Saturday, January 1, 2011

NG Homeland Response Force

Jason Sigger has an interesting blog post over at the Arm Chair Generalist about the National Guard’s ten new Homeland Response Force units being developed. If you’re not familiar with Jason’s blog (well worth reading) you need to understand two things. First Jason was an officer in the Army Chemical Command, so he has the technical background and experience to go with his opinions. Second, he doesn’t think much of the possibility of terrorists conducting a significant CBRN attack.

Conventional CBRN Attack

This is an area that Jason and I agree upon. Conducting a significant chemical attack using military grade chemical weapons is certainly beyond the scope of terrorist organizations. To understand that statement you have to understand how the military (US and Soviet) envisioned the use of modern chemical agents. Chemical weapons are always employed (militarily) in conjunction with conventional munitions. They are employed in large numbers over a relatively wide area. When employed against military forces they are not really expecting to kill the enemy in large numbers, but rather the expectation is that military effectiveness of a targeted unit will be degraded by wearing the appropriate chemical protective equipment.

A terrorist organization would almost certainly not be able to deliver the number of weapons over a large enough area to effect a significant, catastrophic attack. If chemical weapons were to be employed by terrorists they would be small attacks in limited areas. In these types of attacks, by the time that one of the National Guard response teams got to the attack site (unless pre-positioned on the target) the chemical agent would have dispersed into ineffectiveness. They will only be useful if persistent chemical agents are used and then their specialized chemical decontamination capabilities will provide a useful adjunct to local first responders. But, such chemical decontamination would only require a limited number of people.

Now don’t get me wrong. If a terror cell popped a nerve agent filled artillery shell in a shopping mall the consequence in the mall would be devastating. There would be a large number of dead people and an even larger number of people requiring immediate medical attention. The problem is that the NG CBRN teams would not start to arrive until 24 hours after the attack; it takes time to mobilize, pack-up and move the people and equipment. If you have to wait for them to show up to respond to the attack it will be too late, the injured will have died.

The only way that these special National Guard units will be effective in this scale of attack is if they are pre-positioned at the attack site. This is why they are typically deployed at significant security events (Super Bowl, Inauguration, etc) where there is an increased risk of a potential attack. Their detection and response capabilities used in a timely manner will help to prevent a large number of deaths.

Industrial Chemical Attack

All of the above comments pre-suppose that the terrorists use military grade chemical munitions. There is an alternative chemical attack that would be better suited to a terrorist type attack; the employment of toxic industrial chemicals. Again, a small-scale release of toxic industrial chemicals is going to be a non-issue for these National Guard forces for the same reasons discussed above. Even more so in the case of industrial chemicals because they are just not as deadly as modern chemical weapons; see the complete ineffectiveness of 5-gallons of chlorine gas used in attacks by al Qaeda in Iraq.

A large scale release of toxic industrial chemicals is certainly a more viable scenario for a successful terrorist attack, but even here the usefulness of a National Guard chemical response force is going to be limited by their relatively slow response time. The burden of the response is going to fall on local first responder organizations.

Even the catastrophic release of the contents of a toxic inhalation hazard (TIH) chemical (like chlorine, anhydrous ammonia, or hydrogen fluoride) railcar is going to result in a huge toxic cloud that will generally be dispersed by the time a NG response team arrived on scene. Their utility would probably be limited to chemical reconnaissance to locate the isolated pockets where deadly concentrations of the chemical cloud remain.

NOTE: A terrorist attack designed to cause a catastrophic release of a TIH chemical is going to have to be a very sophisticated and complicated attack. A homemade improvised explosive device is not likely to cause a catastrophic failure in the types of tanks used to store or transport such chemicals. A professionally designed and carefully placed explosive device will typically be required.

These specialized chemical response units are more likely to be helpful in this type of terrorist attack scenario is if they are located in, or very near the community affected by the attack. Even then, because they are citizen soldiers and take time to alert and assemble, the bulk of the immediate response efforts will fall on first local responder organizations and community health organizations. Furthermore, a large number of the members of such units will have primary jobs in the response and medical care community. Alerting them for a National Guard response to the incident will impede the efforts of the organizations most able to respond quickly to the incident.

The only exception to this that I see is the potential use of National Guard medical units to provide surge capacity for intermediate term medical care for the large number of people seriously injured in this type of attack. The capacity for local hospitals to provide treatment for the large number of people with respiratory injuries will be quickly overwhelmed. The need for a rapid influx of ventilators and respiratory support staff could be partially filled from National Guard medical units across the country. But, this is not the type of response addressed in the Homeland Response Force units.

The medical airlift capacity of the National Guard would also be helpful in dispersing the excess patient load to medical facilities around the country.

Response Planning

The most effective use of the chemical response capability of the National Guard that I see is to provide technical assistance to the chemical response planning efforts of the local communities. Communities that are at particular risk of a chemical terror attack because they have a high-risk chemical facility with large amounts of release toxic chemicals of interest (COI) located within the community or a rail-yard where TIH railcars are routinely located, are going to have to formulate a response plan for an attack on those facilities (or the slightly more likely accidental chemical release from the facility). The technical expertise and staff training of the CBRNE response forces could provide valuable assistance in that planning process.

They could help identify the extent of the area under potential threat from an expected chemical release. They could provide recommendations about the types of chemical detection and decontamination equipment that would be required to respond to that release. And more importantly, they could provide a low-cost training resource for those communities to get their first responders effectively trained in the appropriate response to a chemical incident.

Of particular importance, a National Guard component of the emergency response planning team could provide the community with the information necessary to develop a packaged request for National Guard assistance in the event of a release. This could, for example, identify the need for medical assistance (for example: ventilators and respiratory treatment staff) that would be needed in the event of a large-scale release. That advanced identification of needed assistance could allow the National Guard Bureau to coordinate, in advance, the necessary response from other State National Guard units and allow the Governors involved to sign the appropriate assistance pacts. All of this would speed up the potential response.

Finally, including the National Guard teams in the planning process could allow for the stationing of the Guard CBRNE response forces in the communities with the most likely need for their assistance. This would help to reduce the response time of these units to chemical emergencies in those communities. It could even allow them to act more like volunteer fire companies; getting equipment out the door to where it is needed as people arrive rather than waiting for the entire unit to assemble and deploy as a complete unit.

The Real Need for National Guard Assistance

Any one that thinks that National Guard units are going to form the core of the response to a terrorist chemical attack on, or a major accidental chemical release in, a community just does not understand the response capability of those unites. The first responders in a community are going to shoulder the bulk of the burden for responding to these types of chemical releases.

The proper place to utilize the chemical response expertise of these units is to aid in the community planning effort and to aid in the training of the local first responders that will be responsible for the vast bulk of actual operations on the ground when such incidents occur.

1 comment:

Frank said...

While the perception is well supported, there is always the fallacy in such discussions that the event is imaginable, and that there are simple answers.

The advantage that the military has in such circumstances is it's well established experience with the unreal. Civilian first-responders are very capable and dedicated, but may not have the maneuverability in their command structure to react in a timely manner to an unexpected and unrehearsed scenario.

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