The Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies are contemplating "truly catastrophic" terrorist-strike scenarios that go well beyond recent exercises designed to test the reaction of civilian and military forces to biological and chemical weapons attacks, according to a senior Pentagon official.
"With an unflinching eye, we are taking a realistic look at worse-case scenarios," Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, said in a July 22 interview with InsideDefense.com.
Next month, Joint Task Force-Civil Support, a Virginia-based force assigned to lead the charge in supporting civil authorities in the event of a real attack, will conduct a four-day exercise -- Sudden Response '05 -- involving a nuclear terrorist attack against the United States, according to a task force spokesman.
Such scenarios are in line with an ongoing interagency assessment designed to help decision-makers identify gaps and seams in the government's ability to respond to multiple, simultaneous attacks involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive (CBRNE) weapons.
"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.
This spring the Department of Homeland Security led a congressionally mandated exercise, TOPOFF-3, that examined federal, state and local government agencies' ability to respond to terrorist attacks in two places -- a simulated biological attack in New Jersey and a simulated chemical attack in Connecticut.
Meantime, McHale's office in June minted a new Defense Department strategy for homeland defense and civil support, providing the most detailed framework for the use of military forces on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. That strategy identifies five "core capabilities" the military must put in place, including the need to establish forces with skills and equipment to support civil authorities in the aftermath of an attack involving weapons of mass destruction.
The Defense Department is working to determine what portion of its combat forces should be dual-hatted to support new homeland defense missions. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has directed that the Quadrennial Defense Review encompass this question, which could result in adjustments to the military's force structure, size and budget to accommodate new homeland defense responsibilities.
While QDR decisions regarding homeland defense are expected to take shape this fall, senior Pentagon officials are acting quickly to determine how best to implement the new strategy.
In late June, Gordon England, the acting deputy defense secretary, directed Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to draft by mid-September a plan for U.S. forces to protect high-priority domestic installations and personnel from terrorist attacks involving weapons of mass destruction.
This plan is expected to be influenced, in part, by an ongoing, Joint Staff-led "Baseline Capability Assessment for Consequence Management," which is to provide recommendations on installations and preparedness levels against CBRNE attacks. It also is expected to influence the shape of the Pentagon's fiscal year 2007 to 2011 spending plan.
England further directed Myers to examine training and readiness standards required for military forces whose capabilities are likely to be needed in the event of multiple, catastrophic domestic attacks.
In a separate effort, Pentagon force planners -- civilian and military officials responsible for matching forces against contingency plans -- are identifying combat units across the services that could be tapped to support consequence management missions at home in the event of attacks involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive weapons.
This effort is to fulfill an "execute order," approved this spring by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, that directs the military to be prepared to respond to more than a single domestic attack involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapon, said McHale. The order was issued by U.S. Northern Command, which oversees domestic military operations.
"Now we are in the process of identifying units, training units, equipping units," McHale said. "The Defense Department as a matter of policy recognizes the need to be prepared to effectively respond to multiple [weapons of mass destruction] attacks. And we are organizing our force structure and training to do just that."
The order sets out -- at least temporarily -- the current requirement for sizing U.S. forces to deal with civil support missions, the assistant secretary said.
"It's the current standard we have to meet but the QDR may well alter that assessment," McHale said.
Until recently, the Joint Task Force-Civil Support was the Defense Department's primary force dedicated to planning and integrating military support to civil authorities in the event of a domestic attack. Similar capabilities that are resident in this force will be replicated and spread out across the services rather than creating a second, identical joint task force, he said.
"The reason for that is we have to look at the possibility of multiple attacks differing in nature. We may have a combination of biological and chemical attacks happening at the same time. As a result, the task force we would deploy to one site would not reflect the same skill sets that we would deploy to the other," said McHale.
The Pentagon is looking to expand its roster of dual-use units that could be drawn on to support an attack. That lineup includes the the Marine Corps Chemical-Biological Incident Response Force, known as CBIRF; the Army Technical Escort Unit; the Army Chemical Biological Rapid Response Team; the Defense Threat Reduction Agency's Consequence Management Advisory Team; the Army's 52nd Ordnance Group, the Navy's Environmental and Preventive Medicine Unit; the Naval Medical Research Center; the Navy Defense Technical Response Group; the Air Force Radiation Assessment Team; and the Air Force Technical Application Center.