Cold War-era doomsday scenarios of nuclear attacks envisioned mass assaults of intercontinental ballistic missiles raining down on the United States.
While most experts don’t forecast that scene unfolding in the near future, what is far more likely is a rogue attack putting a portable nuclear bomb in a U.S. city. And while the Army National Guard and its myriad of partners have reacted to a host of natural and man-made disasters over the decades, that is one event they have only trained for.
That’s why earlier this month soldiers with Task Force 46, many from the Guard’s 46th Military Police Command, continued a three-year annual exercise rehearsing and practicing just how the Guard and others would respond should such a devastating attack occur in Detroit, Michigan.
Col. Chris McKinney served as the mission officer in charge for the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear response planning for the exercise.
McKinney spoke with Army Times in the midst of the training, walking through what soldiers and commanders have learned since the event began last year and what they’re taking with them as it continues.
This year’s event simulated a nuclear attack on Detroit. The responders had to provide coordination and response efforts, private industry, healthcare providers and other entities.
The first year of the event saw participants focus on the capabilities that their partners brought to the response and how to best employ them, he said.
This year they stood up emergency operations centers for all of their local counties, adding state partners, police, federal, industry and Canadian counterparts.
“You learn how partners think, operate and you look for capability gaps that are going to manifest themselves,” McKinney said.
While many of the soldiers participating may have had overseas combat deployments either on active duty or with the Guard, others have had homeland disaster response experiences.
Both can contribute to how to work in such formations but neither provides what’s needed for a nuclear attack on the United States. And McKinney should know, he’s been on the scene responding to some of the nation’s biggest disasters in recent decades, as well as having conducted overseas combat deployments.
“It’s very different, very challenging,” McKinney said. “An overseas response to anything like this is far easier.”
That’s partly because things taken for granted, such as restrictions on flying drones or other aircraft, certain communication frequency bandwidths and simple authorities in law that govern what a Guard unit can and cannot do all complicate operations, he said.
“I’d much rather go to war again, 10 times over,” McKinney said.
The lead non-commissioned officer for the 46th in this exercise agreed.
Master Sgt. Billy Beliew, NCOIC for CBRN with the unit, said that the training gives young soldiers a chance to see what the Guard brings to disaster response.
“It’s a different experience being around a lot of other agencies,” Beliew said. “You see how they work, really find some interests you didn’t really know you had, see how important emergency management is.”
Earlier this year, in May, a larger version, using 3,500 soldiers, a mix of Army National Guard alongside reserve and active-duty units practiced what two simultaneous nuclear attacks would look like. One in Detroit, the other in Phoenix, Arizona.
The soldiers set up tents near Detroit and crowded 200 or more troops into command posts to coordinate how exactly you respond to thousands of dead, tens of thousands needing decontamination or rescue and perhaps a million or more citizens to be moved out of the impact area.
The attacks, spread nearly 2,000 miles apart, meant soldiers set up satellite and other communications networks to coordinate across the country.
Soldiers sutured fake wounds on prosthetic body suits and cared for fake dogs that had simulated wounds.
When troops with the 46th Military Police Command out of the Michigan National Guard fill the CBRN response role, soldiers in that unit fall under the command of the active Army, specifically U.S. Army North.
The first stage of the exercise ran for three days, in August 2018, with a “tabletop exercise” and terrain walk through for leaders and planners to identify who would do what in the event of a nuclear attack.
State and local emergency responders do have some capabilities to decontaminate CBRN victims but they’re limited to a few hundred people at a time.
A mass emergency CBRN event could produce tens of thousands of casualties, Maj. Gen. Michael Stone, commanding general of the 46th MP Command and the task force told Army Times last year.
There have been similar training exercises in New York City, but the Detroit exercise is of a new type of planning between Army Forces Command and the Guard, Stone said.
It grew out of the Army’s renewed focus on urban environments.
The plan is centered on going beyond initial responses and stabilization to adding in local experts, academic researchers and the cyber community, among others, to better flesh out all the varieties of situations units face in the urban terrain, Stone said of last year’s work.
At the time, Stone told Army Times that there were ongoing efforts to work with cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Phoenix and Cleveland so that command groups from the various Guard units and Army North can build out their plans and better coordinate.
Detroit borders Canada and much of the traffic, and any toxic radiation, plumes or other fallout from a nuclear attack on the Motor City would be felt by Windsor, Canada and the surrounding areas.
And, last year the training centered on Detroit, while this year’s work intentionally added the Canadian sections to the scenario, McKinney said.
Much of working out the kinks of having such varied agencies as the Guard, local law enforcement and international partners working together revolved around communications plans, he said.
An estimated 80 or more agencies with 250 individual participants worked in the exercise.
The military units included U.S. Northern Command, the Guard’s 287th Engineer Company, 177th Military Police Brigade, the Army Reserve’s 76th Operational Response Command, the 119th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, the Michigan National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters, participants from the Army’s CBRN School, the Detroit sector of the U.S. Coast Guard and the 4th Canadian Division.
Next year will see both a command post and field exercise event, McKinney said.
That effort will see an entire battalion task force “validated” on the procedures they will have to perform to respond to a nuclear attack.
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.