The main tasks of the military chemical forces include detection, identification and elimination of all kinds of contamination. Recently, however, it was not a chemical threat that put them in the state of readiness, but the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Since March, the chemical troops have been disinfecting hospitals, medical and blood donation centers. They decontaminate canteens, boarding schools, warehouses, social care centers, military vehicles and aircraft, as well as all transported goods. “It turns out that our protective measures and procedures also prove their worth in times like these,” says LtCol Dr. Piotr Wachna, Deputy Commander of the 4th Chemical Regiment in Brodnica. This hasn’t been the first time the chemical forces support society in crisis. For years, they have been helping during natural disasters, by, for example, disinfecting buildings and roads after floods, removing dead animals from the flooded territory and neutralizing toxic waste.
The primary task of chemical troops is however to assess the effects of using WMD, as well as monitor, detect and eliminate contamination. They also disinfect equipment, infrastructure and people. “Current experience shows how much this kind of forces are needed,” emphasizes Col Jarosław Stocki, Chief of the Directorate for Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction at the Armed Forces General Command, and explains why: “The range of our tasks is much broader than simply supporting the armed forces in defense against WMD threats.”
In March 2003, the war in Iraq made it clear that terrorist bases must be eliminated and Iraqi WMD reserve, particularly chemical weapons, liquidated. One of the international coalition’s members who intervened there was Poland. Based on American reports, it was at the time estimated that the chemical weapon risk was high, so the chemical forces were first deployed to the region of conflict, along with the logistic forces.
Within the Polish Military Contingent “Jordania” (later PMC “Iraq”), several dozen troops of the enforced platoon for eliminating contamination of the 4th Chemical Regiment in Brodnica were deployed to the Middle East. They were equipped with devices for chemical and radiation detection, installations for terrain and equipment decontamination, as well as a chemical and radiometric laboratory. The chemists were to secure the contingent in case the Iraqis use chemical weapons. Ultimately, no such thing happened, and the main tasks of Polish troops were, e.g., analysis of the samples delivered by the Americans.
However, the participation in the mission opened to the Polish chemical units the door to international cooperation. In 2004, the chemical troops from Tarnowskie Góry were deployed to secure the Olympics and Paralympics in Greece; two years later, the troops from Brodnica were sent to the Riga NATO Summit. On a regular basis, they participate in the allied contamination detection Exercise Brave Beduin. The troops are also part of the Multinational Chemical, Biological Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Defense Battalion in the NATO Response Force. There, Poland three times held the status of the so-called lead nation.
“Participation in the NATO Response Force or in military contingents allows the chemical forces to stay combat ready for the tasks they would perform in case WMDs are used in an armed conflict,” explains Col Jarosław Stocki, and adds: “The primary goal of the chemical troops would then be to examine the used weapon or substance, and define what technology should be applied to neutralize or eliminate it. Soon, we will also be ready to indicate the potential perpetrator of the attack with the use of chemical warfare agents, because we’re working towards acquiring the capability to collect samples from contaminated zones for evidence purposes.” Currently, the Polish troops are on a year-long duty in the NATO Response Force. The core of the CBRN Task Group of almost 900 troops are the soldiers of the 4th Chemical Regiment in Brodnica, commanded by LtCol Piotr Wachna.
Ready To Help
Military chemical troops are busy also in time of peace. “We’re preparing soldiers to conduct reconnaissance, identification and monitoring of contamination, and to give early warnings about a threat,” explains SWO Tomasz Spałek of the 5th Chemical Regiment. The experts at the National Cyber Security Center developed software for the soldiers of this unit. “Regardless of whether it is a leaking storage tank with chemicals, or a WMD attack, this software allows us to send a message in just several seconds. Before, we needed over a dozen minutes,” tells us the Warrant Officer. He further explains that a soldier in the field first roughly examines the kind of contamination, and then, using his tablet, sends a coded message. “Our goal is a situation where a soldier, upon entering a contaminated zone, can also film the site. This makes for better battlefield imagery and planning next activities,” emphasizes Col Mirosław Kobryń, Commander of the 5th Chemical Regiment.
Such software is also useful for the chemical rescue troops who deal with countering non-military threats, such as industrial environment contamination. Several times a year they are asked to provide support at the sites where unknown chemicals of military origin are discovered. In Borne Sulinowo, they had to step in when two men had burnt their skin after contact with yperite. The substance leaked from a barrel these men had excavated in order to take it to the junkyard.
Dangerous chemicals are also found on beaches. After the war, thousands of tons of ammunition and chemical weapons were sunk in the Baltic Sea. It happens that the sea throws out to the beach, for instance, lumps of yperite. “Several years ago, a barrel filled with chloropicrin was found. In such a situation, our troops secure the site and the dangerous find, and later neutralize the substance,” explains Col Stocki and adds that the chemical troops were also called for when German smoke bombs fitted with capsules full of chemical explosives were found, or when ampules with an unknown liquid were excavated. They also helped to remove poisonous mould which covered the underground walls of Kraków’s Market Square. “Our job in such situations is similar to that of sapper patrols. We go to wherever the Police or the Fire Brigade claim a dangerous substance was found,” explains Col Kobryń. The material taken by the chemical troops is first examined on site, and then its samples go to laboratories in the Central Contamination Analysis Center, Military Institute of Chemistry and Radiometry, or Military University of Technology.
You Just Want To Do Your Job
For the military chemical forces, these last months meant primarily the fight with COVID-19, hence they spent hundreds of hours on decontaminating various kinds of buildings. Lt Bartosz Grzankowski, Commander of the Task Group of the 5th Chemical Regiment in Tarnowskie Góry, carried out decontamination tasks in such places as the home for the aged in Drzewica, where 80 people – residents and employees – proved to be COVID-19 positive. “The task took us two days. We had to very accurately, meter by meter, decontaminate the rooms, while paying special attention to frequently touched surfaces such as doors or knobs,” he tells us. Then, the soldiers ozonized all the rooms.
“It sometimes happens that my team is disinfecting buildings in four voivodeships at the same time,” says Col Mirosław Kobryń. Our unit’s activities cover Upper and Lower Silesia, Little Poland, Sub-Carpathian and Lublin regions, as well as Świetokrzyskie and Łódź voivodeships. “We have disinfected so far over 2,200 pieces of equipment and 850 people. We have decontaminated 95 tons of load, over 1,200 rooms, and a terrain of total size of 56,000 square meters,” enumerates the commander. They have disinfected military ambulances, blood donation centers, canteens, homes for the aged, hospitals. They are also present at Wrocław’s airport where they disinfect planes, baggage, air crews and passengers. Similar tasks in central and northern part of Poland are carried out by the 4th Chemical Regiment in Brodnica. This regiment disinfected, among others, the buildings of the Seym and the Ministry of National Defense. They also disinfected the soldiers of the Polish Military Contingent “Orlik,” who had returned from their mission in Estonia.
The epidemic threat was a sort of test for our chemical units. “We train all year long on the training fields, and now it’s time for a reality check to test our skills in the conditions of an actual threat,” emphasize the soldiers.
Investments in the Future
Col Jarosław Stocki emphasizes that the fight with the pandemic requires the engagement of large forces. “Military chemical troops have carried out over 205 tasks. No military specialized troops have been engaged to such a big extent since the Chernobyl disaster,” he says, and adds that this is the time for drawing conclusions for the future. After such an experience, soldiers admit that they could use a few more trainings on biological threats.
The first lessons have already been learnt, and first changes made. The CBRN Directorate suggested that the easiest tasks, such as infrastructure disinfection, were done by other non-specialized units. It is important that in every voivodeship, there are at least two units properly equipped and trained for this kind of tasks. “We have acquired additional equipment. This way, we want to take some work load off the back of military chemical troops, and improve task assignment for them. This doesn’t however mean that in crisis situations they will stop helping people. They will be exactly in the places where their specialist knowledge and experience is required, for example when disinfecting aircraft and people, and not bus stops or staircases,” says Col Stocki. He already trains people for such activity during trainings organized for all kinds of armed forces.
The Ministry of National Defense is also thinking about the growth of the chemical forces. On an ongoing basis, materials and equipment for decontamination and disinfection tasks are being purchased. Also, the Plan of Technical Modernization of the Polish Armed Forces for 2021-2035 has been verified. “In a longer perspective, the existing chemical units will develop, and new ones, including a specialist chemical company, will be formed,” informs the MoND Operational Center. Such subunit for the 18th Mechanized Division will be formed in the structures of the 5th Chemical Regiment. Its formation will start in 2021.
autor zdjęć: arch. 5 PChem