The Defense Department this week will simulate a devastating nuclear terrorist attack against Charleston, SC, in an exercise designed to improve military support to civil authorities dealing with the aftermath of such a catastrophe.
Dubbed "Sudden Respond 05," the drill -- to be conducted by the Ft. Monroe, VA-based Joint Task Force-Civil Support from Aug. 15 to 19 -- is designed to refine military procedures for managing the consequences of an attack that would inflict mass casualties and visit punishing devastation on an American city.
"The device is a 10 kiloton bomb, so this is more than just your dirty, high-yield explosive with radiological material on it; it's an actual nuclear weapon," said Tom Sobieski, deputy for training and exercises at Joint Task Force-Civil Support, in an interview with InsideDefense.com.
For the last two weeks, the task force, which would spearhead the Defense Department's support for civil authorities leading the response, has conducted "in-depth computer modeling" analysis to predict the damage to the southern port, including its infrastructure, facilities, communications as well as how the radioactive plume might move through the atmosphere.
"What we're doing [through this exercise] is validating what we call our 'nuclear playbook' -- our operating procedures for how we would respond to a nuclear scenario," said Sobieski.
Joint Task Force-Civil Support -- part of U.S. Northern Command, which oversees the Defense Department's domestic military activity -- is a standing joint task force composed of active, reserve and Guard members from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, as well as civilian personnel. It is commanded by a federalized National Guard general.
Army National Guard Maj. Gen. Bruce Davis, the task force commander, will oversee the drill, which will include 164 members of his operation, dozens of role players who will represent other organizations the joint task force would work with, as well as representatives from South Carolina's state government and officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
While Charleston was selected as the target for this exercise, all of next week's activity will take place at the task force's Virginia headquarters. "Everything that's going to happen is happening here," Sobieski said.
While planned nearly a year ago, Sudden Response 05 will be conducted as the Defense Department steps up its effort to define the military's role in homeland defense missions.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense Paul McHale in an interview last month said the Pentagon, in partnership with other federal departments, is contemplating "truly catastrophic" scenarios that go well beyond recent exercises designed to test the reaction of civilian and military forces to biological and chemical weapons attacks.
"With an unflinching eye, we are taking a realistic look at worse-case scenarios," he said in the July 22 interview.
"We have begun to consider in a very focused way not only mid-range consequence management requirements of the type that could be met by a combination of existing and military and civilian capabilities, but also truly catastrophic events that would go beyond the normal range of challenges reflected in our more recent exercises," said McHale.
While Sudden Response 05 will delve into a catastrophic attack, it will not attempt to plot a response to more than a single attack. Earlier this year, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz approved an "execute order" that directs the military to be prepared to respond to more than a single domestic attack involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapon.
Sobieski said that before the task force tackles multiple, simultaneous attacks it needs to iron out its procedures for dealing with a single attack.
"We need to make sure we have a playbook in place for responding to a singular event until we moved on to a much more complex problem," he said.
The scenario for this attack was drawn from an approved list of disaster situations maintained by the Department of Homeland Security, Sobieski said.
However, it is similar to a scenario Graham Allison, former Pentagon assistant secretary for plans and policy and current Harvard professor, describes in his 2004 book, "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe."
A month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Allison wrote, the CIA presented President Bush with a report that al Qaeda had smuggled a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb into New York City. The president, according to the book, dispatched Nuclear Emergency Support Teams of scientists and engineers to New York to search for the weapon, which was never found.
Allison described the devastation that a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb would visit on Manhattan, were it detonated in the middle of historic Times Square, killing near 1 million people in a few moments.
"The resulting fireball and blast wave would destroy instantaneously the theater district, the New York Times building, Grand Central Terminal, and every other structure within a third of a mile to the point of detonation. The ensuring firestorm would engulf Rockefeller Center, Carnegie Hall, the Empire State Building, and Madison Square Garden, leaving a landscape resembling the World Trade Center site. From the United Nations headquarters on the East River and the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River, to the Metropolitan Museum in the eighties and the Flatiron Building in the twenties, structures would remind one of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building following the Oklahoma City Bombing," Allison wrote.
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