February 24, 2004
The Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams (WMD CSTs) came about as a result of a National Guard Tiger Team report, an effort led by (then) Brigadier General Roger Schultz in January 1998. This report, developed in response to a Deputy Secretary of Defense tasking to integrate National Guard and Reserves into the federal response to WMD incidents, called for 10 Rapid Assessment and Initial Detection (RAID) teams, composed of 22 National Guard soldiers and airmen to directly support state requests for CBRN hazard expertise. This proposal followed the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo terrorist incident and the Defense Against WMD Act of 1996, which directed various measures to enhance homeland defense against terrorists armed with chemical-biological hazards. The Guard leadership initially saw this as a potential drain from their warfighting role and did not support it. The Army was internally divided on the issue, debating the actual value of these teams and the sustainment and training costs, literally millions per year per team. However, Defense Secretary William Cohen liked the idea, and in March 1998, he announced the formation of a special Defense Department group called the Consequence Management Program Integration Office (COMPIO) to run the program. President Bill Clinton also strongly supported the effort, mentioning the formation of the 10 teams to support state and local authorities in a speech to the Naval Academy in May 1998.
Discussions began almost immediately on the feasibility of fielding one team per state. The DOD implementation plan identified having one team per state as a desired end-goal, but was implementing RAID-Light teams, a smaller set of personnel and equipment, as an interim measure. This was not based on any threat or risk assessment identifying potential terrorist activities, but rather a desire to ensure each state had their own dedicated team just in case. This is the approach favored in Congress. Prior to any of the teams coming on line, Congress mandated in 1999 that DOD would field an additional 17 RAID teams in 2000 and five more in 2001, and that these teams proficiency be certified by the Secretary of Defense.
The RAID teams came under severe criticism from several agencies. The FBI and FEMA stated they saw no value added from the teams, since they already had the mission of leading any federal response to chemical and biological terrorist incidents. Many city and state emergency responders noted that the RAID reaction time (ideally within 4 hours, but probably more like 8-12 hours) was insufficient to get to the incident site to do much more than clean up and bag the casualties. There were already numerous public and private emergency response teams with HazMat equipment in many states. The name was also seen as too aggressive and later changed to its current title of WMD Civil Support Team.
COMPIO had an ambitious schedule to field the first 10 teams by January 2000, one per FEMA region. It failed to meet its schedule due to several reasons, primarily poor management over fielding a new capability with a mix of military and untested civilian equipment without a valid operational concept. There were no standards for certification, and COMPIO ignored the military doctrine and training centers that should have provided that expertise. COMPIO was dissolved in November 2000 because they were not delivering the teams on time, on schedule and at cost.
The program was absorbed into the DOD Chemical-Biological Defense Program. The U.S. Army Soldier Biological-Chemical Command developed and fielded two new pieces of equipment, the Mobile Analytical Laboratory System (MALS) and the Unified Command Suite (UCS), for the teams under DOD acquisition guidelines. The first ten teams were fielded and certified by October 2001, just in time to address mounting concerns over the potential for terrorists to employ CB agents in the homeland. The anthrax letter incidents in October-November 2001 reinforced desires for each state to own a dedicated WMD CST. The 27 teams originally identified to be fielded by the end of 2000 were all certified as operational in February 2003.
In 2002, Congress mandated DOD field an additional 23 teams, to raise the number to 55 full-sized teams (one more for California, one each for Guam, District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico). No resources were provided at first. The initial OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense) and Headquarters Army response was to push back and recommend against fielding any more teams. OSD developed an analytical study that showed they could move the existing 32 teams to different states to more efficiently cover the majority of metropolitan population rather than build more teams. This was a futile exercise, as Congress was more interested in achieving the previously expressed one-per-state goal and less interested in efficiencies. OSD relented and has agreed to field 11 more teams, with the other 12 still on hold. The Defense Science Board (DSB) released a Homeland Security report in August 2003 that suggested the nation needs these 55 teams, and in addition, 10 of them should be increased to match the U.S. Marine Corps Chemical-Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF) (150 or so personnel) as regional response units. That would certainly address the criticisms over the WMD CSTs limited capabilities and coverage.
The question is, with 22 personnel and a modicum of specialized equipment, what do these teams really do? Their primary focus was on assessing the hazard with specialized detection equipment and advising the local emergency responders. While their expertise is similar to HAZMAT teams, their limited mobility means that they are assisting the emergency responders in assessing and actions 4-8 hours after the discovery of the hazard. Because terrorist incidents and disasters call for a focused and intense response within the first few hours, the WMD CSTs may be of limited value unless they are mobilized and in place prior to the incident occurring. The state and local emergency responders call the WMD CSTs to double-check on WMD threats or hoax cases, but more often may participate on non-WMD disaster response missions. The question remains, does the potential threat justify a federal response program that fields teams that cost about $5 million to build and $2 million a year to sustain each? The cost of fielding and sustaining a capability identified by the DSB would be very large, and the benefits questionable. Most studies suggest that terrorists, domestic and foreign, will continue to use traditional explosives and conventional tactics to cause terror, because these methods still work fine. While a CB terrorist incident may have high consequences, the probability of one ever occurring and causing mass casualties appear very low.
For more information, see:
GAO/NSIAD-99-110, Combating Terrorism: Use of National Guard Response Teams Is Unclear, May 1999.
-- By Al Mauroni (author of Chemical and Biological Warfare: A Reference Handbook)