US soldiers with Company A, 22nd Chemical Battalion, seal a chemical round found during a training exercise. The Army has ordered a comprehensive study regarding how chemical battalions are deployed. (US Army)
WASHINGTON — The US Army has quietly ordered a study of how it trains, equips and deploys its 22 chemical battalions in the most soup-to-nuts reconfiguration of its counter-weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capability in decades.
Following the 2012/2013 Unified Quest war game, which exposed some of the operational difficulties inherent in deploying an effective counter-WMD force overseas, the idea is to give the battalions more capacity and capability to act proactively, as opposed to simply “mopping up” chemical weapons that ground forces might find in hostile territory.
The Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) is heading up the study of what capabilities the battalions would need in order to act more as scouts rather than as follow-on forces, service officials say, but no date is available for when the study will wrap up.
TRADOC officials were not able to respond to a request for more information bypress time.
The plan comes as a new Army counter-WMD strategy paper is being evaluated by the office of Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, but Army officials declined to describe the paper or anticipate when it would be made public.
Seventeen of the 22 chemical battalions are in the Army National Guard and Reserve, with only five residing in the active force. The Army also fields the 20th Support Command, which handles the chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosives mission.
While the past 12 years of intensive counterinsurgency efforts have seen little to no call for a robust counter-WMD capacity on the battlefield, the post-9/11 era did begin with an intensive search for nuclear and chemical stockpiles in Iraq. Unstable states like North Korea, Syria and Pakistan have some policymakers looking for more on-the-ground counter-WMD capacity in the US armed forces.
It’s not as if the Army has no capacity in this regard, however. “We have deployable capabilities in small packages to support Army geographic combatant commanders and to support joint force commanders,” said Daniel Klippstein, director for the Army’s Nuclear and Combating WMD Agency (USANCA) at Fort Belvoir, Va.
The Army can field small, highly-trained nuclear employment assistance teams to advise commanders around the globe, he said. But increasingly “our focus is trying to get on the left side of an event, to prevent the use of a weapon of mass destruction.”
When the war in Iraq was about to begin, the military scrambled to put together teams that could deal with what was expected to be a chemical weapons environment, said Mark Fishback, who works in the operations division at USANCA. Fishback was on one of the planning teams that struggled to find the right assets to send to theater on very short notice, but since then “we’ve come a very long way,” and he has been gratified to see that the counter-WMD mission “is now nested in national defense strategy.”
Over the past several months, a series of small deployments and training events around the globe have underscored the new-found interest in the capability.
In a July 22 letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee outlining what actions the US military could undertake in Syria if ordered, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey warned that any attempt to destroy parts of “Syria’s massive stockpile” of chemical weapons would carry significant risk. The mission would call for a no-fly zone and air and missile strikes, along with “thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites.”
Likewise, on July 23, a team from the United Nations arrived in Damascus to investigate allegations that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against civilians.
This year, the US Army deployed 110 soldiers from the 1st Armored Division to Jordan for a year-long mission to help the military deal with the civil war in neighboring Syria. The team will provide assistance “in everything from humanitarian assistance to stability to other things in support of Jordan,” Army Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard told reporters in April.
The group was sent to bolster an even smaller US military team that has been in Jordan since 2012 working on a variety of chemical weapons and other security issues.
In an April statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel revealed that the Pentagon is also spending more than $70 million to help train and equip the Jordanians “to detect and stop any chemical weapons transfers along its border with Syria, and developing Jordanian capacity to identify and secure chemical weapons assets.”
And the Middle East isn’t the only place where Army planners are casting a wary eye. In September, the Army ordered the 23rd Chemical Battalion from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., to Camp Stanley in South Korea as part of the larger “rebalance” of American military and diplomatic attention to the Pacific region.
The unit had previously been stationed in Korea until 2004.