Military forms special units trained to respond to possible WMD attacks

U.S. Northern Command, the military organization responsible for defense of the United States, is creating an array of trained and equipped units to respond to any significant event involving chemical, biological, nuclear or radioactive elements, its commander said Wednesday.

Air Force Gen. Victor (Gene) Renuart said the units are a response to the recognition that following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks the nation did not have "a standing capability to respond to an attack by weapons of mass destruction."

Creation of that capability was recommended by the 9-11 Commission, and this year Defense Secretary Robert Gates directed NorthCom to act, Renuart said.

The new units are to be able to deal with up to three simultaneous events involving release of chemical or biological agents or a nuclear or radioactive explosion, he said.

Although primarily intended to respond to a terrorist attack, the units also could react to a natural disaster, such as an earthquake that resulted in the release of toxic elements from a chemical plant, the general explained. The major new organizations have the unwieldy title of Chemical, Biological, Nuclear or Radiation Consequence Management Response Task Force.

The first unit, made up of 4,700 personnel, has been built around the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., and was certified as operational in October, Renuart said. A second unit will be created in the summer using South Carolina National Guard personnel and a third is planned, with its location yet to be determined, he said.

Renuart said each of the units will have three task forces. One will conduct assessment and reconnaissance of an event to determine what element is involved and to do some emergency medical evacuations. The second will provide more significant medical assistance, patient decontamination and evacuation. The third will provide logistical support, Renuart explained. The Pentagon has not asked for additional funds for the new units but may need funding for specialized equipment for the Guard units involved, he said. The general emphasized that the military units will not conduct law enforcement activities, although there may be some need to isolate an area contaminated by WMD.

They will go to "bring assistance to victims and to mitigate" the effects of the dangerous elements, he said. The post-Civil War Posse Comitatus Act prohibits the use of active-duty military personnel for domestic law enforcement. Renuart added that these new units will augment the 54 WMD-Civil Support Teams that have been established with state National Guard personnel.

They also will complement two existing organizations -- the Chemical, Biological Incident Response Force created by the Marine Corps in 1996 and the Army's Technical Escort Unit, which responds to discovery of possible radiological materials.

NorthCom is helping create task forces for emergency readiness, which will have two or three people, possibly retired military, who can help governors and their Guard commanders plan to respond to natural disasters or terrorist incidents. Task forces are being set up in five states as a trial, using grant funds, Renuart said. Asked if his command was changing anything in response to November's deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Renuart said they still were studying that event, but he thought U.S. civilian counterterrorist organizations in the major cities were much better prepared than those in India.

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