Ready To Respond On America's Worst Day
In the early morning hours of May 21, 2020, more than 100 U.S. Army Soldiers were simultaneously torn from sleep by a barrage of emails, texts and phone-calls. Whether the messages came in black text or a crackling automated voice, they all bore the same ominous message... Report to headquarters. An incident has occurred, and you’ve been called to respond.
The men and women of Task Force 46, referred to more commonly as “The 46th” or “Peacekeepers”, carry the Nation’s mission to respond within 24 hours anywhere in the homeland in the event of a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, or Nuclear (CBRN) attack.
This morning’s sudden wake-up call was a Deployment Readiness Exercise (DRE), the first such no-notice exercise that this headquarters unit will execute to test its ability to get Soldiers from their homes or other off-duty locations to fully-mission-capable at the point of need rapidly. In this scenario, a notional nuclear detonation occurred in Seattle, and the unit was expected to muster as they would in the event of a real-world incident.
“Speed is critical,” said Maj. Gen. Michael Stone, Commanding General of Task Force 46. “This would undoubtedly be America’s worst day. Lives saved are counted in minutes, and the capabilities that the Army brings to bear can save those lives.”
Though the Peacekeepers have extensive experience with CBRN response, the 46th assumed this unique mission to command and control the defense CBRN response force (DCRF) on April 29. The 46th provides a reliable caretaker for the mission while the unit that operates it regularly, U.S. Army North’s Joint Task Force-Civil Support (JTF-CS), is supporting the Department of Defense’s (DOD) COVID-19 response in New York and New Jersey.
On this day in particular, the Peacekeepers are racing against the clock. They are expected to emerge from sleep and be fully-packed and mustered at the headquarters within a couple of hours. A few hours after that, the 46th is expected to be at a local airbase for departure, bags loaded and ready for airlift.
More than simply moving, though, the Peacekeepers will simultaneously mobilize and integrate into the disaster response while on-the-go, coordinating with emergency response officials and building lines of communication with other emergency response elements, including subordinate Army response forces and civilian agencies from the federal, state, and local governments.
The more than 100 Soldiers being exercised today are responsible for nearly 5,000 Soldiers in total when called upon for a disaster response mission. These thousands of Soldiers remain on standby in the DCRF’s supporting units and hail from Army units across the United States. Mobilizing so many Soldiers and equipment requires careful coordination and plenty of practice. It begins, says Capt. Greg Appold, commander of Task Force 46’s Headquarters Company, at the top.
“Our supporting units in the DCRF are relying on our headquarters for the critical information they need in those first few hours to get moving quickly themselves,” says Appold. “The faster we move, the better our information, and the sooner we can provide guidance and Mission Command to them, the more time they will have to process that information and take care of the units that support them, too.”
The Peacekeepers are no strangers to this operating environment. The 46th’s headquarters is constituted from the 46th Military Police Command (46 MPC), one of two Military Police commands in the Army, and a part of the Michigan Army National Guard. Since 2016, the 46 MPC has continuously carried the mission for Command and Control CBRN Response Element-B (C2CRE-B), a mission with a similar response to CBRN attacks in the homeland, but with a longer recall time.
“The C2CRE-B mission that our Soldiers are intimately familiar with requires us and our enabling downtrace units to mobilize to a location of need within 96 hours,” said Stone. “Adding the DCRF, we now need to have the headquarters ready and there in 24 hours, plus the enduring mission to command and control the CRE mission three days later. The tactics, techniques, and procedures we’ve brought from our time on the C2CRE-B mission have been invaluable, and exercises like this one hone those tactics and procedures even more.”
“The purpose of today’s DRE, in addition to proving the plan for moving the headquarters quickly, was to test the details in that plan,” said Appold. “Complete success today means walking away with a laundry list of tweaks and adjustments so that our next deployment exercise is even smoother, more efficient, and more effective toward overall mission accomplishment.”
Communication, according to Col. Tom Vern, Chief of Staff of Task Force 46, was the most critical lesson learned from the DRE.
“We always knew how vitally important communicating on the move is for us, but putting it into practice and making sure we’re keeping our Soldiers from the Command Staff to our supporting, enabling brigades constantly in-the-loop on current updates all while pushing hard to get out the door is an art form that will always require constant refinement,” Vern said. “We’re fortunate; our staff has already had their heads in a complex operating environment for months, and shifting focus from the COVID-19 response to DCRF operations came smoothly.”
Like JTF-CS, the 46th was tapped to support the DOD’s COVID-19 response effort, initially providing command and control to response elements in the states comprising the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s regions V, VI, and VII. These states represent a large swath through the middle portion of the U.S from Michigan to New Mexico. As the DOD COVID-19 response mission matured, the 46th accepted responsibility for more regions, including VIII, IX, and X to the west, then regions III and IV, in the southeast.
As FEMA’s needs for DOD support have evolved through most of the regions the 46th supports, the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) leveraged the Peacekeepers’ expertise with CBRN disaster response to oversee the DCRF, backstopping JTF-CS while it’s engaged in the COVID-19 trenches in the northeast.
“It can’t be understated, how complex and dynamic the emergency response environment is right now,” said Stone. “We’re providing support to FEMA in the COVID fight while making sure our Soldiers are always ready for a catastrophic CBRN attack in the homeland, and doing both without degrading the ability of either. I’m proud of my Soldiers’ flexibility, adaptability, and unwavering professionalism in such a dynamic battle.”