Shortages of people and equipment stemming from wartime losses and the expansion of the U.S. Army's combat brigades have prompted the Army to strip chemical units of many of their soldiers and much of their equipment. As a result, the service's battlefield decontamination units are struggling to survive. The Government Accountability Office has all the dirty details (PDF!):
Most Army units tasked with providing chemical and biological defense support are not adequately staffed, equipped, or trained to perform their missions. Although the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review and current operational plans highlight the need to mitigate WMD attacks at home and abroad and DoD has doubled its investment in chemical and biological defenses since 2001 and plans to increase funding for this program during fiscal years 2006 through 2011, there is a misalignment between the high priority DoD states that it places on chemical and biological defense and the current low level of chemical unit readiness. Most of the Army's chemical and biological units, particularly in the National Guard and Reserve, are reporting the lowest readiness ratings -- meaning that they are not considered sufficiently qualified for deployment. This situation reflects critical personnel shortages, particularly in their key occupational specialty -- chemical operations -- and shortages of mission-critical equipment, such as decontamination equipment.
The GAO contends that the poor state of chemical units makes the United States vulnerable to attack. But one insider says that the report confuses two different types of chem units: the active-duty decontamination type and the 50 or so National Guard teams tasked with cleaning up after domestic Weapons of Mass Destruction attacks. The insider says that the Guard teams are plenty healthy ... but that their mission might be irrelevant.
The active units, the insider explains, are equipped and trained only for a foreign battlefield role: they have no homeland security mission. And since there's no chemical threat in Iraq or Afghanistan -- the chlorine-bomb attacks in Iraq clean themselves up -- these chem units are necessarily idle. But does that mean they should be neglected or actively stripped? he asks. The running down of chemical units is another one of those ugly consequences of doing too much with an army that's too small.
As for the National Guard "Civil Support Teams" and the beefier "Chemical Enhanced Response Force Packages" -- meant to help manage the cleanup in the wake of terrorists attack using nuclear, biological or chemical weapons -- those units have plenty of relatively modern equipment and no manpower problems, since they're not being mined for replacement infantry. And they aren't even allowed to go overseas, so their "deployment readiness" isn't an issue. The insider says that these teams "whined" their way into the GAO report because they want more gear they'll probably never use.
"The possibility of a CBRN terrorist incident doesn't justify the cost [of the teams]. That's why the Guard is pushing Congress to allow the CSTs/CERF-Ps to do all hazards, not just WMDs, and to go into Canada and Mexico [to do disaster cleanup] -- because they're bored to tears, nothing to do."
So what we've got, according to the source, is a bunch of traditional battlefield chemical units that are being stripped because they've got nothing to do in Iraq and Afghanistan ... and National Guard chemical teams that are just as idle and aren't being stripped, but perhaps should be.
--David Axe, cross-posted at War Is Boring