S. and South Korean soldiers are now training for such eventuality. 

U.S. Army brigades that deploy to the Republic of Korea for nine-month rotations increasingly are preparing for complex missions, including coping with WMD attacks, said former brigade commander Col. John DiGiambattista.

DiGiambattista was until recently the commander of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division, which trained in the Republic of Korea last year and returned home in January to Fort Hood, Texas. The rotational deployments are part of the “U.S. commitment to the security on the Korean peninsula and to help deter North Korean aggression,” he told reporters March 1 at a news conference at the Pentagon. 

The possibility that poison gas could be used to attack U.S. and allied forces suddenly became real in the wake of the murder of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, who was killed with VX nerve agent. The poison gas is considered a weapon of mass destruction and was banned by the 1993 chemical weapons convention.

DiGiambattista would not comment specifically on North Korea’s capabilities or on that particular attack, which happened after he had ended his tour in the ROK. He noted that even though the United States has had a military presence in the Korean peninsula for more than six decades, the unpredictability of what might happen next raises the stakes for the Army as it prepares for a wide range of contingencies. “It’s one of the most complex missions I have had to deal with,” he said of the brigade’s training rotation in Korea. 

On the mission of countering WMD, “We did a lot of learning in that regard,” he said. 

To be ready to fight in a WMD scenario demands complex training exercises, said DiGiambattista. In joint drills with the ROK army, “They would secure the outer perimeter of a suspected site, and we would push in our soldiers,” he said. “What sticks out in my mind is that often we talk about urban operations and our soldiers moving in to clear buildings and that kind of thing.” In a WMD situation, “We have to picture those soldiers wearing a protective suit and masks so their vision is impaired, and carrying detection devices.”

He described the training as the “same thing we would have done in Iraq, clearing buildings and such, but it’s much more complicated” when troops face the threat of hazardous chemicals.

During one of the exercises, a staff sergeant led his team into a building at night wearing protecting equipment. “He could not see. He was monitoring the detection device to identify where the hazard was and decided that they needed to go,” said DiGiambattista. Even in those conditions, “He was able to pull them out safely, and then we had to bring in a specialized team to reduce that hazard. If our sergeants and platoon leaders can’t do that, we can’t execute the mission.”

Teams would train with protective gear about once a week, he said. “We practice maintaining and cleaning our vehicles in that environment, as well as our hazardous material detectors.”

Speaking broadly about the experience, DiGiambattista said it was “phenomenal training” that was aided by the capabilities of the ROK army. “For some of our junior leaders that may have deployed to other places, it was really eye opening and refreshing to work with a professional force that is focused on their security and driven by their needs,” he said. “We did river crossings with U.S. boats and rafts, and then we used their boats and bridging equipment. We put our tanks and Bradley vehicles on their bridge. That builds tremendous trust and confidence,” he said. The Koreans also have “unique training facilities that we had access to.”

The 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team is one of nine heavy armor brigades in the Army. The equipment for the ROK deployment included 90 tanks, 120 Bradleys, an artillery battalion, as well as support and engineering battalions.


Topics: Chem Bio Protection, CBRN, Army News

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