20th CBRNE Command: Organizing, Training, and Resourcing for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives Operations

By Burton, Brig Gen James B.; Burpo, Col F. John et al. | Military Review, July/August 2016 | Go to article overview

20th CBRNE Command: Organizing, Training, and Resourcing for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives Operations


Burton, Brig Gen James B., Burpo, Col F. John, Garcia, Capt Kevin, Military Review


In April 1980, a U.S. military operation of utmost strategic importance spectacularly failed before the entire world, bringing embarrassment to the United States, unease to our allies, and celebration to our adversaries. Eight Americans died without having ever been engaged by enemy forces in the operation that was aborted long before it was close to its objective. In the aftermath, Iranian television jubilantly showed the charred remains of the eight blackened American corpses during ensuing press conferences.

Operation Eagle Claw had aimed to rescue fifty-three Americans in two locations in the heart of Tehran who were taken hostage in the 1979 Iranian Revolution. This complex operation integrated operators from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and different intelligence agencies; forty-four aircraft from the different services; thousands of gallons of fuel; and a convoy of vehicles for insertion into a hostile city of over four million people. Forward reconnaissance had marked two locations in the desert, known as Desert One and Desert Two, for aircraft to land. C-130 aircraft from the Air Force, loaded with the rescue force and fuel bladders, would rendezvous with Navy helicopters piloted by marines at Desert One, where they would conduct refuel operations without illumination. From Desert One, the eight helicopters would ferry the rescue force to Desert Two on the outskirts of the city, where vehicles would be covertly staged to begin the infiltration early in the morning to the locations harboring the hostages. Expecting a firefight once the Iranians became aware of the rescue attempt, helicopters would arrive at a nearby soccer stadium to exfiltrate the hostages and rescue force to a nearby airport seized by Army Rangers so that a second fleet of fixed-wing transports could fly everyone to freedom.1

Leading up to Operation Eagle Claw, the teams involved from the different services and agencies had never operated together or conducted a full mission rehearsal. Mission command confusion and mission complexity contributed to the crash between a transport plane and helicopter resulting in American deaths, abandonment of equipment and sensitive information in the Iranian desert, and ultimately, the cancellation of the overall mission.

Analysis of the operation in its aftermath concluded that failure could largely be attributed to the services having brought together specialized, functional, stovepiped organizations on an ad hoc basis. Gen. Stanley McChrystal would later comment that, "At best, the plan was a series of difficult missions, each a variable in a complex equation. At worst, with an ad hoc team, it called for a string of miracles."2 The needed miracles did not happen, and the resulting failure would forever change the way the United States approached organizing, training, and resourcing special operations.

Applying Lessons of the Past to Better Prepare for the Realities of the Operational Environment

This article examines the Army 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives (CBRNE) Command's efforts in 2014 to 2015 to organize, train, and resource for CBRNE operations in order to achieve the Nation's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and CBRNE objectives. These initiatives are a conscious effort to avoid ad hoc organizational solutions that could lead to mission failures similar to Operation Eagle Claw.

Given the nexus of ideology, technology, and CBRNE materials employed by state and nonstate actors, the authors offer that WMD may be better viewed as a subset of the more encompassing term CBRNE, which more accurately reflects anticipated mission sets and serves as a broader lens for force employment. We suggest that dealing with future operational environments in accordance with recently published strategic guidance would best be accomplished by reorganizing Army CBRNE forces and regionally aligning them in preparation to execute their critical mission sets. …

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