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Defense Leaders Commentary: The Facts on WMD Civil Support Teams

By Charles L. Cragin
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 31, 2000 – In a commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy in May 1998, President Bill Clinton announced that our nation would do more to protect its citizens against the growing threat of chemical and biological terrorism. As part of this effort, he said, the Department of Defense would form 10 teams to support state and local authorities in the event of an incident involving weapons of mass destruction.

At the direction of Congress, the Department of Defense recently expanded this program to embrace a total of 27 teams, now known as WMD Civil Support Teams. Despite the considerable media attention the program has received in recent months, misconceptions about the nature and purpose of the teams abound. This article attempts to clarify those errors and to separate fact from fiction.

The most widespread misconceptions surrounding WMD Civil Support Teams focus on what they are intended to do, under whose authority they will operate, and how and where they will normally function.

The WMD Civil Support Teams were established to deploy rapidly to assist a local incident commander in determining the nature and extent of an attack or incident; provide expert technical advice on WMD response operations; and help identify and support the arrival of follow-on state and federal military response assets. Each team consists of 22 highly skilled, full-time members of the Army and Air National Guard.

The first 10 teams have completed their individual and unit collective training and are in the process of receiving highly sophisticated equipment. Each team has two large pieces of equipment: a mobile analytical laboratory for field analysis of chemical or biological agents and a unified command suite that has the ability to provide communications interoperability among the various responders who may be on scene. The first 10 teams will be certified as fully mission-capable later this spring, with the remaining 17 expected to come on line in early 2001.

The first 10 teams are based in Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, California, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington. The remaining 17 teams, announced in January, will be based in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia.

These states were selected after a very careful and objective analysis that places the teams closest to the greatest number of people, minimizes response time within a geographical area, and reduces the overlap with other teams' areas of responsibility. The resulting distribution of the teams provides optimum response coverage for the entire population of the United States.

Astute readers will notice that California appears on the list twice. Because the stationing plan for the teams was based on population, not state jurisdictional boundaries, and because California has 10 percent of the population of the nation, a second team was recommended for Northern California.

The WMD Civil Support Teams are unique because of their federal-state relationship. They are federally resourced, federally trained and federally evaluated, and they operate under federal doctrine. But they will perform their mission primarily under the command and control of the governors of the states in which they are located. They will be, first and foremost, state assets. Operationally, they fall under the command and control of the adjutant generals of those states. As a result, they will be available to respond to an incident as part of a state response, well before federal response assets would be called upon to provide assistance.

If the situation were to evolve into an event that overwhelmed state and local response assets, the governor could request the president to issue a declaration of national disaster and to provide federal assistance. At that point, the team would continue to support local officials in their state status, but would also assist in channeling additional military and other federal assets in support of the local commander.

It is essential to note that these teams are in no way connected with counterterrorism activities. Numerous press reports in recent months have erroneously suggested that the teams have a mission in this arena. They do not have any counterterrorism capability or mandate. They are involved exclusively in consequence management activities. The civil support teams will link with the consequence managers in their jurisdictions.

If federalized, the civil support teams would fall under the operational command and control of the recently established Joint Task Force-Civil Support, based in Norfolk, Va., and led by a National Guard brigadier general. Although it has no standing forces, the task force will respond to requests for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the purposes of domestic WMD consequence management support. It will have robust planning and command and control capabilities and the ability to mobilize a military task force quickly in support of FEMA requests. It will also have rapid access to military forces and quick reach-back capability to subject matter experts, labs and medical support.

Critics of this program have frequently complained about duplication of efforts, asserting that the teams are unnecessary because the U.S. military already has several rapid response units that can perform a civil support mission for consequence management. Such critics regularly cite the Army's Technical Escort Units and the Marine Corps Chemical and Biological Incident Response Force as evidence that the current program represents an unnecessary and additional bureaucratic overlay that ignores the real needs of first responders. But these arguments miss the point by overlooking the unique state-based nature of the WMD Civil Support Teams.

The other teams within the Department of Defense are military response teams developed to support force protection requirements associated with overseas warfighting missions. When considering their use domestically -- albeit in support of civil authorities -- the department must carefully weigh such use in light of potential threats against U.S. interests abroad. Furthermore, even if available for domestic use, these other response units would be available only as part of the federal response effort initiated by the president after state and local resources become overwhelmed.

If terrorists release bacteria, chemicals or viruses to harm Americans, we must have the ability to identify the pathogens or substances with speed and certainty. The technology to accomplish that is still evolving, and current technology is very expensive, technically challenging to maintain, and largely unaffordable to most states and localities. In this regard, our goal is to support America's fire, police and emergency medical personnel as rapidly as possible with capabilities and tools that complement and enhance their response, not duplicate it. We established state-controlled WMD Civil Support Teams, which leverage the best military technology and expertise available, to achieve that goal.

Defense Leaders is a feature of the American Forces Press Service. It provides senior DoD leaders with an opportunity to speak directly to military service members, their families and DoD civilians on subjects of current interest.

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