The Writing on the Wall

By Captain Jason L. Morris, USMC

This excerpt from a U.S. Army paper on chemical warfare describes the German gas attack at Ypres, Belgium—the first successful German chemical attack of World War I—and the inhumane effects that it had on its victims in the French trenches. The attack was the result of the German Army's determination to break the strategic deadlock on the Western Front; it marked the beginning of the escalation in chemical warfare by both sides that ceased only with the signing of the Armistice in November 1918. It serves as a lesson to all military professionals about the danger of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons—on an unsuspecting or unprepared force. It begs us to ask the question at every level of command: Am I preparing my Marines to be able to shoot, move, and communicate on the chemical and biological battlefield of the near future?

Historical background

Since the attack at Ypres more than 80 years ago, many nations, including the United States, have made significant advances against the effects of weapons of mass destruction—in detection, protection, and decontamination. While the Geneva Protocol of 1925, along with other international agreements, including the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, has served as the nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) warfare rule book, it has been violated on numerous occasions in every corner of the globe—from Manchuria to Afghanistan to Iraq. Fortunately, American forces have not felt the sickly embrace of these weapons since World War I (Persian Gulf controversy aside), mainly because the United States has renounced their use and threatened overwhelming retaliation against any foe who employs them.

Present Political and Military Situation

Most military visionaries agree that for now, and potentially the next 20-30 years, no nation poses a direct military threat to the United States, but as the Commandant of the Marine Corps has stated, "[The] increasingly chaotic international political environment has dramatically increased the number of potential crisis spots in the world where the National Command Authorities (NCA) might commit military forces." 2 The U.S.-led coalition's lopsided victory in Operation Desert Storm forced potential aggressors to evaluate their own military capabilities and philosophies; most probably asked themselves: "If the Iraqis were crushed so quickly in conventional warfare, what military capability could I employ if it came time to challenge American interests?" Weapons of mass destruction are well within their capabilities. It is the continuing proliferation of such weapon systems—and of the will required to use them—that presents our Marines with their greatest threat.

A Critical Vulnerability

At least since the Vietnam War, the strategic center of gravity of any American operation has been the political will of the American people; political backing for sustained operations seems to vary inversely with the casualty rate. Looking at the options available to a Third World nation, insurgent, or terrorist, from their perspective, the greatest bang-for-the-buck obviously lies in chemical and biological weapons. As Brigadier General John C. Doesburg, U.S. Army, Joint Program Manager for Biological Defense, said recently, "Anybody that makes home-brewed beer can make anthrax." 3 As the gap between rich and poor nations increases, and the competition for scarce resources grows more intense, weapons of mass destruction easily could dissolve today's U.S. conventional military superiority. A military strike with such weapons could be a terrorist's coup de grace, causing numbers and types of casualties that the American people would not accept.

The Marine Corps' most critical combat vulnerability is its general unpreparedness to defend against an NBC attack. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting , defines critical vulnerability as one " . . . that, if exploited, will do the most significant damage to the enemy's ability to resist us." When a unit focuses its combat power on the enemy's critical vulnerability, it creates the opportunity for a decisive blow against a center of gravity. America's enemies of the future, not governed by the laws of a nation-state and unable to trade blows on the conventional battlefield, could surprise our unprepared forces with a massive chemical-biological attack that would harm not just Marines, but America's center of gravity—its will to fight. The great equalizers of the future battlefield will be the weapons of mass destruction.

Fleet Marine Force Training Today

Factoring in the current trend in proliferation and chaos in today's world, one would like to think that the Marine Corps has increased its focus on solid, realistic NBC training in all operational environments. One would like to believe that all levels of command were making sure that their Marines were capable of not just surviving a NBC attack, but of carrying on to accomplish their mission until decontaminated.

Unfortunately, too few units actually are conducting such training; they have given it low priority because it is expensive, hard to schedule—and uncomfortable. Ask yourself:

  • When did you last conduct NBC training, aside from the annual field protective mask confidence test in the gas chamber or for a functional area inspection?
  • When did your unit last operate in various levels of mission-oriented protective posture (MOPP) throughout the workday in garrison or in the field to learn how to do more than just "survive" in it?
  • Can my Marines move in MOPP level 4 and accomplish simple work-related tasks for short or extended periods of time?

Upon reflection, if we find that our Marines are unprepared to operate in an NBC environment, we must correct the deficiencies. Training is challenging, but unless we train our Marines to a high standard we are cheating them. Starting with individual skills, Marines must work up to proficiency in unit-level operations—and not just in the combat arms. Motor transport officers must be taught how to set up a decontamination site for their rolling stock and their Marines must master techniques for driving in MOPP level 4. Air support control officers must be taught how to operate in a direct air support center in MOPP 4 under the threat of an NBC attack. Supply officers must be taught how to conduct warehouse operations wearing the gear and how to protect their inventory from the threat of NBC attack. We cannot wish the threat away because it is too hard. The Corps must be the most ready when the nation is the least ready.

The Basics and the Solution

What are the basics for solid NBC defense training? Focusing on progressive training, the building-block approach and a proper evaluation, a commander should start with individual skills before attempting team-crew drills or squad and section evolutions. Using existing training references, the commander should go to the faithful Battle Skills Training/Essential Subjects Handbook , Marine Corps Institute Order P1500.44C of 15 September 1989 (an outdated version, to be sure), which lists the essential battle skills for NBC Defense in the Initial Stage, Combat Skills Tasks, under task numbers ICBT-08.01 through 08.21. It is in these skills that the Commandant directed that "all Marines, regardless of grade, MOS [military occupational specialty], billet, or unit . . . achieve and maintain efficiency." These essential battle skills—the very basics that every Marine should know in order to survive in an NBC environment—are simple standards to train toward; they should be incorporated into scenario-based training throughout the Fleet Marine Force, regardless of MOS. The battle skills listed below will provide individual Marines, if trained to standard, with the skills required to survive the initial shock of an NBC attack. Specifically, a Marine must be able to:

  • Identify NATO NBC markers.
  • Maintain the M40 field protective mask. Replace filters in the mask.
  • Don, clear, and wear the mask.
  • Stow the mask with hood.
  • Don individual protective clothing to MOPP Level 4.
  • Drink, use the head, and demonstrate preparation for sleep in MOPP level 4.
  • Remove individual protective clothing.
  • React to chemical or biological attack.
  • Identify/treat a nerve, blood, blister, choking, and riot-control agent casualty.
  • Take immediate action for a nuclear or imminent nuclear attack.
  • Decontaminate the skin using the M258A1 decontamination kit.

Training to standards in these battle skills, coupled with the ability to communicate and operate one's weapon system in MOPP 4, then must be integrated into collective training standards found in the Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation System—the training that enables the Marines to function as a team. Monitor-survey team skills, with the organic expertise of the unit's NBC officer and noncommissioned officers, also must receive frequent and progressive training to hone their skills and keep them sharp. Building from the team level, squad training must incorporate the rigors of operating in the restrictive gear that will allow the unit to accomplish its mission. Concurrently, Marine small-unit leaders must be forced to lead their units under these trying conditions, so they will understand the physical and mental courage required, above and beyond garrison leadership in starched utilities.

A noncommissioned officer must be able to lead Marines by using the techniques and procedures required to accomplish the mission and get the unit through the initial contamination until its Marines can move to the battalion's hasty decontamination site. Survival on the NBC battlefield should be integrated into all levels of unit training. While it is impossible to train for every contingency or threat, the threat of an NBC attack is real and should be receiving the attention it deserves in this age of proliferation and uncertainty. Success in war or operations other than war will continue to be built upon "repetition and coordination of individual and collective skills developed at the squad, section, platoon and company levels," as a Marine Corps publication puts it. Recognizing the threat at hand, it is imperative that we make the best use of precious training time.

Deployed Units Cannot Rely on Strategic Assets

The Corps must refocus its training efforts in NBC defense. The Commandant created the Chemical, Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF) in 1995 to fill a void in NBC capabilities that were identified at the strategic level. Although it is not the only such unit in the nation's Chemical and Biological Defense Command (run by the U.S. Army), it is the one that Marines know best. The Commandant directed that this unit "will be manned with properly skilled and trained personnel . . . equipped with state-of-the-art detection, monitoring, and decontamination equipment . . . suited for a wide-range of military-civilian contingencies." 4 While a very capable unit indeed, it was never intended to protect the deployed units, to include combat, combat support, and combat service support units, that would initially be subjected to the horrors of NBC warfare.

The unit presently is overextended—training the civilian agencies that will bear the brunt of a domestic NBC attack, and standing by to react to a global National Command Authorities' requirement. Nevertheless, the unit's Marines are providing their much-needed expertise to our Marine expeditionary units (special operations capable) prior to their deployment overseas. Those units not part of these deploying air-ground task forces, however, must prepare themselves using the organic assets of the Marine division, wing, or force service support group. They will have to rely on their own training and ability to operate in an NBC environment until the experts at the operational and strategic level arrive on-scene. Unless things change, however, the only thing that our follow-on NBC units will be able to do for unsuspecting, untrained Marines killed in an NBC ambush will be to decontaminate their bodies for movement back to the United States and prepare their gear for reissue.

"It was 1900 and the sun was setting. My friend had been watching for months . . . waiting. Day after day, he would park his truck on the seaboard, pretending to catch up on some well-needed sleep, but taking note of every detail of the Marine base. The sentries at the main gate were relieved every four hours, but they were always there. Marine foot-mobile and vehicular patrols would depart randomly for their assigned routes throughout the city—trying to win the hearts and minds of our people. They would often inquire as to his presence as they walked by, but figured him harmless, for he was parked 200 meters from the base. The Marine vehicles would leave through the main gate from the expeditionary airfield en route to deliver supplies to their forces inland. At night, the majority of Marines would go to their tents—nicely arranged with military efficiency at the rear of the base, away from the wire fences and the threat of explosives—while a two-man interior guard would casually walk the huge perimeter. There was very little time to waste. . . .

Today, the tide would turn—today was different. With the help of some local chemists, schooled in America, but very much a part of the Struggle, they had procured the chemicals necessary to mix a quite deadly potion of gas. The weapon system in the back of my new truck would be unleashed on the Marines; it was a weapon that could make a difference. Ambushes aside, the Marines were winning and something had to be done about it. The gas would finally give the Struggle the upper hand. The hundreds of gas canisters, all tied into a central release valve, would release an odorless, colorless poison gas—the likes of which the world had never seen.

The wind direction was perfect. At 2235, when the interior guard was on the far side of the base, I moved to the back of the truck, turned the valve, quickly walked in the other direction. The growing invisible gas cloud was lined up to roll over the main gate sentries and blanket the tents with Marines in their racks.

Quickening my pace, I looked over my shoulder, seeing that the sentries had already fallen, twitching in the last throes of death, unable to warn their sleeping comrades in their cots just a couple of hundred meters away. The Marines must have left their detection technology on the ships. How convenient. . . .

There was enough poison gas in the truck, the chemists had said, to cover half of the city. Fortunately, the wind was carrying the gas out to sea, but it really did not matter. Today was different . . . the Great Imperialists will finally listen!"

The preceding passage is from a fictional terrorist's "diary of the future." It is hypothetical, but realistic in perspective and possibility. The potential is there, if the Corps decides to pay only lipservice to NBC training in the evolving chaotic future, for this disturbing scenario to unfold. No amount of high-speed gear in the NBC warehouse will protect our Marines from this type of threat, especially if the rifleman is untrained; only the alert and well-trained Marine will be able to defend against this type of attack—and the well-trained Marines will survive only if they are ready.

No Marine leader wants to lose Marines to enemy attack, especially to an identified threat. Yet, by ignoring the proliferation and accessibility of weapons of mass destruction to our enemies at home or abroad, and without a renewed commitment to NBC defense training in the Corps, this is exactly what we are risking in the very near future. The Corps must take the NBC threat seriously, and refocus its efforts on training Marines and their small-unit leaders to operate in the most realistic battlefield conditions possible. One does not have to look very far—the World Trade Center explosion or the terrorists' use of the nerve agent Sarin in the Tokyo subway—to see the writing on the wall.

Captain Morris, an infantry officer, is an instructor at the Infantry Officer Course, The Basic School, Quantico, Virginia. He served as a platoon leader with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, and later commanded Headquarters Company, 4th Marines.

   1. Charles E. Heller, Leavenworth Paper #10-Chemical Warfare in World War I: The American Experience, 1917-1918 (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Command and General Staff School Press, September 1984) pp. 7-9. back to article
   2. "MPF 2010 and Beyond—A Concept for the Conduct of Maritime Prepositioning Operation in the 21st Century" Marine Corps Gazette , February 1998, p. A-2.
back to article
   3. "U.S. Forces Prepare For Chemical, Biological Blitzkrieg," National Defense , September 1997, pp. 40-42. back to article
   4. Commandant's Planning Guidance, July 1995. back to article



Conferences and Events

2016 Coast Guard Academy Conference

Mon, 2016-10-24

US Coast Guard Academy

As part of The U.S. Coast Guard Academy 2016-2017 Leadership Lecture Series The U.S. Naval Institute presents Historical and...

Maritime Security Dialogue

Defense Forum Washington 2016

View All

From the Press

Guest Lecturer & Book Signing

Sun, 2016-10-30

Book Launch Party

Wed, 2016-11-02

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