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    Critical Change Before the Disaster: The Necessity of Modernizing the Approach to Domestic Post Nuclear Response

    Urban Search and Rescue

    Courtesy Photo | Soldiers with Joint Task Force Civil Support conduct urban search and rescue training...... read more read more



    Courtesy Story

    Joint Task Force Civil Support

    At 9:01 a.m., a box truck explodes in a downtown commercial district, releasing a lethal dose of radiation and inflicting third-degree burns on people up to three quarters of a mile away. The shock wave levels buildings within a half mile of the blast and damages structures up to a mile away. Those lucky enough to be two miles from the blast endure dangerous projectiles and the effects of an electromagnetic pulse. The police, fire departments, hospitals and emergency management centers are destroyed. Any survivors are injured, possibly blind from the flash and unable to communicate due to a loss of electricity and radio communications. There are multiple fires and the resulting mushroom cloud deposits radioactive dust over populated areas up to 100 miles away for the next 24 hours.

    Distraught parents frantically search for their children, teachers attempt to provide solace for crying students while worrying for their own families, and thousands of shocked-addled people aimlessly wander in confusion through the radioactive ruins of what was only a moment ago their home. Vehicles, bridges and debris obstruct traffic within two miles of the blast, compounding the chaos and mass confusion as people search for loved ones or try to flee the area.

    In a city of 500,000 souls, more than 12,000 people are killed instantly, nearly 20,000 will die in the days following, and some 52,000 will succumb to the radiological aftermath if not quickly treated through professional medical attention and decontamination. Cellular networks and call centers are overwhelmed or damaged, and transportation networks are disrupted, further isolating survivors from the rest of the world.

    The clock is ticking for viable survivors and the world is watching as major news networks report the incident. The time is now 9:02 AM.

    This example is a sobering reminder of the catastrophic, instant devastation a nuclear attack on a major population center would cause – the level of devastation that would necessitate a swift whole-of government response. Local and state agencies would immediately be impaired and overwhelmed. Presumably, the National Guard and neighboring emergency management responders would quickly be in the area to assist recovery efforts, but scarce resources and the limits of human endurance would drive the need for federal support.

    While an incident of this magnitude has never struck the U.S. Homeland, the federal government does prepare for this worst-case scenario. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Northern Command, U.S. Army North (when designated as a joint force land component command), Joint Task Force Civil Support, and the Defense Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Response Force (DCRF), are just a few of the federal and active duty military agencies who plan and train to respond on America’s worst day.

    The post-nuclear detonation operating environment sets the stage for amplified threats to response efforts that affect tactical, operational and strategic operations and objectives. Such hazards include the time-sensitive nature in which responders must operate to save lives, the delicacy of public opinion following a nuclear detonation within the U.S., and most notably, the post-detonation radiological environment. How can active duty military responders better prepare for a nuclear response within the U.S. to save lives, enable civil authorities’ stabilization of the incident, mitigate human suffering and prevent further injury?

    The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) must modernize how we train and equip the active duty military component to prepare for a nuclear detonation response. What’s more, this preparation must be done within the ever-evolving landscape of modern metropolitan areas preferably alongside local and state agencies. Taking full advantage of the fact that we have not yet faced this scenario to connect planning and training opportunities that allow us to refine and improve processes. Perpetual coordination is the greatest key to preparedness.

    The response to a nuclear incident will force a rapidly evolving and phased whole-of-government approach, necessitating a concurrent multi-echelon and interagency training program that includes all key stakeholders involved in such a scenario.

    Traditionally, DOD organizations have primarily exercised these scenarios at individual command levels with limited interaction from other stakeholders including—and in some cases those stakeholders or civilian agencies are replicated by third-party actors (i.e., contractors or other headquarters replicated by small active duty cells). Although all equities involved remain individually prepared to respond to a nuclear incident, key entities across the DOD, federal and states - as a collective response - lack opportunities to collaboratively work through potential unknown friction points. The insufficient multi-echelon and interagency training between DOD and civilian federal agencies does not exercise coordinating authorities and operations, test interoperable communications, or develop methods of critical information sharing. Yearly or bi-yearly exercises nested at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels, incorporating critical DOD and civilian agencies providing one another real-time feedback data, would go a long way in identifying friction points and developing a shared understanding of roles, responsibilities, capabilities, limitations and expectations.

    Joint Task Force Civil Support leverages a wide array of both military and civilian talent to analyze, develop, and refine plans for a CBRN incident and consistently collaborates with interagency partners, such as FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, to bolster potential response efforts, reduce interagency friction, and develop strong working relationships before a chaotic time of need; however, collaborative training by itself is not enough the meet the demand to save lives and ease suffering. Active duty responders require updated equipment, not for ease of mission, but to allow the free flow of communications and information sharing during the whole-of-government response.

    The post-detonation operating environment demands immediate search and extraction, decontamination, and medical operations, and every hour within a contaminated area decreases the likelihood of survivors. The time required to traverse highly-restricted contaminated terrain limits the ability of specially trained active-duty personnel to respond effectively. Although the DOD possesses adequate equipment to conduct Defense Support of Civil Authorities operations in a CBRN environment, it struggles to optimize itself with the necessary equipment to maintain real-time situational awareness, provide mobility assessments, remotely confirm survivor locations, or conduct rapid mass-casualty decontamination in a metropolitan area or during extreme temperature conditions.

    The sheer devastation of a nuclear detonation in an urban area, compounded by the potential loss of confidence in government and society, as well as the fear-driven decision-making of the general public who may no longer have full access to electricity, potable water, food, communications, or media, not to mention the uncertainty of another attack, lends itself to a chaotic environment not easily managed by responders at any level. This atmosphere demands rapid situational awareness to strategically employ active duty assets against two primary threats to victims - radiation and time.

    FEMA’s National Planning Scenario 1, wherein a ten-kiloton improvised nuclear device detonates at ground level in a major metropolitan area, provides context for the modernization push. We can make the following key assumptions in this scenario: (1) the timeline for lifesaving operations is critically limited to the initial 144 hours following the detonation; (2) responders may only operate in radioactively contaminated areas for a finite amount of time; (3) adversarial states may exploit the opportunity to imply response failures, while leveraging all forms of media and messaging.

    The environment where active-duty responders will work is physically demanding and threatening. The combination of mass chaos, radiation exposure, fires, cumbersome personal protective equipment, and endless fields of debris make lifesaving operations difficult. At the same time, responders have severely restricted mobility and are limited by how much time they can spend in a radioactively contaminated area. As illustrated, fundamental changes must revolve around training and equipping responders – with the ultimate goal of saving human lives.

    The DOD has mastered the art of decentralized operations, allowing tactical-level units to conduct operations without requiring continuous oversight from higher headquarters. However, post-nuclear conditions in a major metropolitan area require real-time situational awareness at the operational level to facilitate rapid, informed decision-making and share critical information with interagency partners. Active duty responders require small, lightweight equipment to collaborate geospatial information easily within a contaminated area. The equipment’s supporting software should communicate with dosimeter (radiation dose) readings and provide headquarters at the operational level with an accurate picture of the operating environment to predict trends and preserve lifesaving capability. Additionally, direct radiological readings from responders can provide real-time updates to refine fallout models instead of separate units continuously conducting radiological surveys.

    These software and hardware capabilities currently reside with National Guard forces, but still need to be adopted and tested by active duty personnel. Acquiring a collaborative geospatial capability for the active duty component will directly support commanders and their operational staff in making informed decisions regarding the employment of personnel within a radiologically contaminated area, thereby complimenting interagency partners’ crucial information about the operating environment.

    At the tactical level, unmanned aerial surveillance (UAS) systems, portable radiation detection portals, and dry decontamination assets will expedite critical aid to those impacted by a nuclear detonation. Integrating specially equipped UAS capabilities with military responders would help locate and identify viable survivors within a particular area and assessing mobility corridors to determine the fastest and safest route to save them. Such UAS systems would reduce the time expended on search, allow more time for extraction and simultaneously reduce the amount of time rescue personnel spend in a radiologically-contaminated area.

    It is difficult for most to envision thousands of panicked citizens, unaware of the effects of radiation exposure standing in long lines as masked military members clad in personal protective equipment slowly use hand-held radiation detectors to identify those who do and those who do not require decontamination. Integrating radiation detection portals – picture walkthrough metal detectors - would enable decontamination personnel to prioritize the treatment of individuals emerging from contaminated or potentially contaminated areas more efficiently. More importantly, decontamination personnel can quickly discern who is contaminated, and equally as important, who is not, thereby expediting medical treatment where it’s needed most. Further, integrating dry decontamination techniques will mitigate further injury to survivors and reduce the logistical burden of resourcing, heating, and removing water during decontamination operations. Hypothermia caused by wet decontamination during colder seasons may pose a more serious risk to survivors due to hypothermia than radiation exposure. In addition, the consequence of potentially inoperative water pumps or heaters, could result in even longer delays for those already panicked in the decontamination line.

    The U.S. is fortunate it has not experienced a nuclear attack, but it may only be a matter of time. The United States must start refining its approach to training and modernization to bolster resiliency and capitalize on its current state of readiness. Agencies regularly train for such an event and the U.S. does possess some equipment, and techniques to manage the consequences; however, multi-echelon training that includes all federal agencies will allow a pre-exercised, whole-of-government reaction. Sharing geospatial information, real time, between tactical and operational levels facilitates the most meaningful employment of active duty responders and assists interagency partners in refining fallout models. Lastly, modernized enabling technologies and techniques at the ground level will save more people, prevent further injury, and more rapidly mitigate human suffering, all while protecting U.S. service members and ensuring they are available for follow-on operations.

    The events and response described above may seem like a work of fiction, but unfortunately, they are a very real possibility. They serve as a stark reminder of the devastating consequences of nuclear detonations and the importance of global efforts to prevent their occurrence and strengthen the response if they should occur. As a global community, we must continue to work toward peace and disarmament, and never forget the terrible toll that a single moment of destruction can incur. It is up to us as a collective response community to ensure that we are ready if the world forever changes at 9:01 a.m.

    Joint Task Force Civil Support, assigned to USNORTHCOM, consistently seeks to modernize the training, equipment, and employment of service members during a post-nuclear response. JTF-CS serves as the DOD’s only standing, no-notice active-duty Joint task force poised to respond to a catastrophic Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) incident. Originally derived from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s guidance for establishing and providing mission for active duty military in a CBRN response, JTF-CS positions itself to rapidly deploy, receive military personnel, and provide mission command consequence management in support of the designated Lead Federal Agency. The CBRN Analysis and Force Modernization Cell within JTF-CS partners with higher and adjacent commands as well as civilian federal agencies to consistently research and identify recommendations to most efficiently employ lifesaving capabilities in a time-sensitive environment.

    In 2022, USNORTHCOM expanded the JTF-CS mission to include all hazards. JTF-CS applied lessons learned from the twelve years of nuclear detonation exercise scenarios and three years of COVID-19 pandemic response operations to hazards such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and catastrophic flooding now exercised or conducted in conjunction with nuclear response exercises.


    Date Taken: 08.11.2023
    Date Posted: 08.11.2023 11:13
    Story ID: 451196

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