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CARLISLE, Pa. — As invading American and British ground forces in Iraq pushed northward toward Baghdad during the initial assault in 2003, they fully expected to be "slimed" by a variety of chemical weapons attacks and duly donned their bulky protective suits time and again during their three-week fight to the capital.
But, of course, Iraq had no chemical or nuclear weapons to use.
With a wary eye cast toward a variety of shaky, rogue or unpredictable states such as Syria, North Korea, Pakistan and others that have some form of nuclear or chemical weapons capacity, the Army is again preparing for a future in which its soldiers will be forced to fight through chemical, biological or nuclear attacks, or at least operate in a battle space that has that capability.
That's where this year's annual Unified Quest 2013 war game at the Army War College here comes in. The classified scenario that Army planners have devised this year focuses on a failed state that has lost control of its Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) stockpiles, forcing the United States to intervene. The location of the game is classified, but the presence of members of 8th Army based in South Korea may provide some clues as to what region the Army is concerned about.
"We're in the same place with WMD as we were in 2003 with counterinsurgency," one participant in the Strategic Working Group discussion on Wednesday lamented, because the service hasn't spent much time thinking about the mission over the past decade of war. (Defense News was invited to sit in on the proceedings as long as participants were not identified to help ensure the unrestrained flow of ideas.)
The Strategic Working Group is a collection of high-ranking officers from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and the State Department, complemented by a full roster of think tankers, strategists and representatives from Australia and the U.K.
The group spent most of a working day debating what the Army's WMD mission should look like, and since it's their job to find as many nits to pick as possible, the proceedings were decidedly gloomy.
"The Army, much like counterinsurgency, has to own this," another participant said, "because no one else has the capacity to do it other than the Army."
The centrality of the Army in the WMD mission comes from an obvious place: as the nation's ground force, it will be soldiers who will have to drive their Strykers up to the gates of any potential chemical or nuclear weapons site, and therefore they need the expertise to be able to assess the situation and dispose of any hazardous materials.
The problem is, the WMD mission is one that the service has traditionally placed below other warfighting missions in terms of funding, prestige and importance. "This is messy, expensive … and it's time we deal with it," one general said, asking rhetorically, "Is it time for us to adequately resource this mission?"
Given the priorities of fighting two decade-long wars, "We don't have a culture of ownership for this mission set" another participant complained, since responsibilities reside under several commands.
While the Strategic Command (STRATCOM) has been given authority to act as the lead combatant commander for synchronizing the Pentagon's global WMD efforts, another leader at the roundtable complained that "we don't have a single point of contact" that can pull together all of the interagency partners to work on the issue. "The Army doesn't seem to embrace this sort of activity across its organization," they said.
Army Chief Gen. Ray Odierno has actually emphasized the counter-WMD mission for some time and has publicly stated that he is working to build on relationships between Special Operations Forces and big Army that were developed in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to combine their WMD knowledge. The Army and SOF have held a few joint training events over the past year, and Odierno said last year that "in the future I would foresee us doing a rotation that deals with WMD specifically and how we might deal with that and what the different scenarios might be."