For the first time since the beginning of the Iraq War, the threat of chemical, biological and nuclear attacks to military forces at home and abroad has triggered new thinking, new funding and a renewed focus on preparing troops from the Army.
In July, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Deborah Rosenblum told experts at a Baltimore defense industry conference that the entire enterprise needed a serious change.
“We are not going to figure it out as we go,” Rosenblum said. “We need a radical transformation.”
She noted that advances in laboratory technology and widely spread information on how to create and deploy chemical and biological weapons specifically made countering those threats “vastly more difficult” in a “rapidly changing” environment.
A 2022 State Department report on adherence and compliance for arms control noted that China, Russia, North Korea and Iran have demonstrated, or are known to be pursuing, such weapons.
At the center of the Army’s effort to train soldiers in the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear field is Col. Sean Crockett, commandant of the CBRN School and advocate for the Army’s Chemical Corps, its units, officers and soldiers that train, equip and guide units in protecting themselves from CBRN threats.
“We lead tactical formations in support of every formation in the Army,” Crocket wrote in emails to Army Times. “We are an operations branch with officers in nearly every formation in the Army.”
Crockett said that with the Army’s pivot to Great Power Competition and near pear threats, such as China and Russia, state-sponsored weapons of mass destruction programs in such nations have increased the service’s prioritization of CBRN training, from former perfunctory briefings on potential threats to CBRN officers present at the beginning stages of exercise and operational planning.
And he has gotten backing 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 techniques publication.
The foreword to that publication, written by Brig. Gen. Daryl Hood, former CBRN School commandant, spells out the problem in its first sentence.
“As the Chemical Corps enters its second century of service in the United States Army, it must adapt to new threats and overcome 15 years of atrophy of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear skills within the Army that were attributed to operations in counterinsurgency,” Hood wrote.
The colonel said the overall objective now is to transition from legacy instruction — think classrooms and blackboards — to “a more integrated and immersive training environment.”
He specifically referenced work with simulations, such as those that the Army’s Program Executive Office-Simulation, Training and Instrumentation and the Cross Function Team-Synthetic Training Environment are developing.
Having those simulations in place will give students and CBRN soldiers at units more chances to practice their craft.
In addition, more funding is headed to some CBRN initiatives, at least at the Pentagon level.
The Defense Department increased CBRN spending by $300 million in the most recent budget, with plans to add $1.2 billion more funding over the next five years, Rosenblum said. Much of that will go to updating sensors for better detection across all platforms and units.
New technology and approaches are in the force already, but more is to come.
“Advances in robotics, wireless guidance and machine learning are beginning to enable us to do far more with less resources and people,” Crockett wrote.
Today, the M12 is a truck-mounted sprayer platform that allows soldiers to hose down areas, equipment or personnel with decontamination solution. New versions of this type of equipment is probably necessary.
Adding aerial drones and unmanned ground vehicles, for instance, gives CBRN soldiers reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities, paired with advanced sensors to help detect threats.
“We are now at the cutting edge of replacing the ‘dinosaur’ of (decontamination),’ the M12, with a nearly fully autonomous capability that can mitigate CBRN hazards with precision,” Crockett wrote.
A newly developed platform would remove rubber-suit-sealed soldiers from duty standing in the back of the truck, a position that currently puts them at the risk of exposure to dangerous contaminants.
More upgrades are helping the CBRN force, such as the Uniform Integrated Protective Ensemble, a full body undergarment that adds another layer of CBRN protection beneath the standard chemical suit, while also using cooling materials to reduce overheating common in legacy gear.
Another, larger item is the Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Reconnaissance Vehicle sensor suite upgrade, which gives selected Stryker vehicles advanced sensors to detect a wider range of chemical threats and more sensitivity to lower levels of contaminants.
Those improvements aside, the effort is still not enough to cover the CBRN defense that experts say should be baked into every part of a mission, from planning to after-action reviews.
“The number one challenge the CBRN Regiment faces today is resources…and we are not alone,” Crockett wrote.
The colonel acknowledged that the Army’s budget is finite and competing with other priorities — readiness, force structure and modernization.
But Crockett argues that a rise in combat capabilities among adversaries gives potential wartime opponents the means to use CBRN weapons more broadly and effectively.
“While I would offer the CBRN threat in Large Scale Combat Operations against our near-peer competitors has increased, so too has the conventional threat posed by the rapid military modernization efforts of our adversaries,” Crockett wrote.
A big part of that work goes beyond much-needed 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 could counter CBRN attacks. That’s because the CBRN threat doesn’t recognize MOS. And the disruptive effect to logistics and support units may be even greater if an enemy using one of these weapons against formations far from the front line.
“We can have the best material in the world, but if culture and mindset are not integrated…it’s going to sit on the side,” Rosenblum said at the July event.
Commanders must prepare and plan for CBRN aspects in what they do, otherwise units headed into the fight might not get far.
“The key, and my focus, is to ensure our maneuver leaders have the ability to execute their respective mission essential tasks in a CBRN environment,” Crockett wrote. “In some ways, this will avoid CBRN training as an afterthought.”
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.