WMDs pose significant threat to homeland, deployed forces

Brig. Gen. Maria Gervais, commandant of the U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear School, discussed the threat of weapons of mass destruction posed by Islamic State, and state actors, Oct. 7, 2014, at a National Defense Industrial Association-sponsored breakfast, at The Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: David Vergun

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 7, 2014) — “Intelligence has recently discovered that ISIS intends to pursue biological agents and is also trying to figure out how to weaponize bubonic plague through the use of infected animals,” said Brig. Gen. Maria Gervais, speaking of the Islamic State.

“If that wasn’t enough, there still exists the ever-present threat from state actors such as North Korea and Iran, and the use of WMDs,” or weapons of mass destruction, said Gervais, who is chief of the Army’s Chemical branch and commandant, U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear School, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Gervais spoke Oct. 7, at a National Defense Industrial Association-sponsored breakfast at The Army and Navy Club here.

The greatest threat to this country is the intersection of technology and radicalism, she continued. “We must be prepared to bring our unique CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear) capabilities to the fight, and continue training the Army and joint force not only to survive, but to win in the CBRN environment.”

Current and future enemies will work to deny access. They will do that by employing WMDs and improvised weapons, she predicted. “We will see an enemy which will deny us our preferred way of conducting operations.”

U.S. forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have already faced CBRN threats, she said, mainly, IEDs containing CBRN ammunition, and the use of toxic industrial materials to make those IEDs more effective.

Elsewhere, U.S. forces have been proactive in removing and disposing of Syria’s chemical agents, she said.

“America led the way in the destruction of those Syrian agents,” Gervais remarked.


For the last 13 years, the Army has been focusing on counterinsurgency and stability operations. Lieutenant colonels on down, for the most part, never had to think about CBRN readiness or integrating it with overall operations, she said. Now, countering WMDs is regaining the attention she believes it deserves, as is a renewed emphasis on leader development.

An emphasis will also be on talent management. Gervais believes that a lot of officers with particular skill sets are in the wrong place, and the Army would benefit by moving them to positions where their expertise could be better utilized.

Gervais also noted that she’s working with U.S. 8th Army, U.S. Army Forces Command and the combatant commanders to try to incorporate more effective CBRN training into the combat training centers.

One thing that will make training less effective in the future is the deactivation of the only two smoke companies that can simulate CBRN battlefield conditions during live training, she said. Both companies are in the National Guard, and both have been offered up for force structure reduction.

A large-scale change that’s in the offing, she said, is the restructuring of 45 maneuver support companies. They’re all going to become hazard response companies. While there will be fewer personnel per company, they’ll have more multi-functional capability than the maneuver support companies currently have.

For example, she said, they’ll have the ability to do mounted and dismounted reconnaissance patrolling as well as decontamination capability.

Battalion headquarters will also be standardized, she said. Each battalion will be able to plan and conduct all types of CBRN missions, and will have a range of sustainment capabilities, allowing repairs to be made on equipment, electronic maintenance and so on.

There are still basic things that can’t be done due to security restrictions, she said. For example, CBRN cameras — used in CBRN training and investigations — still can’t talk to government laptops, since the use of thumb drives is prohibited. This necessitates carrying around a personal computer that’s non-government.

Another thing that’s lacking due to stringent security requirements is the ability of CBRN to access and talk to big databases in industry and the commercial chemical and biological communities.

Finally, “we need to take a more active role in the requirements process, shaping it as it moves through,” she said. “We need to become more involved in the acquisition process as well.” She noted that mechanisms are being set up to do just that, as well as collaborate better with industry.


“I’m still baffled by the fact that the ‘dragon’ Soldier has to be in the contamination or has to drive through it to know there’s contamination,” Gervais said. Dragon Soldiers are those serving in a CBRN capacity.

Commanders continue to depend on personal protective equipment and mitigation capabilities to ensure the survivability of their formations. Currently, there’s very little in the way of detecting a CBRN attack until after it hits the formations, she said.

“We have to change this,” she added.

Unfortunately, the posture of those forward deployed has been “to the right of boom,” she said, meaning reacting to CBRN threats. The focus has to change to “left of boom,” or proactive measures.

“We’ve been able to take the engineer Soldier and the [explosive ordnance disposal] Soldier out of the boom. How can we take the dragon Soldier out the boom? I think about that all the time,” she said, asking for solutions from the attendees, most of whom were industry reps.

A CBRN defense has to be time-sensitive, Gervais said, explaining that formations on the march can’t afford to wait for CBRN dragon Soldiers to arrive. Instead, capabilities need to be embedded in the formations. “Every Soldier and every platform should be a CBRN sensor.”

One of the big challenges is “our over-reliance on consumables, which drives up the cost for sustainment. I need your help. We have to reverse this trend,” she beseeched.

Another challenge: “We lack capability in bio-detection in near-real time, and early warning in general. We have to wait hours, or sometimes days, to even verify the use,” she said. “We cannot afford to wait for technology to provide us a silver-bullet solution to these complex problems.”

Subterranean and urban-area early-warning detection devices are other potential growth industries, she said.

In conclusion, she said budget issues loom large with sequestration just over the horizon. Equipping the force “should not be an exercise in discovery learning. Requirements must drive capability.

“Right now, we are placing commanders on the ground, where they have to make the choice, ‘do I fund my combat system or do I fund my CBRN technology?’ We shouldn’t put them in that position,”she said.

By David Vergun


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