"Gas Attack, This Is No Drill!"

By Admiral Robert F. Dunn, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The operations center plotted three missiles. Quickly, the large screen display showed the first missile splashed by an Aegis cruiser, about ten miles out. A hastily fired decoy from a small boy seduced the second into passing harmlessly astern. Then, with cries over the 1MC of, "Take cover, take cover!" a combination of Sea Sparrows and the Close-in Weapon System got the third one. Remnants of the missile showered topside and caused a momentary loss of electronics.

Then, as soon as the attack started, it stopped. People began to relax. A report of minor shrapnel damage topside was followed by giddy congratulations all around. But too soon. Suddenly, another symbol popped up on the screen and a nearby destroyer called, "Missile overhead!" Before anything could be done a tactical ballistic missile screamed down from a near-vertical approach and detonated in a flash 2,500 feet overhead.

Incredibly, Damage Control reported no hit, no near miss, no damage. Again, congratulations all around and the adrenaline high of survival. The screen was clear. The radar sweeps were negative. The electronic countermeasures equipment was silent. After a moment, the order was given to resume flight operations. Then, with a familiar (but often ignored) insistent clamor, the ship's Chemical Agent Point Detection System sounded an alarm. Initially, the unit had been connected to the ship-wide chemical alarm so that a chemical attack would be announced automatically on the 1MC speakers. But the frequency of false alarms had dictated restriction of the alarm, and it now resounded only on the bridge and in Damage Control Central. The skipper's first reaction was that it was another false alarm."

But on the flight deck, something was wrong.

A few stumbled around aimlessly. Some just sat down. Even some of the more senior yellow shirts could not seem to get moving. A couple of aircrew on their way to manning up stumbled and fell. Corpsmen raced from the island to investigate; they stumbled, too. The Medical Officer and the Damage Control Assistant (DCA), watching on the closed circuit television were the first to realize what had happened. They reported to the bridge what the captain had begun to suspect, that the last missile had probably delivered some sort of unseen agent over the flight deck. The agent probably had invaded the more accessible portions of the ship, also.

When the ship went to general quarters (GQ) all topside personnel had put on their gas masks, a procedure that had become standard after the Gulf War. The ship had been buttoned up-another standard GQ procedure. But in the absence of any intelligence to the contrary, topside air intakes remained open and the flight deck water wash down system had not been activated. Even the lack of wind aided the attack. Just before the missile attack the ship had been steaming downwind to get into position for the next launch, creating an essentially no-wind-over-the-deck environment. Acceleration and hard turns at the onset of the attack had not appreciably increased the relative wind, so any agent released was bound to find at least a part of its target. Worse, when the last missile exploded well above the ship, and the order to commence flight operations was given, some people removed their masks and pushed up their sleeves to cool off. The aircrews had no respiratory protection at all. They were the first to suffer.

On the bridge, while seeking advice from the DCA and the doctor, the captain suspended flight operations and cleared the flight deck. The LHD he had once commanded had a collective protection system (CPS) and more than a single set of protective clothing for each member of the entire crew, who had trained for chemical and biological defense (CBD) warfare. But this was a large-deck aircraft carrier. Nobody had figured how to conduct flight operations and simultaneously protect against CB agents, except for the standard antimissile defense and a lot of luck; that defense had now been penetrated and luck had run out. Neither the captain nor his ship were prepared.

Had the missile carried high explosive, the damage would have been repaired, any damaged aircraft sidelined, personnel casualties treated, and operations quickly resumed. But this was a chemical agent. Most of the planes on the flight deck and many on the hangar deck were contaminated. Most of the casualties appeared to be topside. Even the spaces needed to treat the casualties required decontamination.

As the CO evaluated the options offered by his few CBD-trained people, he realized that, personnel casualties aside, there was no capability for decontaminating the exposed aircraft. Some agents might be removed with detergent and water, but no effective monitoring and measuring capability was available. The DCA described certain chemically-treated paper, designated M8 and M9, designed to detect agents. But these small items would have to be placed in many locations on both the carrier and its aircraft-on surfaces that had been constantly exposed to jet fuel, hydraulic fluid, salt spray, and other contaminants (called "interferents" by CB experts)-by untrained people on a crowded flight deck. Inevitably, there would be confusion and results would be unreliable. Besides, the papers were very difficult to read in low light or darkness and sunset was rapidly approaching.

Other problems were surfacing. There was supposed to be one chemical protective garment for every person on board, but after not training with them for so long, the crew had difficulty performing even routine tasks, and suffered heat stress after a limited amount of exertion. Of greatest concern to the CO, however, was the amount of time it would take to decontaminate the exposed aircraft so vital to the mission, as well as the flight deck itself. Further, once contaminated, there was the certainty of through-suit permeation in a matter of hours. Suits earmarked for below deck personnel might be used as replacements by those whose suits had been exposed, but how would they perform the change? The decontamination stations had not been exercised for some time and in any event, were far too few to process the large number of contaminated personnel.

Certainly, flight operations were out of the question until the danger to the crew could be assessed and the remaining contamination cleared up. He ordered a course for open water. Not only was the flight deck temporarily inoperative, but the maintenance and servicing of aircraft was slowing to a crawl- squadron personnel wearing the cumbersome individual protective equipment (IPE) were bogging down. At least they had some protection; the fixed-wing air crews had none. He wondered whether something could be jury-rigged from the garments and masks used by the ship's crew, at least to get them safely from the island to the aircraft. Unfortunately, there was no way to use the standard CB mask with an oxygen mask. Clearly, some ad hoc procedures would be needed to get to uncontaminated aircraft oxygen.

As damage reports began to come in, the captain learned that casualties to his flight deck people were mostly respiratory distress and loss of vision. There were deaths, however; perhaps ten percent of those exposed already had succumbed. Those who were injured would probably need weeks to recuperate and would sorely tax the stamina and skills of medical personnel as constant antidotal therapy would be required to prevent further fatalities.

One thing seemed certain. His carrier was out of action, at least temporarily. He needed time and personnel to replace the well-trained team that had so successfully operated his flight deck. Could the hangar deck officer possibly spare enough people to permit the operation of the flight deck for very limited flight operations? Where were the replacement suits to come from should there be another attack? How badly affected were the crew that had been lucky enough to be below decks when the ship was contaminated? The CO realized that his was the first carrier to be essentially neutralized by enemy action since the World War II. He was not comforted by this thought.

That something like this has not occurred is more the result of happenstance than anything else. Blue water operations with plenty of warning, maneuvering room, and wind over the deck continue to color attitudes about the possibility of a mission-crippling CB attack. Money too, or the lack thereof, also plays a big role. When budget priorities are stacked up, CB defense for Naval Aviation most often gets positioned "below the cut."

This is not the case elsewhere. The Navy's surface ships and the Marine Corps both have programs to equip and train their units to survive and function in a CB environment. So has the Army. Because so much Navy and joint effort depends upon air power from the sea, naval aviation certainly should be similarly prepared. Otherwise, the ability of this most essential part of the Navy to contribute its full measure could well be compromised.

Aside from a basic acknowledgment of the problem, and taking advantage of ongoing efforts in the joint arena to develop a family of improved CB detectors and IPE, specific actions and funding along three fronts would enhance significantly the ability of aviation units to survive and continue to fight in a CB environment:

  • Doctrine. There is some CBD doctrine in one warfare publication and some Fleet Marine Force Manuals, but apparently very little knowledge of it. A serious deficiency exists in the definition of CBD management and relationship between ship platform and air wing. In any case, doctrine could be better defined, established and trained to. Included would be such things as tactical maneuver, use of water washdown systems, detection procedures, use of detection equipment and IPE, crew rotation schedules, decontamination requirements and procedures, disposal of contaminated equipment and guidelines for the recovery or bingo of aircraft from or to contaminated decks.
  • Training. Routine reports to operational and type commanders do not include readiness for CB defense. Inclusion of such information would at least create awareness. Beyond that, training in defense against CB warfare could well go beyond the DCAs and the medical people. Tactics, use of equipment, decontamination procedures, and the ability to continue to operate in a CB environment should be regularly practiced in exercises ranging from the classroom to those involving joint fleet operations.
  • Design. A program for correcting built-in ship and aircraft design problems could be developed and new systems should consider a CB warfare environment. For example, except for the V-22, today's aircraft and aircraft support equipment were built without consideration for exposure to chemical agents and their effects. The majority are susceptible to retention of agents on a host of hard-to service areas. Given the cumbersome nature of IPE it would seem to be bordering on the unsafe to man up and fly carrier aircraft wearing the protective gear available today. Further, the flight deck itself, invariably covered with the goo of hundreds of small dumps of jet fuel, oil and hydraulic fluid is hardly an easy place to decontaminate. Finally, and certainly not of least importance, it seems doubtful that existing shipboard decontamination facilities would be capable of handling the number of people needed to work topside while a ship is conducting flight operations. Such a short list only begins to describe the dimensions of the problem, which is exacerbated by the confined nature of the shipboard environment.

The commanding officer of any ship has much on his mind; and, the bigger the ship, the bigger the problems, in many cases. Carrier COs have the tools to manage most of their problems but the tools needed to manage the CB problem seem to be at the bottom of the priority list. One hopes they will move to the top, and soon.

 

 
 

Conferences and Events

2015 WEST Conference

Tue, 2015-02-10 - Thu, 2015-02-12

Co-sponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute, West 2015 is the largest event on the West Coast for...

2015 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

Ultimate Skybox at The Diamond View Tower

View All

From the Press

Radio Interview

Wed, 2014-12-24

Radio Interview

Wed, 2014-12-24

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership