For the first time since the start of the war in Iraq, the threat of chemical, biological and nuclear attacks against domestic and foreign military forces has sparked new thinking, new funding and renewed interest in troop readiness of the Army.
In July, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Deborah Rosenblum told experts at a defense industry conference in Baltimore that the entire enterprise needed ‘a serious change.
“We’re not going to figure it out as we go along,” Rosenblum said. “We need a radical transformation.”
She noted that advances in laboratory technology and widely disseminated information on how to create and deploy chemical and biological weapons specifically made countering these threats “much more difficult” in a “rapidly changing” environment.
A 2022 State Department report on arms control adherence and compliance noted that China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran have demonstrated or are known to research such weapons.
At the center of the Army’s effort to train soldiers in the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear field is Col Sean CrockettCBRN school commandant and army advocate chemical bodyits units, officers and soldiers who train, equip and guide units to protect against CBRN threats.
“We run tactical formations in support of every Army formation,” Crocket wrote in emails to the Army Times. “We are an operations branch with officers in almost every army formation.”
Crockett said that with the military’s pivot toward great power competition and near-pear threats, such as China and Russia, state-sponsored weapons of mass destruction programs in those countries have increased service prioritization of CBRN training, from former superficial briefings on potential threats to CBRN officers present in the early stages of the exercise and operational Planning.
And he got support in writing. To reflect these changes, the Army recently updated one of its CBRN manuals with the April 2021 release of the Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear platoons technical publications.
The foreword to this publication, written by Brig. General Daryl Hood, former commandant of the CBRN school, spells out the problem in his first sentence.
“As the Chemical Corps enters its second century of service in the U.S. military, it must adapt to new threats and overcome 15 years of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear skill atrophy within the military that were attributed to counterinsurgency operations,” Hood wrote.
The Colonel said the overall goal now is to move from legacy teaching – think classrooms and blackboards – to “a more integrated and immersive training environment”.
He specifically referred to working with simulations, such as those that the Army Program Executive Office – Simulation, Training and Instrumentation and the Cross-Functional Team Synthetic Training Environment are developing.
Implementing these simulations will give students and unit CBRN soldiers more chances to practice their trade.
Also, more funding is being directed to certain CBRN initiatives, at least at the Pentagon level.
The Department of Defense increased CBRN spending by $300 million in the last budget, with plans to add $1.2 billion in additional funding over the next five years, Rosenblum said. Much of this will go towards updating sensors for better detection across all platforms and units.
New technologies and approaches are already in use, but more are on the way.
“Advances in robotics, wireless guidance, and machine learning are beginning to allow us to do much more with fewer resources and fewer people,” Crockett wrote.
Today, the M12 is a truck-mounted spray platform that allows soldiers to spray areas, equipment, or personnel with decontamination solution. New versions of this type of equipment are probably needed.
The addition of aerial drones and unmanned ground vehicles, for example, gives CBRN soldiers reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities, combined with advanced sensors to help detect threats.
“We are now at the forefront of replacing the ‘dinosaur’ of (decontamination), the M12, with an almost fully autonomous capability that can mitigate CBRN risks with precision,” Crockett wrote.
A newly developed platform would remove rubber-sealed soldiers from standing duty in the back of the truck, a position that currently puts them at risk of exposure to dangerous contaminants.
Other enhancements aid CBRN strength, such as the Uniform Integrated Protective Suit, a full-body undergarment that adds another layer of CBRN protection underneath the standard chemical suit, while using cooling materials to reduce common overheating in legacy equipment.
Another bigger item is the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Reconnaissance Vehicle Sensor Suite upgrade, which gives select Stryker vehicles advanced sensors to detect a wider range of chemical threats and greater sensitivity to levels. less contaminants.
These improvements aside, the the effort is still not enough to cover CBRN defense which experts say should be integrated into every part of a mission, from planning to after-action reviews.
“The number one challenge facing the CBRN Regiment today is that of resources…and we are not alone,” Crockett wrote.
The Colonel acknowledged that the Army’s budget is limited and competes with other priorities – readiness, force structure and modernization.
But Crockett argues that an increase in combat capabilities among adversaries empowers potential wartime adversaries to use CBRN weapons more widely and more effectively.
“While I would offer the CBRN threat in large-scale combat operations against our close competitors has increased, the conventional threat posed by our adversaries’ rapid military modernization efforts has also increased,” Crockett wrote.
Much of this work goes beyond essential equipment. The Army may need to develop a mindset across the force that ensures soldiers, both in the field and in garrison, are constantly thinking about how they might counter CBRN attacks. This is because the CBRN threat does not recognize the MOS. And the disruptive effect on logistical and support units can be even greater if an enemy uses one of these weapons against formations away from the front line.
“We can have the best material in the world, but if the culture and the mindset aren’t integrated…it’s going to stay on the sidelines,” Rosenblum said at the July event.
Commanders must be prepared and plan for the CBRN aspects of what they do, or units heading into combat may not get far.
“The key, and my goal, is to ensure that our maneuver leaders have the ability to perform their respective critical tasks in a CBRN environment,” Crockett wrote. “In a way, this will avoid a CBRN formation after the fact.”
Todd South has written about crime, the courts, government and the military for several publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer Finalist for a co-authored project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Navy veteran of the Iraq War.