COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosive (CBRNE) Command's nuclear disablement team (NDT) 2, out of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, and the command's hazard response platoon, 51st Chemical Company, out of Fort Stewart Ga., made up the ground collection team of the national technical nuclear forensic (NTNF) ground collection task force (GCTF) as part of Exercise Prominent Hunt 18-2 in Colorado Springs, Sept. 17-21, 2018.
The Department of Homeland Security facilitates the exercise which is held twice a year to ensure that the United States is ready to respond to a nuclear terrorist event.
According DHS, technical nuclear forensics is a scientific discipline which applies a variety of techniques to characterize nuclear or radiological materials. Nuclear forensic conclusions can be used to identify manufacturing processes, individuals, facilities and geographic locations. By helping to identify perpetrators, nuclear forensics enables the U.S. government to hold fully accountable any state, terrorist group, or other non-state actor that supports terrorist efforts to obtain or employ nuclear devices.
The NTNF GCTF is comprised of operational components from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Department of Defense (DOD) with the 20th CBRNE Command and the Air Force Technical Applications Center (AFTAC). Additional support came from the Army Reserve Aviation Command (ARAC), DOE Aerial Measurement System (AMS), and other Colorado law enforcement and emergency response assets, through the jurisdictional FBI Denver Field Office. The knowledge and expertise from each of the agencies involved is necessary to accurately and effectively determine the origin of a terrorist initiated nuclear device.
During the exercise each one of the components is assigned specific roles and responsibilities to capitalize on the strengths of their respective agencies.
The Army's role is to provide the collection of nuclear debris and material, according to Lt. Col. Benjamin Thomas, team chief for NDT 1.
"We provide the command, control, and planning support for the ground collection mission," said the Atlanta, Georgia native. "Our area of expertise is collection, we provide the boots on the ground to collect the material to support attribution."
Collecting the right sample material is what determines if the nuclear device can be attributed to a domestic or foreign source. The Air Force Technical Applications Center provides the guidance on what to specifically collect in a debris sample.
"AFTAC provides the scientific requirement," said Thomas. "The DOE helps plan the collection mission based on the scientific requirement defined by AFTAC, the Army collects, DOE receives and triages the sample, and the FBI transports it to the national laboratory where it is analyzed in support of attribution." Thomas emphasized this is not an indication of attribution but only the technical information needed for the attribution process.
The NDTs assigned to the 20th CBRNE Command have a unique capability and are the only units of their kind within the entire United States military.
"We stand by on a six-month prepare to deploy order," said Thomas. "Once notified we assemble at our home station, or wherever we are located. Within two hours we are planning and executing a deployment and will be at the site of the event rapidly after notification."
According to Lt. Col. Scott Key, team chief for NDT 2, the NDTs provide leadership and are the radiation and contamination experts for the DOD element.
"The NDTs resource, coordinate, monitor, plan, and decide on missions," said Key from Fayetteville, Georgia. "The hazard response team conducts ground sampling. They execute the coordinated plan by detecting, moving, and communicating."
Part of the NDT mission is to train and prepare the next team to support the NTNF GCTF. There are four parts to the training evolution starting with familiarization on the aerial radiation detection identification and measurements system (ARDIMS).
"The ARDIMS is the NTNF's organic capability for aerial detection and measurement. The system is designed to be mounted on an Army UH60 helicopter. It is used for initial assessment of ground radioactivity and isotope identification from the air," said Maj. Omololu Makinde, a nuclear officer with NDT 2. In order to accomplish these tasks, an operator sitting in the helicopter needs to synchronize collection efforts with the helicopter pilots using an onboard computer. Members of the NDT and supporting UH60 crew members attend training to learn how to install and operate the system and guide the pilots to meet the NTNF reconnaissance and collection requirements.
"ARDIMS provides radiation activity data to validate or correct the nuclear fallout models. The updated models generate the technical data allowing technical experts to identify sample collection locations," added Key.
After the ARDIMS training is complete, the NDTs, HR team members, and GCTF members attend two weeks of academics at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The first week consists of classroom and hands on training. Week two provides Soldiers the opportunity to plan and execute small scale collection missions, said Thomas.
Soldiers then move on to nuclear debris phenomenology, conducted at the Department of Energy's Nevada National Security Site located north of Las Vegas. Commonly referred to as "crater crawl," this is where Soldiers and other task force members go to collect actual nuclear debris at detonation sites from the United States' nuclear weapons development testing program conducted more than 60 years ago.
"Crater crawl certifies that the ground collection team understands what material from a post nuclear detonation site would look like," said Makinde, who lead the most recent training cycle. "It allows the team to identify what various debris formations look like and which ones would be of interest in the forensic analysis."
"In addition to getting familiar with the debris, the ground collection team in training must learn and successfully demonstrate how to properly select required protective gear and enter a radiation area to collect samples to be shipped to national labs for forensic analysis," said Makinde of Columbus, Ohio.
The training audience included Air Force, DOE, and FBI personnel who are members of the GCTF. This, along with all the other training events, leads to a final validation Prominent Hunt exercise for the team prior to them assuming the mission.
"We do that every six months," said Thomas.
The U.S. Government has identified nuclear forensics as a vital national security priority and the DOD is a critical part of the task force to execute this mission. Thomas believes it is important for the Army to support the NTNF mission because it has the right Soldiers and the right capability for the mission.
"We stand trained and ready to support the mission and provide the important information necessary for the nation's leaders to make critical decisions," he said.
"The Task Force executed all phases of the operation to a high degree. The exercise was a profound demonstration of the capability of the numerous government agencies to collectively accomplish a mission," added Key.