Preventing Catastrophe

Saudi-U.S. exercise tests the readiness of forces to tackle weapons of mass destruction


Hybrid warfare — in which the battlefield is vast with no obvious front lines — has become a major focus of military and security professionals. This type of warfare usually concerns terrorist groups supported by countries seeking to cause chaos and instability so they can assert dominance over an area. These terrorists and their backers disregard civilian lives, international charters and the sovereignty of the states among whose populations they hide.

Ballistic missiles and drones are launched from areas under the control of these violent extremists. Because terrorists do not hesitate to use weapons of mass destruction against civilian and military targets, armies have adjusted their training to encompass scenarios to protect their citizens from these types of attack.

In early 2022, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia hosted the bilateral exercise Prevention Shield-3. Participants came from the Saudi Arabian Armed Forces, the Ministry of Health, the Saudi Arabian Red Crescent, Civil Defense, and U.S forces specializing in the field of weapons of mass destruction. The exercise lasted 10 days and featured two parts: an academic section with lectures and an exchange of expertise and a field portion comprising decontamination and mass casualty simulations.

The exercise combined three scenarios conducted simultaneously as a complex multipronged attack to test the readiness of military and civilian agencies. The tasks before the training audience: detect and respond to ballistic missiles, drones and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) containing toxic chemical agents, and treat casualties swiftly to avert deaths.

Saudi first responders decontaminate an armored vehicle. SAUDI ARMED FORCES

The action began with intelligence arriving at the headquarters of the Saudi battalion. The enemy — dubbed the red state — intended to launch destructive attacks on battalion headquarters. Commanders issued orders to place the Maneuver Support Company and Chemical Battalion on alert.

“Intelligence has been received on the red state intention to attack with chemical agents, moving them to advanced positions near the rocket launch platforms,” the first intelligence report read.

Other reports arrived detailing attempts by red state intruders and saboteurs to plant IEDs and chemical weapons inside blue state borders. The enemy was also testing unmanned drones that could potentially deliver chemical agents to the blue state.

Not long after, sirens broke the morning silence, announcing a drone attack against the battalion headquarters. Air defense personnel downed the aircraft through the use of jamming equipment and cutting off remote control radio waves. As the drone came down, white smoke could be seen rising from the crash site.

Based on the intelligence available to the battalion, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Prevention Team was placed on standby in protective gear, and a black flag was raised to indicate a weapon of mass destruction attack. Vehicles assigned to the Explosives Handling Team and the Weapons of Mass Destruction Prevention Team moved out toward the crash location.

For the sake of public safety, a security cordon blocked the approach to civilians. After the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team inspected the area and confirmed no unexploded ordnance at the location, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Prevention Team vehicles received orders to act.

The team’s light multirole armored vehicle was equipped with external soil and air testing sensors linked to computers inside. Air purifying filters protected the crew from toxic gas. The vehicle moved slowly around the contaminated site, marking off the perimeter with yellow flags dispensed automatically from the rear of the truck.

After the crews identified the type of chemical agent, a red flag was raised, indicating a chemical weapon attack. That was a signal for a four-person field inspection team to collect samples and to confirm there were no other hazards at the drone crash site.

A Saudi weapons of mass destruction prevention team arrives at the scene of a simulated chemical attack. SAUDI ARMED FORCES

The sound of emergency vehicles heralded the arrival of personnel from the Saudi Civil Defense Authority, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Health and Red Crescent Authority. Within 15 minutes, a field hospital was set up 800 meters from the affected area, and a mobile laboratory arrived for the collection of contaminated samples. Leaving nothing to chance, a well-equipped ambulance bus with a capacity of more than 30 beds arrived. Decontamination stations, set back 60 meters from the crash site, were also set up for people and vehicles.

The military and civilian teams coordinated their duties professionally. The Military Decontamination Team, specializing in military vehicles and troops, was supervised by the Armed Forces’ Weapons of Mass Destruction Prevention Team. A decontamination station from the Ministry of Interior sat 100 meters away, providing support and field decontamination for civilian personnel.

Civil Defense teams wearing protective masks and hazardous materials suits transported casualties on stretchers. When casualties arrived at the decontamination area, they received new clothing. Medics examined them before they proceeded to the field hospital with 50 beds and emergency medical equipment, overseen by experienced doctors and nurses versed in the injuries and ailments resulting from chemical attacks.

The field hospital’s role was limited to examining and diagnosing injuries, stopping any bleeding, and treating critical cases before transferring them to nearby hospitals. About 50 ambulances stood at the ready.

The Saudi Weapons of Mass Destruction Team worked alongside its American counterpart throughout the exercise, sharing methods. The multinational teams benefited from observing each other’s response to events on the ground. When the U.S. team was conducting a response operation, the Saudi team followed in their footsteps to advise the U.S team. Then the two teams switched roles.

The integration of the Saudi and U.S. forces at Prevention Shield was a tribute to the ability of troops from widely different backgrounds to fulfill missions jointly and effectively in response to a threat that’s becoming all too common in the modern world.  

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