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The Best Defense

How do we cope with the dangers of large-scale calamity? Through the Guard’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams and other specialized units, which are as technologically advanced as they come.
While in training, Soldiers such as South Dakota SGT Alex Page, 82nd Civil Support Team, wear a protective training suit for several hours during chemical disaster drills. Photo by Robert Benson
While in training, Soldiers such as South Dakota SGT Alex Page, 82nd Civil Support Team, wear a protective training suit for several hours during chemical disaster drills. Photo by Robert Benson
As shown by South Dakota’s 82nd CST, which is the only CST in the Guard located at an Active Duty installation (Ellsworth Air Force Base), responding to threats involves many facets, including mastering the gear. Photo by Andy McMillan
As shown by South Dakota’s 82nd CST, which is the only CST in the Guard located at an Active Duty installation (Ellsworth Air Force Base), responding to threats involves many facets, including mastering the gear. Photo by Andy McMillan
Members of a CST must learn how to collect and analyze on-site samples. Photo by SFC Theanne Tangen
Members of a CST must learn how to collect and analyze on-site samples. Photo by SFC Theanne Tangen
A CST Guard Soldier analyzes a substance to determine if it poses a threat. Photo by SFC Theanne Tangen
Substances that CSTs handle can include chemical hazards, biological dangers, or radiological or nuclear threats. Photo by SFC Theanne Tangen

Every night, someone somewhere in the world goes to bed dreaming of hurting you. They’re fueled by dreams of glory, enabled by extremist Internet chat rooms and terrorist guidebooks. Fortunately, our nation’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams (WMD-CSTs, or CSTs for short) stand like a rock in the wall of homeland defense. These specialized National Guard units are not just one of our first lines of defense against chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) threats; they’re some of the most technologically advanced troops in the entire Army.

CSTs serve as subject matter experts on any CBRN event, working in what is known in homeland security circles as “consequence management,” the response to an incident. (In this world, “crisis” technically refers to actions before an incident.) They support civil authorities in major disasters (both man-made and natural) and help emergency personnel in any disaster get a clear picture of what’s happening and how to address it. If civilian agencies need help addressing a mysterious CBRN threat, CSTs answer the call.

If there’s a major public event that could be a target for terrorists (an inauguration, for instance), CSTs can have a presence as extra protection. If there is a suspected hazardous material in an industrial accident—such as the chemical spill in West Virginia in January that left more than 300,000 residents without drinking water—they step up. Basically, if it’s radioactive, poisonous or toxic, it’s in the CST’s wheelhouse. And they live for it.


After 9/11, the Department of Defense mandated that the National Guard increase its emphasis on the kinds of threats our country was likely to see from terrorist organizations. With the 9/11 attacks as a blueprint, terrorists’ new focus on WMDs meant creating teams with more technology that would be able to respond to similar incidents around the country. One part of that effort to combat potential threats to our country’s safety was the creation of CSTs.

The first 10 teams were authorized by Congress in 1998. Due to the extensive training and operational tempo, the units are filled with Title 32, full-time Soldiers and Airmen. Today, there is one of these 22-man teams in every state and the District of Columbia, plus Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and two in California, New York and Florida. Each of the 57 teams has to be ready to go anywhere in (or around) its state at any time, to address any number of threats. One of the ways they do this is by training regularly with local, state and federal response organizations. From the FBI to local law enforcement, CSTs build relationships with first responders and civilian authorities so when they’re needed, they’re prepared.

“The National Guard is postured all over the nation in little communities; we’re a community-based defense force,” says Major General Timothy A. Reisch, adjutant general for the South Dakota National Guard, home of the 82nd CST. “The nature of the 82nd’s mission is to provide immediate response to local officials who are responding to an emergency.”

“All disasters are ‘local,’ ” Reisch says. “The 82nd responds very early on to a local emergency or disaster and advises the local officials on exactly what they’re dealing with, does the analysis on the presence or absence of chemical agents, and then provides expertise on what types of response or dangers are present.”

That’s the CST mission in a nutshell. In a CBRN event, they figure out what is going on and then help civilian authorities understand how to fix it.


The number of threats CSTs could face is endless. As our enemies conjure new and more unpredictable ways to harm us, CSTs across the country must be ready to respond to all of them. While the primary tool of terrorists will always be fear, the weapons they use can be anything from anthrax to radiological material in what’s referred to as a “dirty bomb.”

CST members don’t just respond to terrorist attacks. They’re also called to major disasters where normally safe chemicals are present. This makes familiarity with chemical threats crucial to mission readiness. 

In terms of biological hazards, most people think of contaminants such as anthrax or ricin (a poison found naturally in castor beans) as the most common threats, which they are, but CSTs located in major transportation hubs like Hawaii’s 93rd CST are also aware of other dangerous biological contagions as a potential source of disaster.

According to Lieutenant Colonel Lance Okamura, the 93rd unit commander, the Honolulu, HI, airport is especially vulnerable to potential biological breakouts because it’s such an international hub. “We are prepared to provide assistance for what I would call ‘non-belligerent’ [or natural] biological threats,” Okamura says. “If there’s a potential breakout that comes through, we are fully prepared to provide support to incident commanders.”

When it comes to natural biological threats, it isn’t just Hollywood that sees viruses as a potential source of disaster. Governments worldwide spend billions of dollars planning and preparing for potential outbreaks of viruses like 2009’s swine flu. Contracting these viruses can be avoided just like any other communicable disease—practicing good hygiene, and, in the case of a large-scale outbreak, avoiding big gatherings of people.

As for man-made threats, the most recent major attack on U.S. soil came from the bombers at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. After that, civilian authorities increased requests to CSTs to support major events. The 93rd supports events like the IRONMAN Championships and the NFL Pro Bowl, providing preventive monitoring and protection.

CSTs can identify hazards, assess consequences, advise on response measures, position themselves as a preventive measure, and assist with appropriate requests for additional support. The missions can range from identifying some kind of white powder to responding to an oil spill to protecting public figures at the State of the Union address.  

“We don’t wait for things to happen,” First Sergeant Norman Peleholani from Hawaii’s 93rd says. “That’s what the civilians ask of us—to just be there, to have a presence, to be monitoring, and then if something happens, we’re already there.”

Below, take a closer look at the teams, the tools and the expertise of CSTs. Americans can sleep easier at night because of them.




September 2001

New York’s 2nd CST provided communications for then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani for the first three days after the 9/11 attacks.

October 2001

Florida’s 44th CST gathered and tested samples at the site of an anthrax scare in Boca Raton, FL.

August–September 2005 

CSTs from 14 states deployed to provide communications to local authorities and identify hazardous materials after Hurricane Katrina.

September 2008

South Dakota’s 82nd and North Dakota’s 81st CSTs went to Pasadena, TX, after Hurricane Ike, offering liaison operations, a communications interface with hazmat teams to identify and mark hazardous containers that washed up from the hurricane. 

“The main goal was to provide safety for the people in and around the affected areas of the hurricane,” says Lieutenant Colonel Brendan Murphy, commander of the 82nd.

October 2009

Hawaii’s 93rd CST responded to a tsunami in American Samoa, disposing of dangerous materials, assisting in rescue efforts and supporting FEMA communication teams and Red Cross initiatives.

July 2010 

Michigan’s 51st CST performed air and water sampling after an oil spill in Marshall.

April 2013

On April 15, Boston fell victim to the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11, but Massachusetts’ 1st CST Soldiers and Airmen were at the finish line, assisting victims after the blast and supporting civil authorities. They were augmented by New York’s 24th and Rhode Island’s 13th CSTs. 

April 2013 

Members of Texas’ 6th CST monitored air quality for hazardous emissions at the site of a fertilizer plant.

April 2013 

Mississippi’s 47th CST assisted the FBI and other agencies after authorities intercepted letters that tested positive for ricin. The letters were intended for President Obama, Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker and a Mississippi justice official.

October 2013 

Utah’s 85th CST responded to a suspected ricin incident in North Logan. The unit had also deployed to the Gulf Coast region in 2008 for Hurricane Ike and in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to assist relief efforts.

January 2014 

In West Virginia, CSTs from six states and the District of Columbia assisted authorities in gathering and testing water samples after 7,500 gallons of chemicals used in coal processing leaked into the Elk River, leaving 300,000 people without drinking water.

January 2014

Mississippi’s 47th CST took air samples after an explosion at a north Mississippi biodiesel plant.




WMD-CSTs are an integral piece in the big puzzle that makes up the Guard’s homeland defense strategy. Together with CBRNE Enhanced Response Force Packages (CERFPs; the “E” in CBRNE stands for high-yield explosives) and Homeland Response Forces (HRFs), the Guard brings a huge variety of mission capabilities to bear when major natural or man-made disasters strike stateside or in its terrorities or possessions. For every individual who would harm the United States, the Guard and its teams across the country have an answer.


Small teams of full-time Soldiers and Airmen focused on first response to major disasters, WMD or CBRN events. When deployed, CSTs set up communications and command and control (C2) capabilities, detect and identify potential threats, and assist civil authorities in addressing threats. They also serve as liaisons between civil authorities and additional military personnel called to the scene. 

Makeup. Each of the 57 CSTs is composed of 22 Title 32, full-time Soldiers and Airmen whose specialties include CBRN, logistics, communications, laboratory science and medical operations. Each team is made up of six sections: command, operations, survey, medical/analytical, communications and administrative/logistics. Each member plays a vital role, and the teams are designed from the ground up to identify and address any CBRN threats.

Process. Sergeant Ezra Ifie of Washington state’s 10th CST has been a member of its survey section for 2½ years. “The survey team member’s job is to go downrange, assess the situation and report back to command what we see—what the potential threats are,” Ifie says. “We’ll take a [wide range] of equipment with us and report what we get from our meters and equipment back to command so they know exactly what’s going on. Then we take that information and put it into a briefing that we’ll put out to the command sections and whatever [civilian] organizations we’re working with, whether that be the fire department, police department, FBI or the bomb squad.”

Communication. After the survey teams pass on the information they gather, it’s analyzed by the medical/analytical section and then acted on by command. And the whole mission is facilitated by the communications section, which is one of the most requested functions of CSTs, due to its ability to bring network and phone communications to even the most remote (or disaster-torn) areas.

Training. You can’t tell the story of CSTs without talking about training. Because a CST has to work so closely with civilian agencies, there’s a big emphasis on the ability to “speak the language” of civilian first responders, so team members are hazmat technician certified and trained in rope rescue and confined space operations. Each of the full-time team members is trained and cross-trained on a surprisingly large number of tasks. Ifie says the team never stops training. “The whole first year [that I was a part of the unit] was just one big learning experience, trying to figure out really what CBRNE was all about. It wasn’t until after that first year that I had the confidence and felt comfortable with the job I was performing,” he says.

Camaraderie. Ifie also points to his teammates as one of the best parts of his mission. “To do these missions with these people, like [support] a presidential inauguration, for example—that’s what really stands out and what you really remember.”


Provide manpower for civil authorities. Each of the 17 CERFPs is composed of 197 personnel who respond to a CBRNE incident to conduct patient decontamination, medical triage and stabilization, and casualty search and extraction. CERFP units across the country deploy to CBRN, man-made and natural major catastrophes.


Large units that respond only to major CBRNE man-made or natural catastrophes. HRFs are aligned with the 10 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regions across the country, and each unit is composed of 577 personnel. They conduct command and control, casualty assistance and security, search and extraction, decontamination, and medical triage and stabilization. 




Chemical Threats

Chemical agents are delivered by air or liquid and most often enter the body in three ways: You breathe in the vapors; your body absorbs a poisonous gas through your eyes, nose or mouth; or you ingest the agent in liquid form. Nerve agents such as sarin can cause excessive sweating or twitching, watery eyes and nose, and, eventually, difficulty breathing or vomiting and suffocation. Aside from chemical agents, toxic industrial chemicals such as chlorine, used in homes and industrial applications, are chemical threats. Because of this, CSTs must be ready to respond to these dangerous chemicals in terrorist attacks or in industrial accidents.

Biological Threats

For years, anthrax was one of the most commonly discussed biological threats. An infectious disease caused by a bacterium that can kill humans and animals, anthrax is often one of the first suspects in “white powder” postal incidents, as spores have been distributed by terrorists through the mail using a white powder as a base for the bacteria.

Radiological Threats

These involve any misuse of a radioactive source and include “dirty bombs,” which are devices that combine explosions with radioactive material. The purpose of the explosion isn’t just to do damage, but also to spread the radioactive material over as large an area as possible. Dirty bombs aren’t usually meant to kill; they’re meant to instill fear. Because of this, they’re often referred to as “weapons of mass disruption.”

Nuclear Threats

While it’s unlikely that a terrorist organization would have the resources to develop, deploy and detonate a nuclear bomb, CSTs continue to train and develop response plans for that scenario.




The gear CSTs use is some of the most technologically advanced threat detection and identification equipment in the world. Here’s a look at some of their cooler toys.

To see a larger version of this image, click here.




Unified Command Suite (UCS)

A self-contained mobile communications system that provides real-time voice, data and video communications and technical reachback capabilities.


Analytical Laboratory System (ALS)

This mobile science lab can deliver rapid on-site field analysis and provides advanced technologies with enhanced sensitivity and specificity in identifying chemical, biological and radiological agents and substances. [ALS Photo by SFC Theanne Tangen]


CBRN Unmanned Ground Reconnaissance

The National Guard’s goal is for all CSTs to have these high-tech robots (one example is shown at right), which operate in danger zones armed with a full array of sensors, sending back real-time data to the operator’s console.




In the event of a major disaster, the National Guard’s response team is intentionally broad. This variety in mission capability and unit composition means that the Guard will always be one of the most important tools in our nation’s homeland defense. But that broad response can often be difficult to control, and with civilian agencies that speak a different “language,” command and control (C2) is often a challenge.

To combat this fact, and recognizing that some catastrophic events require more coordination than others (unlike CSTs, which are organized largely at the state level), the Department of Defense has established two units specifically for C2 in cases of large-scale man-made or natural disasters when more responders are needed. These units are called Command and Control CBRNE Response Elements (C2CREs). The difference between the two C2CRE units is that C2CRE-A is made up of Active Duty and Reserve, and the C2CRE-B mission is performed by a unit called Task Force 46, which is made up entirely of National Guard units and is led by Michigan’s 46th Military Police Command, headed by Major General Burton K. Francisco, a two-star general. The Michigan unit is currently overseeing C2CRE-B to assist civilian authorities in the event of a catastrophic chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear event within the U.S. 

Having a two-star general is necessary because of the scope of the unit. Task Force 46 comprises units across the country, all of which operate outside of the task force’s control normally but are called into action whenever needed. Those units fall into one of five task force categories: operations, aviation, sustainment, medical and special troops (including stuff like public affairs and administrative personnel), plus one Initial Response Force (IRF) specializing in decontamination, technical search and extraction, and medical triage.

At full strength, Task Force 46 is made up of around 5,000 individuals, but they wouldn’t necessarily all be called up for every mission.

“We are constructed to be modular,” Francisco says. “So we can scale up to anywhere from 5,000 to 7,500 Soldiers in different units that could be brought into the task force to provide the support that would be needed in the event of an incident. Primarily, we’re a mission control headquarters where we can command four to five brigades to provide support to civil authorities.”

During a major disaster, Task Force 46 can approach the situation with a strategic eye and interact with other national agency officials on their level. That C2 capability can make the difference between a well-oiled machine and an ineffective mission. And when lives are on the line, units like Task Force 46 make a difference when it’s needed most.

“If an actual event takes place, you are going to have governors and high-ranking FEMA folks on the ground,” Lieutenant Colonel William Humes, public affairs officer for C2CRE-B, says. “You need someone with that strategic-level understanding and political experience to interact with those people.”


Photos from U.S. Army unless otherwise noted.