In today’s volatile, uncertain, challenging, and ambiguous political and military environment, the U.S. first-responder community is being assisted by a key Department of Defense (DOD) homeland-security asset: the U.S. Army’s 20th Support Command CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosives). The support provided is designed to help state and local first-responder agencies in situations ranging from natural or manmade disasters to what are called National Special Security Events – e.g., presidential conventions and inaugurations, World Trade Organization meetings, and the International Olympics.        

The DOD support for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the nation’s first-responder community in general is authorized under the National Response Plan (NRP).  Under that plan, requests for DOD assets and capabilities are assessed in the context of a number of relevant factors – the availability of various specialized operating units, for example, and the appropriateness of their use to support a specific event. For practical purposes, DOD prefers requests to identify a capability rather than a specific unit (some units simply may not be available at any given time, but DOD might be able to provide the same capability by using other assets). The process for requesting DOD capabilities, such as those provided by the 20th Support Command, to support the response to a presidentially declared disaster and/or to assist in coping with a terrorist incident usually runs more or less as follows:  

  1. The incident commander determines that a certain support capability is required but is not available locally;
  2. A support request is submitted to the appropriate state emergency management agency to determine if the support can be provided by state or local assets or may be available from other states – perhaps through Emergency Management Assistance Compacts (EMACs);
  3. If the support requirement cannot be met within the state it is forwarded, as expeditiously as possible, to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); 
  4. FEMA determines whether the requirement can be met within the federal structure – and, if so, takes the next step in the process – i.e., generating a support request to the DOD representative assigned to an appropriate Joint Field Office (JFO);
  5. Finally, assuming that all legal and jurisdictional requirements have been followed, the request is forwarded to the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), which makes its own evaluation of the request and, if the support request meets the criteria postulated, determines the availability of various military units considered to be capable of providing the support. If and when required, an affirmative decision is obtained from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the unit or units designated are tasked to provide the support. 

Inaugurations and Anthrax Letters Among the prime examples of previous support missions carried out by units of the 20th Support Command are the deployment of explosive ordnance detachments (EODs) to assist in the 2001 and 2005 presidential Inaugurations and the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002. The command also provided a team from the 22nd Chemical Battalion (Technical Escort) to support inspection and decontamination operations when anthrax-laden letters were received at the Senate Office Building in October 2001. A major command of the U.S. Army’s Forces Command (FORSCOM), headquartered at Fort McPherson, DOD prefers requests to identify a capability rather than a specific unit (some units simply may not be available at any given time, but DOD might be able to provide the same capability by using other assets). Ga., the 20th was officially established on 16 October 2004. 

Previously, the Army’s CBRNE assets were under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Material Command, but were not as well or totally integrated or coordinated as they are under the 20th Support Command.   After all of the command’s subordinate units have been fully fielded several truly national support capabilities will be available through deployment of, among other units, the 71st Ordnance Group, the 48th Chemical Brigade, and the 111th Ordnance Group (Army National Guard).  

All are EOD units except the 48th Chemical Brigade. The mission statement approved for the 20th outlines the command’s operational mandates and states, “The 20th Support Command (CBRNE) integrates, coordinates, deploys, and provides trained and ready forces, and is prepared to exercise command and control of full-spectrum CBRNE operations to Joint and Army force commanders.” A Broad Spectrum of Missions The 20th maintains technical links with appropriate joint, federal, and state CBRNE assets – and with a number of research, development, and technical commands and agencies – to ensure that the Army’s CBRNE-response units are always ready. The command also provides training for and readiness oversight of the 111th Ordnance Group (EOD), a National Guard asset.   

The command’s assigned tasks and specific mission capabilities fall into a number of “umbrella” categories, including but not necessarily limited to the following: advice and consultation; incident management; sampling, detection, and monitoring; limited decontamination; packaging; escort; “Render-Safe” procedures; elimination; disablement; and analysis. One of the command’s better known units is the 22nd Chemical Battalion (Technical Escort), formerly the U.S. Army Technical Escort Unit (USATEU), which has a distinguished operational history dating back to the pre-World War II era.  Support to civil authorities was officially added to the command’s Mission Essential Task List (METL) in 1996, when Congress passed Public Law 104-201 and the president later released Presidential Decision Directives (PDDs) 39 and 62.  The TEU was used to aid in the establishment of a domestic-preparedness training program, which helped develop a “train-the-trainer” program designed to assist emergency responders in many large metropolitan areas.   

An Abrupt Recognition of Disturbing Realities The 1996 legislation also directed DOD to help other federal, state, and local agencies in enhancing preparedness for terrorist attacks involving the possible use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).  More specifically, P.L. 104-201 spells out in detail the types and quantity of DOD support for national-defense operations countering weapons of mass destruction; PDD 39 defines policies related to the federal response to threats or acts of terrorism involving nuclear, biological, and/or chemical materials; and PDD 62 outlines and fixes responsibilities spelled out under the lengthy and somewhat unwieldy title U.S. Protection Against Unconventional Threats to the Homeland and Americans Overseas.     

After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 several relevant facts became painfully evident.  First, that local emergencies can become national emergencies in very short order. Second, that the federal response to large-scale emergencies had to be much better coordinated than it was at the time of the 9/11 attacks. Third, that that same federal response – in particular, the capabilities provided by DOD assets – would have to be robust, available on short or no notice, and designed to routinely work with state and local first-responder assets to ensure a more effective response in times of future disasters and/or in support of special events.   The U.S. Army’s establishment and continued strengthening of the 20th Support Command CBRNE represents an important common-sense step forward in supporting not only the nation’s armed services but also all agencies, public and private, uniformed and civilian, of the greater U.S. first-responder community.

For additional information about the 20th Support Command refer to the unit website at Although the preceding article was drafted through the author’s research, using both official and unofficial information sources, it does not necessarily represent the official position of the U.S. Army or the U.S. Department of Defense.

Brent Bankus

Brent C. Bankus retired as a promotable Lieutenant Colonel from the Army National Guard Active Guard Reserve Program with over 25 years service. His military career, beginning in 1979 as an Armor/Cavalry officer encompassed command and staff positions in the U.S. Army, Army National Guard, and the Army Reserve. He has served in assignments within the United States and Germany as well as missions to Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Sinai, Eritrea, Guam and Hawaii. He has a BS from Bloomsburg University, PA, an MS in Information Management from Strayer University, VA and an MS in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps Command and General Staff Colleges and the U.S. Army War College. He is a consultant with Resource Consultants, Inc.

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