As war with Iraq becomes imminent, U.S. military readiness takes center stage. Concerns about readiness focus not only on our ability to successfully attack Iraq but on our ability to defend U.S. forces against an enemy regime that, if its existence is threatened, could have every incentive to use weapons of mass destruction. In any war with Iraq, military experts worry most about attacks with chemical and biological weapons. They have reason to worry, given the U.S. military’s lack of preparedness for such attacks.
In the Gulf War, military preparedness for chemical and biological attacks was so inadequate that teams of specialists had to be sent to the Middle East to provide “crash” training courses to deployed U.S. forces. According to one congressional report, it took six months to bring them up to speed.
Unfortunately, those same gaps in readiness remain. They are rooted in a lack of emphasis on such defenses by senior officers. Although nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) warfare specialists are reasonably well trained and cognizant of the needs for training individuals and units, senior commanders present a major block to implementing realistic and technically meaningful NBC training for the troops. NBC field training is unrealistic because it does not involve the simulation of a worst-case surprise attack and is sometimes optional. Although approximately 40 hours of NBC defense training are needed per year, the military services require only four hours of training per year for new recruits and two hours of refresher training annually thereafter. Moreover, the people overseeing the training do not have the right educational background—only 30 percent of officers in the Army’s Chemical Corps have degrees in the physical sciences. Although many senior officers view military NBC training as effective, that is not the view of the troops who will be on the front lines. This dismal state of affairs should be a wake-up call to officials of the Bush administration as they plan for a second war with Iraq.